Managing a city is a very difficult thing to do. It is a task fraught with chicken-and-egg problems. Vibrancy won’t increase without density, density won’t increase without vibrancy – things like that. To add to the difficulty, cities are created and shaped by many different people with many different interests. The most perilous part of this is that after they’re done, many of these influencers go to a home far away from the city that they exert so much influence on during the day. Even an unabashedly liberal city like Minneapolis is unable to create a cohesive and effective growth and transportation policy for itself. This is in no small part due to the many onerous layers of outside interests that Minneapolis must placate and win over in order to shape its own future.
There is, however, one thing that Minneapolis can do to jump start its own prosperity and vibrancy with no strings attached. Minneapolis can repeal the minimum parking requirement throughout the city. This move was made for the downtown zoning districts in 2009, and is arguably already making a difference as a factor in the downtown building boom – especially in the former surface-lot haven of the Warehouse District. It is still to be seen how successful Downtown East’s second chance redemption will fare with a new stadium, but without parking minimums I am hopeful. This policy can and should be expanded to the rest of the city.
Minneapolis is a considerably less dense city outside of the downtown area, and even Downtown is small compared to a lot of its peers that we like to compare it to. There are enumerable opportunities to increase density without building vertically, especially in our neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is increased walkability, which leads to a much better quality of life. Changing occupancy laws can help, but allowing land owners to determine their parking needs for themselves is the most effective move that the city can make. There are holes throughout Minneapolis that can and should be filled in before the existing built environment is replaced.
Minimum parking requirements were manifested in the suburban expansion of the 20th century and, in trying to share in their new found prosperity, cities soon found themselves yoked with these same destructive policies. Parking requirements played a crucial role in hollowing out the core of cities, but it could be argued that the carnage wreaked in the suburbs and exurbs will soon be even worse. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns asserts that the American suburban expansion of the twentieth century was structured equivalently to a Ponzi scheme. The low-density sprawl of suburbs and exurbs could only afford to finance its own infrastructure (sewers, electrical, emergency crews, etc.) by selling and developing more land to pay for the existing development. One way to do this was to demand that businesses buy and pay taxes on enough cheap land to fulfill exorbitant parking requirements (usually offered at a steep discount).
The massive size of these parking lots can not be brushed aside merely as the result of abundant and cheap land. The Wal-Marts of the world drive a notoriously hard bargain, so I doubt that they just happen to be generous when it comes to buying up land to pave over. No, this result was due to deliberate policy decisions made to force the sale of cheap land. Like any Ponzi scheme, what was easy to roll out will eventually crumble under its own weight.
It is not to be understated how instrumental this policy was in the stratospheric expansion of American settlement in to our former farmland and pristine wilderness. If each and every big box store had been allowed to purchase and pave only the land that it needed to accommodate its customers, sprawl would have been much slower and less expansive. It might have even expanded at such a pace that more sensible traditional development patterns would have naturally occurred through the process of unencumbered economic common sense.
Strong Towns conducted an ingenious crowd-sourcing event over this last Thanksgiving weekend to drive home this exact point. Using the hashtag #BlackFridayParking, Strong Towns was able to aggregate pictures of underutilized parking lots from all over the country. The kicker is that parking minimums are established to meet the demands of peak usage, a.k.a. Black Friday. The results were underwhelming and astonishing. Absolutely enormous parking lots were practically empty. My own contribution is below:
Cities, by definition, have ingrained traits that will help them to weather the storm of myopic land-use policies. Modern suburbs and exurbs do not. Post-war suburbs and exurbs have never made economic sense and exist solely due to government support and encouragement since their inception. For this reason, it is all the more urgent to these outer settlements that they remove their minimum parking standards so that useful, revenue-generating development can begin to fill in the massively overbuilt parking lots. Without infill development, small towns throughout the country face the prospect of a fiscal collapse with no viable options for generating adequate revenue.
This fate can still be avoided, and I believe that Minneapolis can lead the region while embracing a 21st century land-use policy. By implementing a city-wide policy that recognizes cars for what they are – privately owned machines that aid in personal travel – Minneapolis can unbridle itself from a destructive relic of the past. With a certain amount of last-minute foresight, Minnesotan suburbs and exurbs can then look to Minneapolis as an example of what steps can be taken to solve an imminent financial crisis.