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How Parking Lots Became the Scourge of American Downtowns

"It's very hard for people to realize ... but this is the result of planning."

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Streetfilms

The downtowns of many American cities are hollowed out by the disastrous impacts of planning events that took place decades ago. These blank spots muffle urban life, deadening the surrounding human environment.

Yep, we’re talking about surface parking lots, which have been dubbed “parking craters” by Streetsblog editor Angie Schmitt. (The blog now has an annual “parking madness” bracket competition pitting cities against each other for the unenviable “Golden Crater” trophy. Tulsa was the winner in 2013, while Rochester took this year’s title.) Now Streetfilms has released a short film to illustrate the full extent of the surface parking lot problem.


Parking Craters: Scourge of American Downtowns from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

“Parking lots create a vicious cycle,” Norman Garrick tells me. A professor at the University of Connecticut, Garrick has spent much of his career documenting the effects that acre upon acre of surface parking can have on a city’s health. “When more parking was provided, more people drove.”

There’s no such thing as a controlled experiment that can prove what would have happened in a given city if it had not given over huge amounts of its downtown to parking. Instead, Garrick has and his colleagues have compared cities of similar size that pursued aggressive pro-parking policies to those that changed course, and have argued on this site and elsewhere that increasing parking does not lead to the economic vibrancy that is often promised:

Of the six cities we looked at, parking supplies in three cities just about leveled off after 1980. In the other three, parking supplies nearly doubled for a second time.

If the function of parking in these places was to enable growth and development, the data suggests they were abysmal failures. The number of people and jobs dropped by as much as 15 percent and the median family incomes fell by 20 to 30 percent in some places.  Today, these places still struggle to compete in their regions.

Whether you agree with their premise or not, there’s no arguing that huge surface parking lots create an atmosphere that is inherently hostile to the pedestrian: dull, unbearably hot in summer, windswept in all seasons, and potentially menacing, especially to women returning to their cars alone after dark.

In the Streetfilms short, Garrick talks about the way that guaranteed parking for government employees in the state capital of Hartford, Connecticut, has created an effective moat between the city’s historic residential neighborhoods, many of which have rows of fine brownstones, and its downtown, which has been gutted of small-scale employers and services.

“Parking is a proxy for the urban fabric,” Garrick tells me. “It went from being a very fine-grained fabric to much bigger buildings. Hartford has been left with these residential neighborhoods that have been robbed of their life blood.”

Garrick says that some cities, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more recently Washington, D.C., have made good headway in reversing the trend toward massive parking lots that overwhelm the human scale and lead to downtowns devoid of people. “It’s very hard for people to realize, and it’s very hard to prove that planning is the reason,” says Garrick. “But this is the result of planning.” Better planning, he says, could mean a restoration of cities where the streets are for people, not cars.

 

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.