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The Pope Agrees: Parking is Killing our Cities

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We talk about parking a lot, which is a bit weird for architects. Most visitors to this blog would expect to find posts about awesome curtain wall design, or maybe some cool cantilevered something or other. If we were focused on bright, shiny objects, that might make sense; however, we care more about helping to strengthen communities and neighborhoods—and intelligent parking is key to a functional community. Honestly, we don’t see a lot of communities that suffer from a lack of abundance of bright, shiny objects. What we do notice is a range of old and underutilized buildings, crappy parking lots, poor streetscape design resulting from past road widenings, and bad infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. We respond by designing resourceful, often gritty buildings that engage the street and add to the value of the community. We view each project as a chance to repair the damaged link between people and the urban environment they build for themselves.

Architects and planners have been studying and discussing this disconnect between people and the built environment for decades, and lately the topic has begun to attract the attention of others. In his recent encyclical, which focused heavily on environmental issues, Pope Francis urged designers to pursue more livable cities, not just attractive ones:

“Given the interrelationship between living space and human behaviour,” the Pope writes, “those who design buildings, neighbourhoods, public spaces and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language and ways of acting. It is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance.”

So much of our buildings and public spaces are determined by the extent of accommodation required for vehicles, with little or no thought for pedestrians. Roads, freeways, and parking lots do not make for pedestrian-friendly urbanism; they claim space that might instead be a park or business and replace it with paved expanses that divide and isolate neighborhoods and undermine a city’s identity and economy. The Pope continues:

“The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape.”

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We view zoning-required off-street parking (a mouthful) as one of the most significant drivers of so many of these problems. Thankfully, there have been some amazingly smart people digging into this for quite some time. Donald Shoup is the grandfather of parking economics. His seminal volume, The High Cost of Free Parking, is truly worth reading—all 800 pages. One of his former students, Richard Willson, just wrote a companion book, Parking Reform Made Easy. In the second chapter of his book, Richard does a great job of summarizing the tremendously negative effects of legal mandates that require each site to provide its own dedicated, off-street parking spaces. He describes how parking requirements prioritize private vehicle use over public transportation—ironically bringing more cars into urban centers instead of reducing congestion, as they are intended to. Another unintended consequence of this car-centric model is to encourage sprawl and reduce density—the antithesis of the walkable model. And by reducing the buildable area on a site, parking requirements increase the development cost of projects, which makes affordable housing much more challenging to provide.

These are only a few of the insights found in this chapter of Willson’s book. If you are interested in cities, neighborhoods, bikeability, and walkability, please consider reading more of his book, and if you would like to hear more of Pope Francis’ comments on urbanism, I recommend Emily Badger’s article for the Washington Post.


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