There are significant differences in the built environment of our neighborhoods planned before World War II, and those developed after. Before the war, and the Great Depression, neighborhoods were designed to focus on walkability — sidewalks, smaller streets, and on-street parking were the norm. After the war, planners were confronted with the twin challenges of the increasingly prevalent automobile, and new zoning ordinances which eschewed earlier priorities and had a significant negative impact on the quality of walkable communities. Today, there has been a shift in desires and priorities towards redeveloping more historic neighborhoods. Still, zoning requirements have a tremendous impact on the viability and adaptability of these neighborhoods.
Current zoning takes the approach of requiring each landowner to provide enough parking within their parcel to satisfy the parking needs of any buildings on that land. Every parcel must be self-sufficient. Zoning mandated parking requirements, often poorly conceived, are like a cancer in otherwise healthy neighborhoods. Parking occupies a significant amount of space, increases development costs, and kills walkability by forcing buildings, separated by parking lots, to be spread across greater areas. The more distance between important neighborhood destinations, the less walkable the neighborhood becomes. This trend forces more people to drive, setting in motion the self-sustaining cycle of off street parking.
In order to create successful places it is crucial to adequately accommodate the automobile. That being said, the amount of accommodation required by zoning is grossly overestimated. More connected, more walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods require less parking. Zoning requirements for off-street parking are based on a small number of studies conducted years ago, and focused on disconnected suburban neighborhoods. The goal of these studies was to establish the maximum expected need for parking for a typical use. This worst-case (i.e. maximum) scenario was codified into a legally binding minimum requirement through zoning laws.
A developer faced with these restrictive requirements has few options for preserving the historic nature of a neighborhood. One of the few viable, compliant solutions is to tear down some buildings to provide parking lots for others. This creates a scar on the fabric of the neighborhood, reduces the pleasantness of walking, feeding the need for more parking spaces as people prefer to drive through this broken landscape.
Given the state parking in our cities, what solutions can we propose? One critical piece of the puzzle is on-street parking. As a collective resource, on-street parking is an important part of our communities. All citizens pay for the land, and the asphalt through taxes. There should be on-street parking on most of our streets, and yet parking is often prohibited. This is a blow to the walkability of our neighborhoods, and a squandering of our collective resources. On-street parking is an invaluable way to address our persistent parking needs. Alternative methods of transportation are important, but not every person can walk, bike, rideshare, or use transit for every trip.
Cultural expectations play into the acceptance of on-street parking. Our next post will examine the character of on-street parking as the predominant parking system. We will reflect on communal preconceptions in New Orleans, and how they contrast with expectations in Atlanta.