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Urban space is a precious resource. Why do we give so much of it to parking lots?

Reimagining the future of local parking lots, with Peterborough GreenUP
Laura Keresztesi, a program coordinator at Peterborough GreenUP, says there’s “a lot of opportunity” to use parking lots more creatively. (Photo: Brett Throop)

It’s an easy drive from Ellen van der Veen’s west-end home to her volunteer job at the re-Source Thrift Shop in downtown Peterborough. But lately she’s been thinking about switching up her commute.

“It’d be nice to get more exercise and not contribute to pollution,” said van der Veen.

She is toying with getting her bicycle out of storage when the warm weather returns or trying public transit, she said.

For years, many cities have tried to nudge drivers like van der Veen out of their cars toward more sustainable forms of transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, and ease traffic congestion.

One thing that would help tilt the scales away from cars, according to van der Veen: less parking. “If you have less parking lots, people would have to take the bus and ride their bike,” she said.

That’s an idea that is gaining popularity. Across North America, there’s a growing push to cut the amount of urban land devoted to parking cars.

According to one estimate, there are at least three parking spaces for every car in Canada. This overabundance has devastating impacts on cities, argues American urban planning expert Donald Shoup in his influential 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking. All that parking spurs demand for cars, increases pollution, drives urban sprawl and skews people away from cycling, transit and walking, he writes.

It also drives up the price of housing, according to Shoup. Parking eats up land that could be used to build more homes and apartment buildings, thus inflating prices for existing units. The cost to build parking spaces, which can be substantial, is also passed onto homebuyers and renters.

In Peterborough, the legacy of car-centric city planning can be seen in the vast parking lots that front shopping destinations like the Market Plaza on George Street, where van der Veen works, or the Brookdale Plaza on Chemong Road.

But what if we used this urban space differently? If we stopped designing our cities primarily around cars, what else would become possible in these spaces? Those were some of the questions posed by a three-day demonstration project hosted by Peterborough GreenUP last month called “In Search of Parking Lot Paradise.”

Reimagining parking lots for pedestrians

GreenUP temporarily redesigned part of the Market Plaza parking lot to show that spaces like this can be for people, not just cars. (Photo: Lili Paradi/GreenUP)

For three days in October, a team from GreenUP took over eight parking spots in the Market Plaza lot, transforming them into a pop-up park of sorts. They lined up potted shrubs and hay bales to make a pedestrian walkway, installed a bicycle rack, set up a seating area, and brought in a port-a-potty. Then, they enticed shoppers and other passersby to come visit with free hot apple cider.

“People were asking a lot: Why? Why are we doing this?” said Heather Ray, GreenUP’s program director at the time.

Ray and her team wanted to show that with the right design, all the precious space taken up by parking lots can be better used to “meet our collective needs” and help build a “green and just city.”

The project idea was born out of GreenUP’s previous work looking at making Peterborough neighbourhoods more sustainable.

“Again and again we were hearing people talk about plazas in their neighbourhoods as being these spaces for opportunities,” Ray said. People want to go on walks in their neighbourhood, with kids or dog in tow, and pop into shops along the way – instead of always having to make trips by car, she said. But that’s less enticing when you first have to dodge cars in a parking lot to get to the store entrance.

That’s where design comes in, according to Ray. If you build parking lots to be safe and inviting for pedestrians, more people will get out of their cars and enjoy their neighbourhoods. The demonstration project at Market Plaza was just one small way of showing that it’s possible to make different choices about how we organize urban space, and that parking lots can be spaces for people, not just cars.

After getting a bite to eat at a Market Plaza restaurant, Rylie Porter noticed GreenUP’s event, and followed her nose to the vat of steaming cider.

For Porter, a transit rider, the worst part of going shopping is always the trek through the parking lot. “It’s always a nightmare,” she said. “I fear for my life every time.”

Standing in the pedestrian walkway, Porter gave the parking lot remodel a positive review. “I’m a fan,” she said. “It looks really, really pretty.”

Not only that, but Porter thought it felt safer, too. When stores have walkways to get from the sidewalk to the entrance, it goes a long way to calm her parking lot anxiety. “It’s less risk for getting hit by cars,” she said.

An end to parking minimums in Peterborough?

You might think the abundance of parking lots in cities like Peterborough is just a response to consumer demand. But in fact, it has more to do with complicated – and many would say outdated – rules written by urban planners.

For decades, municipal bylaws known as “minimum parking requirements” have compelled builders to provide ample on-site parking for all new developments – from apartment buildings to mega-malls. Our glut of parking is largely the result of these rules.

