Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“This wasn’t really about parking,” says Ottawa planner. “This was about the kind of city people want to live in.”
It helps to have a cartoonist in the city planning department. At least that’s one of the lessons that Ottawa’s Urban Design Branch learned after city planner Tim Moerman crafted a sweetly goofy animation on that driest of urban topics: minimum parking requirements.
The video, which received the CityLab treatment in late 2015, helped Ottawa planners gather wide support for substantial cut-downs to the number of parking spots that new developments have to include—Ottawa’s first such reforms since 1964.
“No one had seriously looked at why we’re requiring minimum parking as a condition of development,” says Moerman. “When we decided to start the review last year, we realized it was going to take informing people in an understandable format. Because parking is pretty wonkish.”
When the video went up, officials had released a public discussion paper that laid out the history of the city’s existing code, as well as the pros and cons behind the whole idea of parking requirements. For example, they prevent side streets from clogging; on the other hand, they’re a barrier to small businesses that can’t afford all the premium land required, and they make rent less affordable for everyone, since developers often pass on the cost of parking to tenants.
The paper also laid out the proposed reforms, which eliminated all minimum parking requirements near new transit stations and on inner urban corridors, and reduced them for other medium-scale developments. It stressed that none of this would mean taking away existing parking spots, which some residents feared. And developers would still be free to build in parking if they wanted to.
By focusing on outcomes and presenting this stuff in clear, neutral, politely Canadian terms, Moerman and his fellow planners de-politicized the topic and helped connect it to bigger urban changes that civically engaged Ottawans knew they wanted. “This wasn’t really about parking,” Moerman says. “This was about building the kind of city people want to live in. Everyone wants walkable streets, affordable housing, and small businesses. Everyone loves those mixed-used, three- to four-story buildings. And yet they haven’t gotten built in decades, in large part because of those parking requirements.”
It helps that Ottawa, Canada’s tidy, somewhat sleepy capital of 900,000 on the Ontario-Quebec border, is a particularly affluent and well-educated city, characteristics often connected to political support for these kinds of urban ideals. Still, to hammer home the idea, Moerman and colleague Alain Miguelez decided to cartoonify it. Moerman himself drew the frames, thanks to his past career as a freelance cartoonist. The video took off, gathering more than 40,000 views to date. (OK, that’s not Roomba cat status, but you try getting anyone to click on a video called “Review of Minimum Parking Standards.”) Its relative virality gave a boost of confidence to city officials.
“There is always a fear that we haven't consulted effectively, and that maybe a lot of people haven't heard about this or that change we're proposing,” says Moerman. “But because the video was such a hit, our Council could rest easy knowing that people knew what we were up to, and that probably helped a lot.”
It seemed to sway public opinion. In July, the Ottawa City Council passed the new zoning by-law unanimously, with no opposition at the final public hearings. New parking-free projects are already coming through the door. And in case you’re thinking that an anti-parking law with zero pushback could never happen in America, it’s certainly true that not all U.S. cities enjoy an existing urban culture that supports density and affordability. But Ottawa is only the latest in at least 43 cities around North America to successfully pass parking cut-downs in recent years, including Miami, San Antonio, Seattle, and others around the U.S. Maybe American parking foes just need to get more creative.