Nine Per Cent Parking
Urban Crossroads #118



Back in the mid-1990s, I read a book on architecture in which the author mentioned that if he was stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book, it would be A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. The book is written by architect and educator Christopher Alexander in collaboration with a number of his associates at the University of California, Berkeley, where he used to teach. It had come out years earlier, in 1977. I had always heard positive things about the book, but knew little about it. I decided it was time to buy it.

Once I started reading the 1,100-page plus book, I found it hard to stop. It presents over 250 "patterns" relating to our built world, from the scale of a single room all the way to that of the city. Each pattern essentially presents a set of best practices relating to design. The patterns are based on observing and assessing a wide variety of historical and modern prototypes. Together, they are intended to create a "language," thus the title of the book.

For each pattern, a problem is described, and a solution is offered. The solutions inform us on how we may design or improve upon a room, building, park, or neighborhood, all presented in a succinct, easy to understand manner. The book is intended not only for professionals, but also for the layperson, and aims at helping users, whether individuals or groups, create better spaces, buildings, and towns. Alexander clearly believes that architects do not (and should not) have a monopoly over designing buildings and spaces. He states that "most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people."

I was leafing through the book not too long ago, and one pattern that caught my attention is that entitled "Nine Per Cent Parking." The pattern addresses how much of a given area, such as a neighborhood, may be devoted to parking, arguing that the maximum should be 9%. Cars occupy a considerable amount of land. Parking standards vary, but it is not unusual for a single parking space to take up about fourteen square meters. Add to that about ten square meters for circulation, and the area goes up to about 24 square meters. This is equivalent to the size of a spacious room. A room, however, accommodates a good number of people and also numerous activities. A parking space, in contrast, is essentially a storage space where cars are placed when not in use. For most cars, that would be most of the time.

Parking spaces clearly do not provide for the most ideal use of land. Like all storage spaces, they are not pleasant. Indoor parking garages usually are dark and gloomy (not surprisingly, they are where so many murder attempts take place in movies and television programs). Outdoor parking areas, more often than not, consist of large, asphalted surfaces that people barely use. When they are used, it is usually by loiterers.

Alexander specifies that the 9% limit should be applied to an area no less than four hectares so that we do not end up with a plot of land that adheres to the limit, while the one next to it is completely overtaken by parking. He also presents the rule through another set of numbers: each acre (about 4,000 square meters) should not include more than thirty parking spaces.

Alexander admits that these numbers depend on subjective estimates. The figure 9% in fact does seem arbitrary. Alexander adds, however, that the different people his team had surveyed very much agreed on the figure, and also agreed that exceeding this limit would destroy any space as a place for social interaction.

Alexander expands upon this pattern through two additional patterns. One is the "Small Parking Lots" pattern. The pattern argues that in addition to adhering to the 9% limit, parking lots should be kept small, each accommodating no more than five to seven cars. He adds that these small parking lots should be separated from each other by at least thirty meters so as to not end up as one large parking lot. Alexander emphasizes that large parking lots have a way of taking over the landscape. They result in unpleasant places. They make people feel dominated by cars, and they separate people from the pleasure and convenience of being near their cars. Alexander also makes the interesting observation that people speed up when they walk through large parking lots so as to get out of them as fast as possible!

As for coming up with the maximum number of seven cars, he states that a collection of up to seven objects can be grasped as "one thing." Moreover, objects in such a collection can be grasped as individual items while a collection of more than seven items is perceived as "many things."

The second pattern that Alexander uses to further articulate the "Nine Per Cent Parking" pattern is that of "Shielded Parking." He states that large parking structures full of cars are inhuman and essentially are dead buildings. Accordingly, no one wants to see them or walk by them. He therefore recommends placing large parking lots or garages behind some kind of natural "wall" so that the cars and parking structures cannot be seen from the outside. This "wall" may be a building, connected houses, earth berms, or shops.

In many circumstances, implementing Alexander's 9% parking limit and small parking lots may be unrealistic. What is definite, however, is that we should try to make do with as little parking spaces as possible. Parking spaces are dead spaces that take away from the city. In some cases, they have come to dominate the city. Alexander mentions that in downtown Los Angeles, the area devoted to the movement and parking of vehicles took up about 60% of the total downtown area. This clearly is far too much.

It would be interesting to measure the area of Amman's asphalted surfaces. I expect the number will be too high. It is of course meaningless to talk about limiting parking areas if one's transportation options are limited to the automobile. In fact, it is difficult to carry on with one's daily life in Amman without a car. Until about a generation ago, one could comfortably live in Amman without a car, since one could easily walk or use public transportation (and, for children at least, even bike). This, however, is no longer the case. The situation is particularly problematic when considering that cars are not available to all. Many cannot afford owning a car, and many are too young or old to drive one. As I have repeatedly stated in the pages of this column, we need to reduce the dependence on the private automobile in Amman. Whenever the automobile dominates a city, the quality of its urban life suffers. Books such as A Pattern Language offer some ideas on achieving a healthier balance between the car and the city.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 07, 2011