Public Space Banking and Thoughts of Flexible Street Uses

Streets are tricky things. I was reading Car Parking vs. parks vs. restaurant patios, over on Richard Layman’s blog, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space. It is a short but good article that made me think about why we don’t allow more uses of on-street “parking spaces”. The strip of street running parallel to the curb is a public space, but generally isn’t viewed as anything more than a place to park cars. Communities could create so much more value in the places they already have by exploring alternative uses for parking spaces. So here is my urban, multi-use plan for on-street parking…

If a business wants to install outdoor seating on what used to be a parking space, then we could ofset the lost “public space” by charging a fee that can be used to reclaim or preserve public space elsewhere. Call it a Public Space Bank. As businesses come and go, they can choose whether that public space that is currently being rented by a car would be more valuable to them as seating.

Such an idea might require the defining of a “citizen to public space” ratio. And perhaps that gets too technical. But the idea isn’t that complicated. It also probably sounds more fair to the “I pay taxes to the center of the road” crowd. Our public spaces on our streets have been taken over by cars for a long time. Theoretically, we are getting paid for this invasion. Let’s disrupt things a bit and let uses other than cars have a chance.

If you want to avoid the complexity of a so-called “Public Space Bank” then simply charge the requesting business the same amount a car would pay to literally sit there and call it good.

Let’s keep the math simple. If you pay $1 per hour to park your car, then a business would have the ability to use the space for $24 per day. It could be that simple. They could even use the parking meter to pay for it if you have meters that accept payment forms like credit cards.

This would turn this area into “flex space” essentially. During busy times of the year, a business could use the added seating. Parking garages would fill up faster and sidewalks would benefit from added outdoor activity. I can even see areas being designated as “flex districts” where the city has actually installed receiver slots for the metal poles that could act as temporary barriers during non-auto uses. Making a street-long transformation a quick process that would fundamentally change the use of a street.

The notion of flexible public space instead of “parking space” also helps us better understand the true value of that space. By allowing for more uses, we can better understand the demand side of our commodity.

I always have believed that when you allow for more mixed uses, you generally get a better result. By essentially condemning this space as “parking” (whether used or not), you will never be surprised by all the great place-making possibilities it holds.

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Pam Broviak

Sid – there is a trend to mix uses in the public right of way. The challenges to this I see from an engineering perspective are the following:

Someone would have to pay to install curb around the area because it would be too dangerous to have no barrier between the road pavement and the seating areas. Also, in places where there is snow removal, a stretch of road with random “bump outs” like this increase the time it takes to plow that section of road because it is difficult to plow around these.

Also, the property owner would have to enter into some type of agreement or lease with the city to use these spaces and provide the necessary insurance – that’s typical for these types of uses of the right of way. But then there would be the challenge of possible disruptions or damage to property that would have to be tolerated due to maintenance or repair activities required for underground utilities under that area (the right of way is typically packed with underground utilities).

Although a parking garage does work, parking is typically in front of the storefronts because that is what the business owners want. So the businesses have to be accepting of the loss of spaces in close proximity to their shop.

As long as people were aware of and accepting of these costs and issues, then the idea works. An urban street with areas like you describe are more inviting to pedestrians and visitors. My theory is that once we get driverless cars that operate on a dedicated track or rail, we will be able to fully reclaim the entire roadway for the types of uses you describe (except for the occasional utility repair or installation). I just hope I get to see it in my lifetime!