By Dom Nozzi
A large percentage of American communities have experienced an enormous amount of dispersed suburban sprawl. Unless we are to eventually need to abandon and perhaps bulldoze such unsustainable development (probably a more likely outcome than most realize), we need to talk about retrofitting drivable, unsustainable sprawl development with something more compact, walkable, transit-friendly and sustainable.
Indeed, the creation of “activity centers” (an utterly terrible yet common term referring to efforts to create multiple downtowns or town centers in a community, rather than the traditional, centrally-located downtown) is being discussed by academics and city councils throughout the nation.
Commonly, the vision is to transform a conventional, car-based strip commercial shopping center (that largely consists of a huge surface parking lot and giant roadways serving it) into a walkable, mixed use places (what I will call an “urban village”).
One of the first questions that tends to come up in such discussions is “What about the parking??”
First, it needs to be understood that it is not an immutable law that all residents living at such a newly-created urban village will forever want or need a parking space for a car (or even have a car).
As a matter of fact, we are seeing car ownership and use leveling off and sometime declining around the nation – particularly with the “Millennium” (younger) generation.
Believing that the provision of suburban parking is forever necessary is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we provide that level of excessive parking, we actually induce many to want more parking and more cars than they would have wanted had we not enabled such car ownership and use with excessive “free” parking. After all, surface parking makes walking less likely, and the resident has a vested interest because they have already paid for the parking spots we have forced them to own. Excessive suburban parking regulations also kill any chance of having the developer provide the necessary compact residential development, because more compact residential development is, by definition, no longer compact when we must add the enormous amounts of acreage required to fulfill suburban parking rules.
Walkability is impossible when seas of asphalt separate destinations. Surface parking dramatically increases walking distances, and obliterates vibrant and walkable urbanity by creating dead zone gap tooth “no man’s lands.”
“Unbundling” the price of parking from the price of residences in a new neighborhood is an effective financial incentive for reducing car ownership and use, because some residents will opt not to own or use a car if they are able to opt for housing that is lower in cost due to the lack of provided parking.
Some argue that unbundling the price of parking from the price of the housing is impractical, because there will be “spillover” parking by people using a space they did not pay for. But there is an easy solution for this concern: Enforcement of parking regulations at the development via parking permits or parking meters. Despite the conventional wisdom, there are a surprisingly large (and growing) number of citizens who want the option of being able to pay less for housing in exchange for not having parking provided. This is particularly true in cities where a healthy supply of bicycling, walking and transit options are provided. It will also be true if the new urban village is properly designed with human-scaled mixed use, walkable design.
Any “minimum” parking requirements that a community uses (for example, many communities require at least four parking spaces per 100 square feet of retail development) should be converted to parking MAXIMUMS. Why? Because the big risk over the past several decades has not been that a developer will provide too little parking. In large part because most financers for new development insist on the provision of abundant parking as a condition for financing a proposed development, developers tend to provide TOO MUCH parking. Too much parking is particularly a problem if the design objective is to create compact walkability and reduce neighborhood car use.
On-street parking is desirable and tends to be priced in an urban village.
The new urban village should liberally allow shared use of parking by multiple residential and commercial developments in the village. One way to do this is to create parking that can be leased, rather than obligating all land residences and commercial to have their own parking.
If a developer insists on wanting to provide excessive amounts of suburban surface parking, they must be denied approval in the same way as a developer proposing to, say, develop a smokestack industrial use in their residential neighborhood.
For the relatively modest amounts of parking that must be provided at a new urban village, nearly all (if not all) parking should be in multi-story garages that are wrapped with residential, retail, and office “liner” buildings. Any surface parking that needs to be provided should be behind buildings, and buildings pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.
If a prospective resident of a new urban village wants free and abundant parking, they should be told that there are plenty of other, more suburban places where they can opt for that lifestyle in the community.
Other Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Village
Streets should have shorter blocks (200 to 500 feet). For relatively long blocks, cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings can be created. Streets also benefit by being paired with alleys. Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed. Another way to keep walking distances relatively short is to not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or 4 feet in height along a sidewalk (anything higher inhibits neighborly conversation and pedestrian enjoyment of street-facing building facades).
When streets passing through the proposed center are 4 lanes or more in size, they need to be necked down (road dieted) to no more than 3 lanes.
Intersections must be kept relatively small in size so that they are pedestrian-scaled. No more than one turn lane in a given direction, relatively narrow travel lanes, and small turning radii.
Continuous left turn lanes are to be discouraged in the village. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.
Raised crosswalks, when feasible and appropriate, are desirable to slow car speeds and increase pedestrian visibility.
Street (including lane width) and turning radii dimensions are small and slow-speed.
Street lights should be pedestrian-scaled so that light bulbs are no more than 14 feet in height. Taller lights create a highway ambience and induce higher car speeds.
Bus bays are inappropriate in a compact, walkable center due to loss of pedestrian scale and increased pedestrian crossing distance.
Sidewalks have straight, rectilinear trajectories rather than curvilinear, suburban trajectories. Curvilinear trajectories, by adding unnecessary distances to walking, are annoying and patronizing to pedestrians. They are mainly benefitting motorists, who obtain a more pleasing view as they drive along a street with curving sidewalks. They also increase the likelihood of dirt cowpaths being formed by pedestrians seeking the shortest route.
Visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers are highly desirable to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.
Mixing residences with offices, retail, recreational and cultural activities substantially reduces walking and biking distances, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety. Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities are also important, and for the same reasons. Emphasize attached housing rather than detached, single-family housing in centers and along major streets.
Buildings should be at least two-stories in height for more of a sense of place, a sense of enclosure, mixed use opportunities, and better adaptability to change over time.
Should the community have any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings, those barriers need to be removed. Similarly, the community needs to exempt the proposed new urban village from landscaping requirements, as such requirements tend to require too much spacing for compact walkability. Ample landscaping belongs in the drivable suburbs.
While common because of their high visibility nature, gas stations should not be allowed at street intersections.
Building setbacks need to be modest in size. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks. Lot sizes should be relatively small in size, which often requires the community to reduce the minimum lot size required in its land development code. Each of these design features is an important way to create charming human scale that pedestrians tend to insist on and enjoy.
The community sign ordinance should require relatively small signs for retail and office development. Small signs help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting.
People that desire to live in walkable, compact living arrangements seek a setting that is conducive to such a lifestyle. That setting features low-speed, narrow and human-scaled streets and intersections, very short walking distances to most destinations, buildings pulled up to the sidewalk to create enclosure, and a vibrant experience (in contrast to deadening expanses of parking and large building setbacks). The market for higher density housing will be very weak and unsustainable if such a walkable setting is not provided.
Existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions for a new urban village if such patterns conflict with community objectives for such a compact village. Similarly, the needs or convenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of these new village centers.
Overall, the objective for centers is a drive to rather than drive through experience, a park-once setting, and a design that makes the pedestrian the design imperative.
In the Urban Village, we should be firmly committed to walkable urbanity, where car use is optional, not required.