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Pavement in the Park: How Removing Parking Adds Acreage

A seventh excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by removing excess parking spaces.

Do you park in your park? Does it seem to be a parking lot more than a park, a lot?

Urban park advocates struggle mightily to create new green space through a precious parcel here and an irreplaceable acre there. But a large swath of existing parkland is given over to the prosaic task of automobile storage, complete with its side impacts–impermeable surface, water runoff and erosion, oil drippings, heat island effect, displacement of trees and meadows, and loss of playing area.

A 2007 study by the Center for City Park Excellence of 70 major city parks in the United States revealed that, collectively, they devote a total of 529 acres to the very technology that many people seek to escape when they head into their local patch of nature. That’s an area larger than Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, City Park in Denver, Lake Harriet Park in Minneapolis, or Franklin Park in Boston. In Chicago, where the city spent $475 million to create 24-acre Millennium Park, almost twice that much land–46 acres–is given over to auto storage within nearby Lincoln Park.

Hard to find parking spaces in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Credit: Google Earth.

On average, CCPE found that signature urban parks provide slightly more than one auto space for every acre of parkland. The range is from almost zero spaces in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to more than 6,000 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, more than 7,000 in St. Louis’s Forest Park, and 10,000 in Flushing Meadow/Corona Park in New York.

Storing an unused car requires approximately 330 square feet (.008 acres), according to Donald Shoup, professor of Urban Planning at University of California at Los Angeles and author of The High Cost of Free Parking. This factors in the actual surface area of the auto plus the extra space for aisles required to maneuver in and out of an enclosure. For a 500-car lot, that comes to four acres. Of course, Americans assume they have the right to drive, one person per car, from home to a space directly next to a tennis court, rose garden, or picnic table–at least until it’s pointed out that 100 percent auto access means 0 percent park.

Despite the popular assumption, auto storage doesn’t correlate directly with visitation. The nation’s most heavily used park, Central Park in New York, has only 130 parking spaces yet gets 25 million visits per year. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, receives 6 million visits while providing only forty spaces for skaters at Wollman Rink–and that lot is open only periodically. On the other hand, in Houston, about 15 of Hermann Park’s 445 acres are devoted to 2,000 spaces for automobile storage. Interestingly, although it gets about 2.3 million visits per year, Hermann is less heavily used than Riverside Park in New York, which has almost no auto storage.

“On about fifty days per year there is no possible way to meet the demand, and on another fifty we’re right at the limit for capacity,” says Rick Dewees, administrator of Hermann Park. Nevertheless, he points out, “It’s hard to add spaces when the lots are empty three-fourths of the time.” Dewees has been forced to become a bit thick-skinned about the issue: “You’re always going to have people complaining there isn’t enough parking during peak times,” he says.

Parks surrounded by low-density housing with little or no mass transportation and filled with high-intensity sports facilities are under relentless pressure to provide large amounts of space for cars. But not every park is held hostage by the automobile. Parks with many people living or working in close proximity and a range of good transit options nearby are able to succeed with little or no car storage.

Of the nation’s big-city signature parks, Atlanta’s Piedmont Park is relatively small, making an internal auto repository particularly undesirable. Not only is there no open-air lot, there aren’t even curbside spaces, since the city closed all Piedmont’s internal roadways to cars in 1983. The park is fairly well-served by transit, but overflow autos end up in the surrounding neighborhood. Also in Piedmont Park is the Atlanta Botanical Garden which has the same automobile problem. The Garden’s original proposal to construct a multilevel garage in an underused portion of the park generated shock and opposition, but gradually a broad compromise was crafted, and in 2008 an 800-car garage was built relatively inconspicuously in a steep, wooded hillside. In return, the Piedmont Park Conservancy removed the existing open-air lot and also added more park entrances for walkers and cyclists. Serving both Botanical Garden visitors and Piedmont Park users (with the Garden covering the costs of construction and operation), the garage charges $1.75 per hour.

There are three ways to reduce the problem of car storage in city parks. By far the simplest and most effective is to charge a parking fee. Storing a car in a park is a service with value. Doing so also places many human and environmental costs on the park system. With an equation like that, a payment should work.

Most of the high-population-density cities rely on residents to walk, use transit or bikes, or pay to use private garages nearby. Most of the low-density cities don’t necessarily get enough usership in any one park for it to be an overwhelming problem. It is in the mid-density cities that the issue often comes to a head. Minneapolis has taken the lead in charging for cars. After a failed 10-year experiment with an honor system in the busiest of its six regional parks, the Park Board installed meters, charging between 50 cents and $1.25 per hour, depending upon demand. Because the Park Board receives all the meter revenue, it can determine how the money ($795,000 in 2005) is used, with some of the funds going to park maintenance and some to youth athletics.

Aerial shot of Hermann Park looking south with light-rail in the foreground. Credit: David J. Schmoll.

The flip side of the coin, of course, is to provide park users with transit options. Eight of the ten most heavily used city parks have subway or light-rail access within one-quarter mile, and all of them have bus service that comes even closer. Outside of New York City (where almost all parks have subway service), among the parks best-served by rail are Boston Common, Forest Park in St. Louis, Grant Park in Chicago, Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Naturally, instituting transit service, especially rail, to major parks is expensive. But it is not out of the question. In Houston, the city’s first light-rail line, opened in January 2004, features two stops in Hermann Park.

At Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, home to the popular Rose and Japanese Gardens, cars and buses regularly exceed the auto storage capacity from May through September. The city is unwilling to add to the 86 spaces (though it is unwilling to charge for them, either). In response to the crunch, Tri-Met, the regional transit agency, has added a peak-season bus that shuttles between eight stops within the 130-acre park and the closest MAX light-rail stop. The service, which runs every 15 minutes and costs $1.70 (or is free with a transfer) is aggressively advertised by the park department, Tri-Met and by event promoters. The route gets about 500 riders per day on weekends and 420 on weekdays.

Which leads to the third way of reducing auto storage problems in parks: increasing population density nearby. For every person who lives within walking distance of a park, one fewer needs to drive and deal with a car when he or she gets there. Comparison in point: New York’s Riverside Park and Fresno’s Woodward Park. Both are approximately the same size (325 and 300 acres, respectively) but Riverside has only 120 parking spaces while Woodward has 2,500. The difference is in the surrounding neighborhoods. Riverside has the Hudson River on one side and a solid row of twelve- and sixteen-story buildings on the other. Woodward is bordered by single-family homes, most of which have lots large enough for pools, on cul-de-sac street layouts. The residential population density around Woodward is about 6.5 persons per acre, virtually guaranteeing heavy reliance on autos to get to the park. The density around Riverside Park is about 150 persons per acre, and most users of the park walk from within about four blocks.

Obviously, adding residential (or commercial) density around parks is not a short-term project. Nor is it noncontroversial. People who live in single-family homes on large lots around parks enjoy their quality of life and understandably want to maintain it. However, a case can be made that increasing density unlocks a great deal of value for the benefit of the whole city, including more property tax revenue, the likelihood of healthier citizens because of park views and use, and the ability to reduce the presence of stored automobiles in parks.

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One Response

  1. [...] chances are it’s not the availability of parking. In fact, according to Peter Harnik at City Parks Blog, many of the country’s most popular urban parks are characterized by a conspicuous lack of [...]

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