Strictly speaking, this is not needed. The Administration takes aim at city developmental features that rip up comunities.
This week, the Obama Administration released a Housing Development Toolkit, a massive guideline that is trying to address the crisis of affordable housing and sprawling waste. It has recommendations for important things like zoning for affordable housing, urban in-fill, streamlining permitting processes, and allowing for more accessory dwelling.
The last is one of those hidden zoning clauses that have huge spiraling ramifications on how we live. Small houses (even tiny ones), rental units on owned properties, and things of the like, are often zoned out of existence, because it is thought that having “low-income” housing would bring down property values, be eyesores, etc. But what that does is artificially tighten the housing market, leading to huge price increases, and the squeezing out of even the middle class in places like San Francisco and Seattle.
However, the best part is taking aim at off-street parking requirements (pg 17). This is a bg topic, and I am far from an expert, but it you can understand it by going to 90% of the strip malls in this country and looking at the vast emptiness of the parking lots (this is mainly true in the suburbs, at least in my experience, but it may vary in different cities). Many cities have requirements that parking lots have to be designed to accommodate enough cars to fit if every single store was at full capacity. That’s why you see these enormous cavernous lots, which with few exceptions are more than half-full.
Why is that a problem? Think about how you got there to look, assuming you jumped to the nearest strip mall when I said to. Odds are, you drove. Because those strip malls are really hard to get to otherwise. There aren’t really any residential developments nearby, partly because those parking lots take up so much space. In town after town, they come right up to the road, obliterating sidewalks. Maybe there’s a bus stop, but even with that, you’re walking across a quarter-mile of pavement. The mandatory parking requirements are one of the reasons that so many suburbs and exurbs are so spread out, disconnected, and unwalkable. There are few sidewalks, and even where there are, those are just to get you into the parking lot. It encourages more driving, more waste, more pollution, and a more atomized community.
All of this land could be used to build housing. It could be used to connect communities to stores, make walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented mixed-use areas where the stores could thrive but would allow the tight housing market to open up. Having stores be part of an actual neighborhood can also (in theory) create the sort of thriving sidewalk community that Jane Jacobs was all about (though opinions of her ideas, if not her, vary, and I am no expert). This is all to say nothing of what those vast parking lots have done to natural drainage, and what more yards and grass areas can do to improve it.
It is important to remember that these aren’t natural developments, or some kind of oracular mystery steered by the invisible hand. These are decisions, and while the Toolkit is far from perfect, it is an interesting and important start of the conversation. It’s nice to see that there are grownups in charge of it, who are actually thinking about how we live now, and what we can do about it.
Oh yeah- you know how several times here I’ve said “I’m not an expert?” I’m very new to this subject, and just sort of feeling my way around. You know who are experts? Charles Mahron and the good people at strongtowns.org. They have a lot more on all of this, including smart critiques on the Toolkit. Read them.
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