Let's Build A Village From A Parking Lot
December 3, 2015

My most popular blog piece, without contest, is Let's Build A Traditional City (And Make A Profit). I could not anticipate the feedback I would receive - countless emails over the past two years saying "Tell me when you build this, and I'll move there." It kind of surprised me how many Americans love the Traditional City. The United States (and even much of the world) has a lack of quality urban places, and there is no good reason it has to be this way.

Today, we are going to build a Traditional City from a parking lot. Specifically, we are going to build a 'microvillage' consisting of microhomes and microshops.

A parking lot. There are too many of these. Let's do something with one of them.

Let's define a few requirements. A Traditional City has;

  1. Mostly (>75%) narrow streets for people.
  2. Mostly fine grained.
  3. A mixture of land uses.

When we talk about building a Traditional City, it is important that we know our end-game.

This is a Traditional City. Spain.

A Traditional City in the United States. Provincetown, MA.

A Traditional City in France.

A modern Traditional City. Japan.

You will notice that it kind of looks the same. Yes, the architecture is different, but the basic format is the same all around the world. Narrow streets for people? Yes. Fine grained? Yes. A mixture of land uses? Yes. It feels like an environment build for humans. If you needed to get somewhere, your natural instinct is to walk.

Let's see what a Traditional City is not.

Suburban apartments. This is not a Traditional City.

'New Urbanism' apartments. This is not a Traditional City.

Downtown apartments. This is not a Traditional City.

Where are the narrow streets for people? The fine grained development? The mixture of land uses?

Let's try just meeting 1 of the 3 criteria for a Traditional City...

A mixed-use building. This is not a Traditional City.

Let's try 2 of the 3..

Fine-grained? Yes. Mixed use? Yes. Traditional City? No. 19th century Hypertrophic City.

There is a massive white elephant in the middle that shouts "drive on me!" If it were a street for people, the middle would shout "walk on me!"

Narrow streets for people? Yes. Fine-grained? Yes. Mixed-use? No.

The latter is Breezy Point in Queens, NY. It is actually a pretty nice area. From pictures alone, it even looks passable as a Traditional City. If you only enjoy playing house and you only go out to visit your neighbours, then for all intents and purposes, you are living in a Traditional City. This illusion quickly breaks if you want to go out shopping or find a job.

Narrow streets for people? Yes. Fine-grained? Yes. Mixed-use? Yes. Traditional City? I would say it could pass. Eureka Springs, AR.

Eureka Springs is great. It is surrounded by ugly sprawl, but in downtown Eureka Springs, the streets are not too out of proportion (still slightly on the wide side and giving too much priority to cars, but better than most American stuff), the development pattern is fined-grained, and there are a mixture of uses. You kind of know it is worth seeing when there is a parking lot on the edge of town where you can leave your car for the weekend while you are in town.

Amsterdam. A Traditional City with a population of 700,000. Same characteristics as downtown Eureka Springs, at 350x the size.

Let's remember these three principles as we try to design a Traditional City; mostly narrow streets for people, mostly fine grained, mostly a mixture of uses. There are countless ways to go about it. Today we are going to transform a parking lot into a Traditional City.

Why a parking lot?

a) Parking lots are everywhere in the United States - we built them like nothing, and there are plenty of abandoned ones just laying around for repurposing. b) To make you realise what could be, so you never look at a parking lot the same again.

An abandoned parking lot.

Let's pick a parking lot.

I picked this Park and Ride in Dallas. A Park and Ride would make excellent candidates for infilling, because you will be building right next to a transit connection. This would be nice, because we are going to build a Traditional City where a car is not needed for travelling within, and it will also be nice if a car is not needed to connect us to the greater region. But, we could infill a parking lot anywhere. Worst case scenario is that everyone complains about parking and we keep 50% of the space as a parking lot.

We should not worry too much about parking for our parking lot. In this photo, the parking lot was closed off for a farmers' market. Yet, people managed to park to get to the parking lot.

Our first requirement to build a Traditional City is to have mostly narrow streets for people. Let's break down that down and talk about "mostly", "narrow" and "for people". "Mostly" means at least 75% of your streets should be narrow. Paris is famous for their boulevards, but they only make up a tiny minority of streets. Wide streets are important for long distance navigation, but because our parking lot is surrounded by a well-connected network of wide car-oriented arterial streets, we can focus solely on the narrow streets. "Narrow" is subjective, but in Traditional Cities a good sized street is around 25 feet wide, though 15 feet works comfortably (if you limit vehicular traffic to be one way), even 10 feet. "For people" means exactly what it sounds like it means; the street was built for walking and loitering on. This does not mean "pedestrian only", we can accommodate cars, we can accommodate bikes, but it was built for people. An easy way to spot if a street is for people is that people feel comfortable walking down the middle.

