One of the impressive things about modern ugliness and inefficiency is that it has always gotten the approval of committees specifically designed to preserve the aesthetics and functionality of neighborhoods. But since committee-humanity is unable to make a subjective judgement – saying, “This plan is ugly and it should not be built” seems insufficiently objective – committee-men rely on a suite of conditions which, if met, mean that the plan gets approved. One of them is sufficient parking. Frequently when a small site is redeveloped, providing parking means paving the whole property, except for maybe some gas-station islands of red mulch with Home Depot shrubs; you find this kind of development all around zoning-conscious fancy towns like Chapel Hill or Charlottesville or anyplace on Long Island. And for large developments, “minimum parking requirements” mean massive lots – so that if you park at the most distant point in the lot, that Best Buy is a distant line on the horizon. Both options are irremediably ugly, but come with approval of the zoning committee. You can fined for letting your grass follow its natural course by producing seed (providing bird food, animal habitat), because that’s ugly, but seas of black asphalt are fine, as long as the islands which bound the space are mulched or mowed.
A nice thread on this topic from Tom Salmon. He asks why these minimum parking requirements still exist, considering that they make developments which strive for urban density – which anyone who knows anything about zoning now thinks should be a goal of urban planning – almost impossible. I think it’s simply that all the Florida-culture people – the old folks whose constellation of values makes it plausible for them to drive an Oldsmobile or Cadillac – are willing to call their politicians every day to complain about lack of parking. My mother’s boyfriend – who, yes, has a house in Florida – complains about the parking in Queens every day. And he is, so to speak, old enough to vote (i.e. not just over 18 but over 70). “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “They gotta make more parking.” The original post on this thread by Tom Vanderbilt noted that this kind of thinking has created places like Hartford – a city which he claims is one-third parking spaces.
Again, what amazes me is that that kind of madness was created with a zoning committee in place. They didn’t start with the political principle, “Let’s zone Hartford 10% manufacturing, 10% government space, 25% residential, 22% commercial, and 33% parking.” They just came up with usage formulas and required new developments to provide parking for the numbers of people who would use the property. Because otherwise people would complain about there not being enough parking and would do the Yogi Berra thing – no one would go to Hartford because it’s too crowded.
I know that some people think that the only way we can arrive at this kind of Orwellian oxymoron – ugliness is beauty, density is emptiness, etc. – is through deliberate manipulation – i.e., a conspiracy. I don’t think these contradictions require a conspiracy. I think they’re the natural fruit of the universe. Work a compost pile and you’ll see – waste is fertility, death is life, etc. But there’s no need to get overly philosophical about this one. Just repeal these minimum parking requirement zoning laws.