But some Canadian cities are starting to rethink that approach to parking. Edmonton scrapped minimum parking regulations in 2020. Kingston followed suit earlier this year and ditched parking minimums for non-residential developments. But Toronto has gone even further: last year, that city put a cap on the number of parking spaces allowed in new developments — meaning it now has maximum, instead of minimum, parking requirements.

Now, the debate over parking requirements could be coming to Peterborough, where there is currently a long list of parking rules for different kinds of buildings. A laundromat on Chemong Road or Lansdowne Street, for example, has to have one parking space for every four washing machines. And most retail establishments must have one parking spot for every 18 square metres of floor space.

In 2018, former mayor Diane Therrien campaigned on a commitment to “eliminate minimum parking requirements,” in order to encourage more housing development. That hasn’t happened yet, but the rules will soon be up for review, according to Caroline Kimble, a supervisor in the city’s urban planning department.

The review of parking requirements will be part of a wider overhaul of Peterborough’s zoning by-laws, to bring them in line with the new Official Plan council adopted in late 2021. (As part of that update, bicycle parking requirements will also be added to the zoning bylaw for the first time). The review is expected to happen sometime after the province greenlights the new Official Plan, allowing it to come into force.

Minimum parking requirements have reshaped cities around cars and contributed to a shortage of land for desperately-needed housing. (Photo: Mark Allwood)

Van der Veen, the thrift store volunteer, said that limiting off-street parking could help Peterborough densify – a major theme of the October municipal election – instead of continuing to sprawl outward. That will hopefully mean more money for public services, since taxpayers won’t have to pay to build roads and sewers to new subdivisions.

“If the city just keeps growing and growing [outward]… there’s less money for other programs, like kids programs, social services,” van der Veen said.

New official plan calls for parking to be out of sight

It’s no accident that a lot of Peterborough’s foot traffic is concentrated downtown – where storefronts face onto the sidewalk, without a maze of parked cars in between.

That easy walkability could become more common in Peterborough. The City’s new Official Plan aims to export the downtown feeling to the rest of the city by hiding parking lots behind buildings in new developments. That would be a total 180 from what you currently see along Chemong Road and Lansdowne Street, which are dotted with big box stores fronted by acres of parking.

The new Official Plan says that from now on store entrances should be accessible from the sidewalk and most parking should be located behind buildings or in parking garages that are screened from the street.

It’s part of a strategy to make public spaces more inviting, with a goal of creating “outdoor rooms” where people want to stroll and linger, like in the downtown.

“You’re not going to window shop from the sidewalk on Lansdowne if you’re looking through 20 rows of parking,” said Caroline Kimble, the urban planner. “We have to create an environment that is desirable to live in, to walk in, to cycle in, to work in.”

However, questions have been raised about whether the city will have the power to enforce certain elements of the official plan, now that Bill 23, the Ford government’s sweeping new housing bill, has become law.

Called the More Homes Built Faster Act, it restricts the city’s control over what the exterior of buildings look like, by curtailing a step in the planning process called site plan control, where things like building design, landscaping and parking are considered.

The bill says that “exterior design is no longer a matter that is subject to site plan control.”

Kimble said that could potentially limit the city’s ability to require developers to put parking behind new buildings.

However, there could be a workaround: after blowback from many cities and citizens groups, the government introduced an amendment to the bill that would allow exterior design elements to be considered at the site plan stage, if it’s a matter of sustainable design.

“I witnessed countless close calls”

A few days after GreenUP’s event highlighting the need for safer parking lots, a 59-year-old woman was struck by a vehicle in the McDonald’s parking lot on Chemong Road.

She was flown to hospital in critical condition and died of her injuries a week later, according to Peterborough police.

Ray said she was sadly not surprised when she heard about the fatal collision.

“I witnessed countless ‘close calls or misses’ while spending time in plaza parking lots in neighbourhoods throughout Peterborough,” Ray said by email. “It is a real safety risk, especially when these spaces are designed and built with little community input – and for cars first.”

Despite the harm that Shoup, the planning expert, says parking inflicts on cities, parking policies have largely gone unquestioned, until recently.

Those policies have reshaped our cities around cars, but it’s not irreversible. Many people are now starting to imagine how their cities could look – and feel – without so much asphalt everywhere.

The good news is that by setting aside so much space for parking over the decades, we’ve created an “accidental land bank” for new housing, as Shoup puts it in his book.

Ray shares that sense of optimism. When she looks at a parking lot, she sees more than asphalt and cars; she sees the possibility for a different future for our city. “There’s potential there,” she said.

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