seas of parking
August 8, 2011, 5:30 pm
Filed under: betaCITY, Cities, density, Transit | Tags: , , , ,

I went to a lecture at an Ivy League university in the north east last month at which the dean of the school of design, architecture and planning delivered a short speech to advocate ‘greening’ the downtowns of Americans rustbelt and other medium size cities.  Urban farming was perhaps his biggest pet project and that of his important and influential school.

The map attached above helps a lot to understand why this is a very bad idea.  Introducing urban farms into city cores increases low density which makes things in general much less sustainable.  If the suburbs are expensive, wasteful and unsustainable – which they are – how then could introducing farms into the city be a good idea?  In a very real way, it’s like suburbanizing the city.

At first is may be tempting to believe that, with farms and parking lots introduced into city cores, we are building less and therefore consuming less.  If you compare our second tier cities with their empty lots and huge surface parking lots to dense cities like New York or Beijing, that could seem to be a reasonable conclusion.  But in fact the opposite is true.  To connect all the dots that we have spilled out across the map, we must build extreme amounts of infrastructure, much more than had we built densely in the first place.

Let me try to describe the effect of introducing cars – or in this case, farms – into a dense urban downtown.  Look at the map of Louisville above and imagine the red and purple areas are parking lots – which they are – or substitute for the purposes of this post, urban farms.  The large swaths of red set right in the middle of a downtown area spreads all of the elements of a properly functioning city away from each other.  Home is removed further from work, further from shops, from entertainment, from civic uses, from community centers and so on.

Think about fire and safety.  If everything is further away and we need a reasonable police and fire response time then we’ll need to build more stations as distances increase.  This in spite of the fact that there are no more people – think taxpayers – to support them.

Also consider your own daily chores.  In a city, I can walk to get my groceries, have my beer and get to work.  In sprawling environments, people have to use their cars to buy their milk, go to the pub and get to work.  Which means the city has to build parking lots and roads to accommodate the cars.  Also the government needs to continue to subsidize gas.  Eventually retailers realize they can’t move their product unless they provide a sea of parking out front for customers to park, and they move to strip malls and big boxes and main streets shut down.

This is the domino effect that has characterized life in America over the past 50 and more years.  More fresh air and wide open spaces yes, but also more expense and debt and generally less sustainable living.  It would be nice were the deans of the planning and design schools to get behind this simple idea.

Erik Weber mapped all of the surface parking in downtown Louisville for his site Broken Sidewalk.  What a disaster.  Can you imagine trying to get around this ‘city’ environment?  You couldn’t, you’d need a car.


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