Let’s pretend that you are an architect or an urban designer for a day. What would be your first step in designing the next place you want to live, work, or generally spend your day? Assuming that you are a human, it would be logical that you’d want to begin with building a place that is right-sized for you: People-sized doors, for instance, and people-friendly lawns and gardens, and people-friendly rooms to work, relax, mingle, rest, or do any of the things that people like to do. Today, that is not often the reality in the planning and design world. More often than not, architects and designers must first take into consideration all the regulatory aspects of zoning codes, and in particular, parking requirements. To meet parking requirements, architects have to design with the car in mind, from the ground up, and examples of designed-for-the-auto regulations tend to have no common sense. In Dearborn, Michigan, residents are being told that car space takes priority over human space, and that people can only use their garages according to certain, specific regulations to adhere to minimum parking requirements. In Oregon, a great photo essay, Ugly by Law, by Alyse Nelson argues that off-street parking minimums, have “led to increased development costs, less flexibility for adaptive reuse of existing buildings, and some pretty unattractive architecture.” These parking requirements can now be seen in the built form as large seas of surface parking lots, clusters of “dingbat buildings”—apartment complexes supported on stilts with open carports on the ground level, parking courts (instead of courtyard green space), locked driveway gates leading to concrete gardens, garages which dominate single-family lots, and “garagescapes” – garages at the front of apartments that serve as the primary entrance to the community.
Compare these with examples from the pre-WWII era, when parking regulations were non-existent. In this era, people and community-friendly courtyards, stairs, stoops, or porches allowed a more welcoming setting for architecture.
In the car-crazed post-WWII era, these regulations came about as an effort to keep traffic and parking problems from clogging up local thoroughfares. Yet even in their heyday, these laws were inflexible and over-reaching. In today’s world, when car ownership is on the decline, and walkable neighborhoods are selling at a premium, it seems that the time is right to re-tool parking requirements and regulations. Parking can be done right; I’ve personally seen it on many occasions. Parking can be structured, built below-grade under apartment buildings, screened from view, and built to support walkable streetscapes when parking is built behind storefronts (as structured or surface parking lots). Structured parking can be incentivized, and creative designs can be rewarded. The point to take away from it all is that there should be some sort of parking reform to meet today’s trends. Studies show Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by. Coupled with the desire to convert garages into using living space on the rise, the need for minimum parking requirements need to be reconsidered and revised. And so, I’ll end with this plea: Let’s design for people, not cars. Please.