Maximizing Land for Living (Not Parking)


Credit: City of Olympia Public Works Department


Columbus, Ohio was one of the earliest cities to stipulate that the amount of parking be connected to specific building types. This concept of linking required parking spaces to a building’s use seemed to make sense and work, so much so that by 1950s, the majority of municipalities had put formulas into place to handle the growing need. Now we can find parking requirements in local zoning codes even for nunneries.

Despite evolving patterns of use, most municipalities have not changed these formulas, just added to them. The tendency is to design for the maximum amount of parking spaces possible, even though a lot may be full for only part of the year (e.g., during the holiday shopping season). In fact, parking is at least 54% site coverage of a typical commercial development, as documented by the Olympia, Washington Public Works Department and Washington State Department of Ecology. Developers build more parking than required so that there is never a “parking problem,” yet they underestimate the actual economic and environmental costs of doing so.

Today, some municipalities are trying to address the issue by placing maximum parking requirements for new construction and requiring the creation of some parking areas to be used only for parking on an as-needed basis. Some designers have even figured out how to eliminate parking from buildings altogether—as architect David Baker did with the Curran House in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district—by arguing that transportation needs in denser areas are better served by public transit.

Shared Parking, a book published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI), goes into the details of how similar efforts can be accomplished. A Shared Parking computer program model that can determine respective needs based upon different uses and square footages is also available from ULI. The program considers weekends and weekday needs, parking demand ratios, seasonal variations, and passengers per auto. All of this information is presented in spreadsheet form to aid architects and planners during the planning, programming, design, and construction phases.

We live in a sea of parking lots and parking spaces that are empty most of the time—ugly, underutilized expanses of asphalt that make the case for rethinking our municipal parking requirements. We can also look at existing parking lots as our new downtown development areas: in assessing them, we must ask, “How can we maximize our use of land for our living needs, rather than for the car?”