Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar

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Posted 2023-05-25

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

In his book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, Henry Grabar uses a journalistic approach to examine the "mess we made" of parking in cities (part 1), the exploitation of parking by political and commercial interests (part 2), and the rethinking of parking policies happening today (part 3).

Grabar's unique contributions are his vivid accounts of people struggling with all aspects of parking. He relates stories of identity, emotion, entitlement, equity, inclusion, and the feverish desires of automobile drivers. He highlights the extraordinary way land use policies have warped cities around the "dark matter" of parking and shows how this warping hides in plain sight, reinforces itself, torments city dwellers, and serves as a proxy for issues of equity and belonging that are too difficult to articulate otherwise.

Grabar's qualitative insight into the Gordian knot of parking policies adds a human dimension to the existing and emerging body of quantitative, empirical parking research (Shoup, 2005, 2011; Willson, 2013; Shoup, 2018; Shoup, 2021; Parking Reform Network).

An illustration showing a wide expanse of automobile parking lots surrounding Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California
"Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. Ten additional Dodger Stadiums would fit inside the ballpark's parking lot."
Source: Paved paradise: how parking explains the world by Henry Grabar, page 75.

The main points I take from this book are:

  1. Parking can be used as a proxy for housing discrimination, as shown by the failed effort to build affordable housing in Solana Beach, California. Ginger Hitzke, an affordable housing developer, sought to build 18 affordable apartment units at the site of a municipal parking lot (p. 7). In 2020, after twelve years of struggle and moving targets of objections, lawsuits, and animosity, Hitzke gave up on the attempt. She stated, "They did exactly what they set out to do: stall the project to the point where it stopped making sense anymore." (p. 17). Grabar observes that the objections to affordable housing (and the people who would inhabit it) were articulated not in terms of affordability, access, or equity but in terms of the parking spaces lost. Further, for every builder who attempts to build affordable housing, Graber observes, there might be "ten builders who will not even bother [trying]" (p. 18).

  2. Parking can give rise to territorial battles when no parking policy resolves or manages conflicts. To reserve parking spots, people use cultural practices ("savesies" or "dibs" (p. 24), often in the form of chairs or other objects placed in the street) with resulting deep-seated conflict sometimes culminating in threats and violence. This conflict arises because of the steadfast refusal to appropriately price curb parking in terms of market forces of supply, demand, price, common sense, and logic. Instead, in downtowns, employees and workers grab free parking spots early and keep them all day. As a result, customers circle to find parking (p. 29) and run into conflict with nearby residential parking spots, which may be empty during the day, but jealously guarded by residents all the time. The result is an "incomprehensible" system, full of "grievance and suspicion." (p. 29).

  3. Parking can be used as a cover for an intricate web of illegal acts, aggression, waste, and graft--all because of a refusal to recognize the economic value of the city's automobile space. The refusal to use free market supply-and-demand pricing to clear the streets invites an entire criminal ecosystem to thrive on the takings. It is as if an endless buffet of free food is left out for vultures to swoop in to control, through intimidation, who can access the food. Fake free parking placards and fake diplomatic or disabled access placards (p. 45) result in massive abuse of parking (Chapter 3, "The Travails of New York's Top Parking Attendant"). Chapter 6 extends this discussion, and its title conveys its main point: "How to Use Parking for Money Laundering, Tax Evasion, and Theft." (p. 92). Chapter 7, "A Trip to the Heart of the Commercial Parking Industry," further examines the commercial parking industry profiting from the car-centric urban design and land use that forces people into no-win monopoly parking choices where scarcity is a lever of power or profit by some commercial parking (and some criminal) enterprises. Finally, Graber describes a partial solution: the market-based and transparent pricing of the SpotHero parking app (p. 120), which allows drivers to plan where they will park and for how much--without circling.

  4. Based on the simplistic belief that an overwhelming amount of cheap parking lines the road to prosperity, American cities destroyed buildings in their downtowns on a massive scale. The result was a maladaptive practice that emptied cities (pp. 56-47) and led to business decline. This mania for free parking worsened the cities' fate, even as the visual devastation of the policies was evident. As a result, cities today struggle for economic vitality and solvency while throwing away billions of dollars into the gutters at the curb and into barren asphalt fields producing very little (pp. 69-70).

