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Tuesday 12 November 2019
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Commentary

Town and Country and housing prices (part II)

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Last week, I made the assertion that in order to reduce housing prices, we need to use expensive land in urban centres more intensely and efficiently, and in the process, consolidate parking offsite in shared, multi-storey parking facilities.

Cities function like a socially, economically, and environmentally interconnected eco-system. Many of our highly urbanised areas are stuck in three major interlocking cycles, heavily influenced by existing land use regulations at the Town and Country Planning Division (T&CPD).

Cycle one: parking requirements

One parked car consumes as much as 300 square feet – 150 for the parking space and 150 for the aisle space. Typically, T&CPD regulations require 1.5 spaces for each apartment or townhouse unit.

For every unit, therefore, as much as an additional 450 square feet (the equivalent of a small studio apartment) can be required to accommodate cars. This is not an issue when the number of units on the lot is one or two. However, in order to fit 20 units into a standard 5,000-square-foot lot in the middle of a city, for instance, one has to find space for up to 30 cars.

A narrow street, enclosed by multi-storey buildings with lots of balconies and windows, and outdoor seating, make this Barcelona, Spain street feel intimate and sociable. Source: Allstreets. -

With no yard, and elevation of the building by one storey, ten spaces will consume the ground area of a standard lot. This simple approach to maximising onsite parking has an unrecognised consequence. A repeat of this along a street ends up killing its pedestrian-friendliness.

Walkability expert and renowned urban planner Jeff Speck tells us that, at minimum, a walk must fulfil four conditions in order to attract pedestrians: safety, comfort, usefulness and interest.

This onsite parking solution directly violates the first and fourth requirements. It creates vehicle-pedestrian conflict points (driveways) along the sidewalk as often as every 50 feet, and diminishes interest and social interaction by elevating all of the building’s activity too high above the eye level of the pedestrian. At sidewalk level, the pedestrian’s view is of cars, a screening wall, or some bland shrubbery, but no signs of humanity.

The existence of driveways at every lot also reduces the number of on-street parking spaces that can provide a revenue source for a city, make up for a lack of onsite parking, and improve the pedestrian environment by creating a protective barrier for the sidewalk and typically leading to more alert and cautious drivers.

As streets become less pedestrian-friendly, people will drive more, and parking demand for will increase further, consuming ever-more space in land-scarce urban areas, and influencing cycles two and three.

Cycle two: housing and transportation affordability

A household making a combined $14,000 a month – a figure that is said to exceed the national average – can qualify for a 30-year mortgage of $1 million assuming no other monthly debt payments, according to TTMF. If that household has a car payment of $2,500 a month, that number drops to $839,000. With an additional liability of a $5,000-limit credit card, the number drops to $771,000. Hire purchase and other loans will reduce it further.

As explained last week, the more units one can build on a lot of land, the less the cost of the land will inflate the cost of each housing unit.

Tokyo, Japan is one of the most affordable large cities in the world due largely to less restrictive land use regulations. Source: Tokyobling.
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When housing in optimally located urban areas is too expensive, suburban sprawl increases. Development activity extends farther outwards in search of cheaper land. Transportation costs – due to long commutes, long distances between destinations, and an urban form that is no longer enabling of efficient public transportation – subsequently increase.

By requiring onsite parking at the rates prescribed by T&CPD, the cost of housing increases, either because the limited ground space for parking reduces the number of allowed units on the site, or because onsite underground or aboveground structured parking directly inflates the overall construction cost of the development.

The elevated Municipal Services Building in Glendale, California illustrates anti-pedestrian design.
Source: Pinterest. -

Based on 2016 construction data, local quantity surveyor Omar Thomas (OTA Consulting) has indicated that aboveground structured parking costs $122,000 to $135,000 per space, with a reasonable average of 30 per cent increased costs for underground, that is, $159,000-$176,000.

With current regulations, people end up paying the hidden cost of seemingly-free onsite parking whether they own and use a car or not. This disproportionately affects younger and less affluent groups who own cars at lower rates, but end up subsidising the cost of parking for everyone else.

Separating the cost of parking from the cost of housing, by placing it offsite in shared, paying facilities, allows drivers to tangibly see the cost of the parking that they were already secretly paying for; ensures that non-drivers no longer subsidise these costs; and has been shown over time to reduce car ownership and usage and reduce household expenses.

Cycle three: crime and safety

One could say that individuals will not want to park offsite and walk – as happens in major cities that are also plagued by crime. The streets feel unsafe largely because no one is using them. Urban planner Jane Jacobs wrote about this way back in 1961. An entire field, known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), has since emerged.

A fundamental CPTED principle is that of natural surveillance – a recognition that it is precisely the presence of “eyes on the street” from sidewalk users and building users that makes a street less prone to criminal elements.

By creating an environment where people are shuttled from building to building in their cars, with no chance for pedestrian life to develop, intuition and studies tell us that streets and properties (even walled and gated) become less safe. There will be no pedestrian activity on the street to deter antisocial behaviours, nor a reason for people in their houses to look onto (casually surveil) – from their front porches, balconies, or windows – these deserted and uninteresting streets.

Tokyo, Japan is one of the most affordable large cities in the world due largely to less restrictive land use regulations. Source: Tokyobling.
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Addressing onsite parking requirements; ensuring that car accommodation and other factors that can be regulated – such as the distance of buildings from the sidewalk, the location of main entrances, and the design of building façades – do not create an anti-pedestrian environment; and building more efficiently on expensive urban land are proven ways to positively influence all three of these cycles.

Land use regulations at the T&CPD must be developed and constantly monitored, with an understanding and appreciation of these and other factors. With reformed regulations, our urban areas can flourish. It is a small investment of time and money, but with invaluable rewards.

Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or e-mail him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com

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