December 31st, 2009

Have them move in, not drive in

My city is mostly governed by people who live in the burbs. They make decisions for the city centre that would be right for where they live, not for where I live. They call meetings in search of silver bullets, to revitalise the city center: markets, pipe bands and god knows. And at every planning meeting, the planners who have driven in to the meeting and tried to park their cars at the door, get to talking about the provision of  parking, to bring people in here.

They have it all back to front.

Livable vital cities are so, due to a complete lack of parking. Take Amsterdam, where residents wait years for parking permits, so long in fact that most simply don't bother. They buy pushbikes instead. There, whole streets are given over to walking and cycling, and cars putt along at the rear.

Copenhagen is not such an old city, having some sprawl and thus plenty of cars. However, thoughtful planners have made it more pedestrian and cycle friendly.

But even in the land of the free (America) where the car reigns supreme, places like Manhattan demonstrate the positive effect on neighbourhoods of letting many people live in an area with nowhere to park. I once lived in New York, for a short while, on the upper west side, in a typical 5 storey walkup apartment building, that completely filled up its land and left nowhere for parking. Most of Manhattan was developed that way, before cars were invented, and the result is a city brimming with people, and having surprisingly low per-capita crime rates, due in recent years as much to the presence of people as police, who are not on every corner as myth would suggest. 

Postcard images of Wall Street and Midtown hide the truth of New York, that it is a city of neighborhoods. 90% of ones life can be lived within the space of 5 blocks, which is helpful, given few people own cars!

The old part of my city, and hundreds of cities like it that were planned in the late 1800s, is only a few blocks in size—the size roughly of one neighbourhood in some city like New York or Paris.  What I have to say does not pertain to the sprawled out regions beyond my city's historic core: 

Permit residential developments in the old city center that have no provision for parking.
From that, revitalization will follow. People will be here to patronize shops and events. Those people will ride bikes and make cars all slow down. Those people will put eyes on the street, making it safe, leading to more commerce, and in turn higher demand for all kinds of space. The cycle feeds into itself, but it all starts when people are allowed to live in the city with no place to park cars.  


Piecemeal remediation plan for my street

I had my next door neighbour "Helga" over for dinner last night, and we agreed that forgoing our residents' parking permits to turn the street into a green common would increase the value of this cohort of houses and bring all of us living here a better quality of life, of cycling to work and the shops, using public transport and picking vegies from our common front yard. But our other neighbours would never agree. 

So I propose Helga and I forgo 3 of our combined 4 residents' car parking permits to make a small green common immediately in front of her house and mine, as a way of showing our neighbours what could be done later for the whole street. On our 4th space, Helga and I could park a car owned in common, for which she and I would pay according to use. Our 40 square meter green common, while small, would give a wonderful sense of place to our houses, where we could grow perimeter trees with herbs in between, fit a small rainwater tank linked to our gutters, and make a place for an outdoor table and chairs. 

In time, if our neighbours can latch on to our vision, the whole street could be transformed into a common, with a few shared cars parked at the end.

Ours would be one of the world's truly remarkable streets. Picture a bike shed, herb garden, shade trees, sitting areas, common rainwater tanks fed from all of our gutters, and winding paths for the kids to ride dinkies. Forgoing private car ownership would be such a small sacrifice.