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Searching for a Fourth Urbanism, Part 5: Cityism and Parking

Cityism is differentiated by a commitment to join high density and intensity of uses with a congenial urban landscape, and this requires heroic efforts to deal with parking.
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When two weeks ago I listed the six factors I had then identified that defined Cityism, my "fourth urbanism," the third factor had to with the economics of cities; it read:

"(iii) [Cityism] is based on the most basic economics of cities, where the added wealth from concentrating economic activity allows for expensive features on building sites, such as underground parking."

In thinking about what Cityism may mean, and what differentiates it from other urbanisms, I'm realizing that this economic point is crucial, and it is so because of a reality so mundane it's difficult to remind oneself how important it is. That reality is parking.

People who keep up with planning literature will know that what I'm writing is informed by a book: UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking (2004). While the book is well known for the impact it has had on the pricing of parking, or on attempts to make the pricing of parking rational, the book is also a devastating critique at all levels of urban planning and urban design, which Prof. Shoup shows have historically ignored the issue of where to park cars.

Prof. Shoup makes it clear that what we generally consider to be congenial city environments, like those of the old cities of Europe, cannot exist if parked cars are stored in surface parking lots, and that the parking requirements in most American cities, if the parking will be in surface lots, do not allow for the building of such congenial places. As he says, "Parking spaces in the city are like dark matter in the universe: we tend not to see them, but somehow they add up to an enormous area that deadens the environment." (I'm not sure if dark matter deadens the universe, but Prof. Shoup is correct about parking.)

This means that if one wants to replicate in a 21st century city the congeniality of a city built before the advent of 20th century parking requirements, one has to deal with parking, either by reducing the amount of it (drastically), or by using physical means to put it somewhere where it will not have a negative impact on city life.

I am consciously using the word "city" here because that is the density I'm focusing on. Theoretically one can design congenial neighborhoods, or congenial small towns, without elaborate efforts to control or relocate parking, but only if the development level is low enough (only single-family homes, for instance) that the parking requirements do not exceed the amount of curbside parking plus a very limited amount of surface parking. These places, however, are not cities (although they may comprise neighborhoods within cities).

Cityism, however, is differentiated by a commitment to join high density and intensity of uses with a congenial urban landscape, and this requires heroic efforts to deal with parking. One kind of heroism is to reduce parking requirements, and there is a growing movement in American cities to implement in downtown areas maximum parking rules rather than minimum parking requirements, particularly for offices. I call his heroic because (i) it's difficult for public officials to tell Americans that they don't need more parking, and (ii) to make reduced parking requirements work involves large investments in transit.

What dealing with parking usually means are expenditures at heroic levels to hide the parking. Although the numbers vary, a typical amount needed to build an underground parking space is $40,000. Amortize that over 30 years at 6 percent interest, and the capital cost alone is $240 per month. Few Americans outside of New York City and a few other places expect (consciously) to pay that much to house their car (although they may do so unconsciously, in the increased cost of housing).

This is why Cityism factor #3 is so important to define Cityism; it also, however, limits (as definitions and differentiations often to) the scope of Cityism. Cityism is not going to occur in cities with economies that are not vibrant enough to generate the money to put parking underground or (another workable approach) in shared parking structures with street-friendly ground-floor uses. This money can come from private sources (the developers and residents of buildings with underground parking) or public sources (governments that build, and inevitably subsidize, shared parking structures), but the money has to exist.

Cityism is unlikely to work in cities where things are so desperate that people are considering how to turn abandoned neighborhoods back into farms. In that regard, Cityism may not be relevant to the worst cases of urban destruction. Cityism is only going to be applicable to cities that have managed to capture and retain the wealth their urban characteristics create.

While this may be a limitation on Cityism, at least it provides a realistic measure of what cities need to do economically in the Age of Parking to make themselves congenial.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, has just been published by City Image Press.