A street "for people" but accommodating cars and bicycles. Groningen, the Netherlands. Courtesy of Brent Toderian.

Thankfully, parking lots are already laid out into 'streets'. The space between the isles of cars that provide access to each of the parking spaces functions, for all purposes, as a street;

Parking lots are also great shared spaces. Virtually all Americans are used to cars and people safely co-existing in the 'streets' of parking lots.

The parking lot's streets in our example are 25 feet wide. They fit our definition of narrow streets for people. Let's draw these streets;

Our second requirement to build a Traditional City is that it should be mostly fine grained. "Mostly" means we can allow the odd large building, but they should be the exception. "Fine grained" means our blocks should be broken into many small pieces. This can mean two things. a) The lots should be relatively small, so they can be developed cheaply and so you can have plenty of destinations and variety. The lots (or parking spaces) in this example are 17 feet wide, and 8 feet deep, or 136 square feet each. 136 square feet alone is a little small, I will talk about that later. b) Fine grained also means the blocks themselves should be small enough to walk around, so let's break our "blocks" (the isles of parking spaces) approximately every 100 feet by inserting additional streets;

Now we have our village platted out.

Our third requirement to build a Traditional City is to have a mixture of uses. I say a "mixture of uses" instead of "mixed-use" because mixed-use has come to specifically refer to buildings that mix uses together. This is not necessary. A "mixture of uses" means that even though the individual properties may only have a single use, there are a mixture of uses in the area. A single family home can be surrounded by a cornershop, which can be next to an office.

A mixture of uses, but not mixed-use.

A mixture of use is important, because we can build densely if we want, but if we still separate our uses by car scales, people will still drive to get around. Also, the destinations that are close by are those that are the easiest to walk to - I would rather be within walking distance of interesting destinations rather than simply other people's homes. We are building a Traditional City - an environment built to the scale of people - so having most of your needs within walking distance is a crucial factor for its success.

We have our village platted out. The next is to fill in the parking spaces, or 'lots'. But, what can we do with only 136 square feet?

We could build parklets. Parklets are small urban parks that fit in the size of a standard parking space.

Let's place a few of these on each block. Preferably on corner blocks where it will not feel claustrophobic, and perhaps infill some of that green-space into an urban park.

The next step is selling off the rest of the lots. 136 square feet isn't much, so we could allow people to purchase multiple lots and develop over them as if they were a continuous lot. We could sell 2 lots as "double wide" or "double length" (272 sqft), 3 lots in a row (408 sqft), and even 4 lots in a square (544 sqft.) This is actually more space than we realise - if you purchased 4 lots, you could build a 2 story 1,088 sqft house on it.

Let's imagine what it will look like if we sold off the rest of the lots in a variety of configurations, and even subdivided some of the other miscellaneous pieces of green-space;

We turned a parking lot into 211 properties.

What would homes in such a small amount of space look like?

196 sqft house.

Fits into a parking space.

Click here for more examples of micro-homes. There is no reason they need to be tacky. When you only have 300 square feet to decorate, it is not unrealistic to tile the entire house in marble in a small budget. Maybe you think marble is tacky, but you get the picture. Quality over quantity.

200 sqft studio apartment.

300 sqft studio apartment.

400 sqft studio apartment.

A plan for a 400 sqft home.

A row of narrow houses.

Who would live in such a place? Since they are cheap to build, they would certainly appeal to low-income folks, and others that want to live debt free. But also students, empty nesters, people that are always travelling, or they could be rented out as holiday homes. There are also plenty of business people that live out in the country with their family, but need to be in the office a few days a week, and would like a 'city house' for the few nights a week they stay in town. But, you can always build bigger if you want. A 3 story home over 6 parking spaces would be a whopping 2,448 square feet - enough space for a large family.

What about retail?

A shipping container turned into a shop.

A shipping container turned into a restaurant.

Container Mall. Auckland, New Zealand. A glimpse at what our village's "main street" might look like.

I guess we are not used to seeing shipping container shops, so it looks a little strange. We can always replace them with more permanent buildings;

A British High Street.

Puebla, Mexico.

We built a village from a parking lot. It was cheap, it was fast, it was not hard. Perhaps someone will make a company out of this. Sure, it is not for everybody, but this is for the people that do not like most of the crap we build now.

Plzeň, Czech Republic. Better than a crappy parking lot.