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I blame Joni Mitchell

by | Aug 22, 2020 | Parking

Placemaking is a complex process.

This is unavoidable as successful placemaking comes from understanding and balancing the needs of so many stakeholders – individuals, cultural institutions, local government, and businesses. All need to be included in the process and that’s why it takes time to get it right.

It is further complicated in that it takes place within the context of a changing economy and society. Demographic changes, technological advances, a massive shift in the way in which we understand the environmental and social  impacts of our actions; all of these mean our towns and cities are undergoing the most seismic changes that we have seen since the industrial revolution.

Understanding and managing places so that they benefit people without exceeding environmental limits is a truly colossal challenge.

To my mind, many of these complex, interlocking challenges are epitomised in one issue. Everyone knows that ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option. Something has to change, but it is an issue that is so sensitive, emotive, and divisive that any public discussion of it always leads to controversy. Many local authorities feel unable to act decisively for fear of the consequences of making the wrong choices.

At, we’re made of stronger stuff. Yes, we need to talk about – parking.

In a short series of blogs, I want to explore what it is that we know about parking, what we need to know and how we can get that knowledge. That’s the only way that collaborative projects can move forward.

In this first post, I want to address two vital questions – why must parking as we know it change? and what do we need to know before we can make the right changes?

The P-word

It seems silly to begin by stating that parking and the use of private cars in town centres are closely connected issues. Obviously they are, but it’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider just what the causal relationships are.

There are multiple issues here that get conflated, and not in a helpful way.

The overwhelming environmental and social benefits of keeping as many vehicles as possible out of town centres is unchallengeable. But the implications of this in terms of how we manage parking to achieve that is far from clear.

Current levels of pollution and GHG emissions are at crisis levels and must be acted upon. According to DEFRA, 14% of the UK’s emissions of PM2.5 (dangerous air-borne particles) are from road vehicles used in urban areas. Exposure to high concentrations of particulates exacerbate lung and heart conditions and our most vulnerable – children and the elderly – are worst affected. 

This has a very real economic as well as human cost. According to a report by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath, air pollution from cars and vans costs the NHS £6bn every year. In total, the research concludes, the health cost of an average car in inner London over the vehicle’s lifetime was nearly £8,000. For diesel cars this figure was nearly double.

However, even if every car in the UK were to be miraculously converted to an ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) overnight, the effect of cars in urban spaces would still be huge and detrimental.

2,324 people were killed or seriously injured on London streets in road traffic collisions in 2013. 79% of those were not drivers but vulnerable road users like pedestrians, cyclists and maintenance workers. On top of this, if we start to factor in the ways in which noise, land use, etc. impact upon urban life, then the car has a lot to answer for but addressing the problems created by cars in urban environments requires tackling issues around the wider transport infrastructure and of the role that the private car plays in our whole way of life.

This might just be me (and Alan Partridge)… the only direct mental leap that I can find between car parking and environmental vandalism is Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi”

They paved paradise,

Put up a parking lot,

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot…

Somehow, this has led to the car park and not the car itself becoming the epitome of all that’s destructive in the built environment.

The truth however, is that a creative and effective approach to parking is a part of the solution; not the problem.

So, what’s blocking change?

Resistance to changes in parking regimes often starts with the assumption that private car use is directly connected to consumer footfall and so to the success of the shops, bars, restaurants, and offices that make up the local economy. Any suggestion of reducing parking capacity raises immediate concerns from local businesses and from local authorities that fear an immediate loss of revenue as a result.

As the RAC Foundation’s research in 2019 showed

“In 2018-19 English councils made a combined profit of £930 million from their parking activities.” To which they added, “It is up 41% on the £658 million made in 2013-14.” 

Although their statement about the impressive growth of local authority parking revenues contains no explicit criticism, I can’t help but sense a tone of resentment on the part of the RAC Foundation.

I feel no resentment at all. I congratulate our local authorities on their cultivation of a vital revenue stream from which to finance their essential work. Well done.

However, this combined with pressure from local business, does explain why local authorities are wary of making changes of any kind in parking policy. It’s a legitimate concern and certainly plausible but is it true? 

Consumer or business, who knows best?

Collaboration is central to what we do at EthosVO and it’s a vital part of successful placemaking, but we know how difficult it can be to achieve. A shared understanding and common goals are essential to bring all stakeholders together.

So, it’s interesting to see that consumers and city centre businesses may perceive things very differently. In a 2018 paper on changes in the Southern Bargate area of Southampton, researchers asked local retailers and visitors how it could be improved. The retailers were confident that they knew what shoppers wanted as they ‘often spoke to them’. 

Asked about what was important to the area, retailers ranked ‘surrounding shops and businesses’ and ‘available car parking spaces and times’ as the most important factors.

The top 3 factors for the consumers interviewed, however, were ‘open public space’, ‘green space’ and ‘cultural and social activities’.

Indeed, 43% of visitors interviewed did not see ‘available car parking and times’ as having any importance at all.

This wasn’t the only issue upon which retailers and consumers had markedly different opinions of what makes a great place to visit and shop. 85% of consumers surveyed wanted trading hours to be changed or extended, but 36% of retailers said they would be unwilling to change. Indeed, the research found that “a large proportion of retailers were opposed to any change in their default behaviour”.

Reading this, a cynic might wonder whether a perceived lack of parking might be as big a factor in town centre decline as has been feared.

As for the assumption that re-thinking parking might be disastrous for local authority revenues. A July 2020 report from Knight Frank suggests that

“If just 15% of the land occupied by England’s 103,000 public sector-owned car parks was developed, the government could deliver 110,000 new homes. What-is-more the sale of the homes could bring in up to £6bn in land receipts for the Treasury.”

Presumably, local authorities and local businesses would also benefit from 110,000 new households.

As always, it seems that what placemakers lack is the data and tools to make informed decisions. As we recover from the effects of so much social and economic upheaval, informed and committed decision making is needed more than ever.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore more issues around what we need to know about parking and what having that knowledge might enable placemakers to do. 

Adrian Segens

Adrian Segens


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