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Parking lots (of wasted space)
The US has built cities for cars, not people
I’m a bit of an arm-chair city planner - meaning I think about parking lots way more than I ought to. The humble parking lot takes up a whopping 20% of prime locations in US city centers, and costs taxpayers a large amount of money.
If we step back and analyze our cities to better optimize them to fit our current needs, the parking lot looks more and more useless. Parking lots aren’t utilized as often as they used to be as online shopping becomes more engrained and housing (and other amenities) become more scarce. With more public transit and denser housing, we could utilize this prime real estate in ways that help people and the climate.
Today’s post is about land use ideas that either improve parking lots or replace them with more useful amenities. Parking lots are perfect areas to redevelop into more enjoyable and walkable urban areas because they are near food, shopping, entertainment, transit centers, and many other important urban hubs. They are also blank slates ready to be repurposed.
Unfortunately, unless you live in New York City or a handful of other downtown areas, most Americans need their car to get everywhere. This isn’t entirely our fault - we have few other options in the form of public transit or pedestrian infrastructure. Suburbia needs more efficient ways to get to their downtown areas and local markets via mass transit and suburban densification. For more on that, read my articles about zoning and transit in Albuquerque, NM.
Now, before we get too far into poopooing on parking lots, let me get this out of the way - I’m not advocating for the death of all parking lots (yet). Not all parking should be completely converted because cars are still, and will be for a while, the dominant mode of transportation in the US. Car use will likely stay high for a very long time, especially as the push for EV infrastructure ramps up and public transit projects remain expensive in the US.
For better or worse, cars look like they’ll be around for a while - I plan to do an article on EVs, precious metals, and the role of public transit moving forward soon, and later in this article I’ll touch on how we can make the parking lots we do keep, better.
The New York Times recently reported that there are seven parking spots for every car in America. Some city and state leaders are taking notice of the absurd abundance we have of parking spots and they’re thinking of ways we can better utilize that land to attack other problems we have - like the lack of housing and greenery in cities. In 2022, 15 cities in the US repealed parking requirements despite pushback from people worried about finding parking in downtown areas.
The fact is, 1) we can transport people in more efficient ways that don’t require parking lots, and 2) the rise of online shopping means we don’t need all of these parking spaces anymore.
Vincent Cotrone, an urban forestry expert from Penn State University, wrote the following on parking lots:
It appears over the past three to four decades, parking lots have been one of the fastest growing land uses, covering acres upon acres of land with impervious asphalt because we take our cars everywhere we go, most parking lots are overbuilt for a few peak days of holiday shopping. With a continuing shift towards online shopping, there are numerous parking spaces in shopping malls that very rarely see a car anymore, but outdated municipal codes continue to require large capacity parking lots in retail shopping developments.
Updating municipal codes in the US to better fit our housing and climate needs should be top priority for mayors and governors around the nation. As our economic needs evolve, we can shape our surroundings to better satisfy those needs.
First, cities should eliminate parking lot minimums to free up space for more of the developments I’ll touch on below. Which brings me to…
An article by FastCompany notes that parking lots are being turned into housing in urban areas around the US. Due to demand for walkability and affordable housing, cities like Los Angeles are looking to densify and provide more housing amidst the nation-wide housing shortage.
Not every city needs giant apartment buildings to fill Walmart parking lots, but they could match the housing type with the situation. Cities should consider filling parking lots with affordable middle-housing or mixed-use apartments that are largely missing in American cities:
Green spaces, gardens, and clean energy
Parking lots can generate a lot of heat and diminish biodiversity. Parks, gardens, and green spaces, on the other hand, reduce the temperature of cities, increase urban biodiversity, and capture carbon from the atmosphere. Parking lots are also perfect for providing clean energy to the shopping centers that they surround.
Furthermore, many urban areas are ironically food deserts. Having access to healthy food, or any food for that matter, is a luxury that many Americans don’t have. 10.5% of Americans are food insecure and 42% of adults are obese. Increasing access to community gardens or walkable parks can go a long way in reducing the crises of food insecurity and obesity.
The best of all worlds. A little bit of housing, shopping, food, work, greenery, and whatever else you need within walking distance. Mixed-use development continues to be the darling of urbanist ideals because of the practicality of having everything you need nearby.
The Albuquerque-based Goodman Real-Estate Group is redeveloping what used to be parking at the Winrock mall into a mixed-use area with housing, hotels, green space, shopping, and dining:
By rethinking the vital land that our cars sit on, we can turn cities into green oases that provide more homes, oxygen, energy, and food.
Parking lots moving forward
The truth is we can’t turn every parking lot into a new housing development or solar farm just yet. The Biden Administration seems to be going all-in on electric cars as EV infrastructure and tax credits far outpace public transit investments in the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.
We need to heavily invest in public transit, but political headwind and American individualism has kept the US from reaching the transit potential that Europe and Asia are achieving. In the meantime, we can work on reducing vehicle miles travelled via increasing density and walkability. The truth is, we will continue to need parking lots in some capacity, but we can make them much better.
Parking lots have not been designed for people
There is often no safe place to walk away from moving vehicles, little to no greenery, scarce shade, and they’re altogether unappealing:
More robust ordinances and building codes for parking lots could improve the urban experience for everyone and provide environmental, economic, and cultural benefits.
Some policy ideas to make parking lots better:
Walking paths and non-polluting light requirements
Greener parking lots with natural shading and porous asphalt
Requiring the additions above would improve the usefulness and appeal of the all-too-common slab of heat-trapping asphalt.
What we do with our parking lots may decide the future of our downtown areas. With refreshed priorities, we can make our cities culturally significant and useful again. Next time you’re in the parking lot at your local mall, grocery store, or watering hole, I challenge you to be an armchair city planner and think about how your city could better serve you, not your car.
If you found this article interesting, share it on social media or send it to a car-brain in need of urbanist education!