Parking’s Influence on Sustainable Cities

After leaving Santa Barbara at the age of 18, I lived in San Francisco for about ten years, and then its antithesis, Orange County, for the subsequent ten years. Parking was impossible in San Francisco, and I quickly relinquished my car and used public transportation (which cost me $28 per month), my own two feet (which was free and also saved money on a gym membership), and taxis when absolutely necessary (about $40 per month). After moving to Orange County, cars were so a part of the culture, I purchased a new one every year, and they just got bigger and bigger.

Upon moving back to my home town a few years ago, I bought a Vespa. I didn’t do it necessarily to be more “green”, although that was a nice fringe benefit. My incentive was free parking, or the lack thereof, with my office and clients located downtown.

Except in the downtown area, the city requires that a minimum number of parking spaces are provided on a property in order to permit a new building. On-site parking requirements are typically based on the use and square footage of a building. Changing the use of a building is sometimes not possible due to the increased parking requirement, making adaptive re-uses more difficult, potentially stunting economic development. When this is the case, buildings are often demolished and rebuilt instead of re-used or modified. This is especially true for older buildings. Many home addition projects are squelched due to the number of parking spaces that would be required on the property by current ordinances.

I recently completed a new building for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. We were able to get a variance approved for the parking requirement which would have been even more significant if we had been constructing the church on a new site instead of replacing the existing church. Even so, the amount of parking required for this building which is used primarily one day a week is astounding. The parish’s neighborhood is compact and most parishioners live within a 10-minute walk of the church.

Free parking encourages more driving, resulting in more parking lots, wider roads, and more freeways, and thus, more driving. It’s a vicious cycle. Increased driving results in less opportunity for social interaction and a decreased sense of community. I didn’t know a single neighbor in Orange County as opposed to San Francisco where I consistently interacted with neighbors on walks to the corner store or dry cleaners.

Large parking lots and parking garages have other effects too. Water run-off from the abundance of asphalt and concrete causes contaminants flooding into the system systems and ocean. They also contribute to the heat island effect, heating up our cities.

I am not suggesting we eliminate parking, but instead eliminate some of the mandated requirements which may not make sense. Perhaps the amount of parking should be determined by the market’s interest in paying for parking stalls. In other words, there should be at least a small fee to pay for parking which would incentivize people to walk, ride a bike, scooter, take public transportation, or carpool. This may sound like a discriminatory approach, leaving the low-income folks out in the cold, but they are already paying for parking, whether they need it or not, either through tax dollars or increased prices of housing or business services.

And, let’s face it, I think everyone would agree that parking lots and garages are simply unattractive, and land could be used in a more productive and beautiful way.

Elisa Garcia, RA
Garcia Architects