  5. As free, underpriced, and ample parking destroyed the fun and diversity of cities, Joni Mitchell wrote and sang the pop song "Big Yellow Taxi" (1970), expressing the sad loss of a neighborhood mixed-use development ("a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot") with the rueful phrase, "They paved paradise" (p. 71). Fifty-three years later, this phrase forms the main title of Grabar's book because it memorializes the feeling of loss when cities destroy quirky or extraordinary features for a tedious goal: parking for all. This parking mania could not be more illogical, as pointed out, for example, on page 87: the geometry of providing parking for everyone who goes to Manhattan every day (if they would each go in a car alone) would require an underground parking garage that would extend five levels deep into the earth and extend over an area the size of Manhattan below 52nd St. While this volume of parking was never suggested, this logic persists on minor scales all over the world: destroy the city in order to save it.

  6. Chicago's big plan to privatize its parking meters in 2008 lost the city billions and billions of dollars and is a stark illustration of the depths of ignorance about the market value of parking. In 2008, Chicago city officials sold out their parking meter revenue for the next 75 years to Morgan Stanley for just over $1 billion. This deal was "a story of political incompetence and financial-industry profiteering.... it showed how little anyone--politicians, drivers, the press--had seriously considered the price of parking." (p. 143). The market value of this parking is easily quantifiable now: Morgan Stanley made back its $1 billion by 2019, 11 years after the purchase. The remainder--64 years of parking meter receipts--would be the gravy on top over the initial billion for the decades and decades to come. Unfortunately, this same ignorance of parking market prices continues to mire cities into untenable assumptions about the value of their land.

  7. Donald Shoup ( was recognized by the American Planning Association in 2013 with a National Excellence Award for his groundbreaking research in parking and has inspired generations of followers. His principal work, The High Cost of Free Parking (2005, 2011), forever changed how parking is seen in urban contexts. His later volume, Parking and the City (2018) provided a concise summary of his earlier book and introduced new contributing researchers. This empirical, scientific work set the stage for demonstration projects Graber covers (p. 164-170), showing the value of market-based pricing. Professor Shoup's retirement from UCLA in 2015 with a party atop a parking garage (p. 211) launched this continuing work--encouraging "thousands of parking apostles, from coast to coast... trying to turn the page on a century of American city building... undoing parking minimums and drumming up support for parking meters, shared parking, parking benefit districts, bus lanes, bike lanes, and all the rest." (p. 212). The Shoupistas Facebook group and the Parking Reform Network carry on with discussion, new ideas, and research.

  8. Minimum parking requirements have stunted architecture because of the heavy mandates to store automobiles on building sites. These mandates result in strange effects like "The Valley of High Parking Requirements" (p. 179), which makes it very difficult to build anything except a high-density environment (with massive parking structures) or low-density sprawl. In between these extremes, profitable business models and architecture can't gain ground, resulting in wastelands of sparsely-used space. Housing or commercial structures built before parking requirements went into effect became the "Forbidden City" and the focus of walking tours (p. 186-189) where people could marvel at buildings (now illegal to build) which serve human needs instead of the shape of cars.

  9. Professor Shoup's party atop a parking garage in 2015 also corresponds to the year that Grabar marks as the time when "parking minimums [the requirement that a development must have a minimum number of parking spaces in order to be approved] began to fall in city after city" (p. 213). After this fall, parking was still built, of course, as the goal of parking reform has never been to ban parking but give developers the freedom to choose the amount. So developers in Portland built apartments with no parking (p. 214). After having been burned by opening an urban store with too much parking, Target built urban stores with no parking (p. 215). Even Walmart warmed to free market principles and downsized some of its parking lots in response to market demand (p. 215).

  10. While parking spaces at the curb hide great monetary value, the tiny houses built for cars ("garages") lock up potential living spaces (renamed "accessory dwelling units"). Sometimes these garages are modified as back-door ways of providing housing, as it might be against the law in some jurisdictions to take away housing devoted to cars and give it to human beings (pp. 233-235).

  11. The covid-19 pandemic revealed other uses for city curb space besides storing cars: vendors, seating, restaurants, bike parking, informal parklets, and people-oriented spaces. This cars-to-people transformation was pioneered before the pandemic by Janette Sadik-Khan and described in her book with Seth Solomonow, Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution (2016), documenting the re-orientation of Times Square which set off many benefits, including business increase, traffic flow efficiency, and safety. The time of the pandemic dramatically revealed the value of space in cities worldwide (pp. 272-275).

At the book's end, Grabar sums up parking issues and muses on the future of cities. Unfortunately, Grabar briefly falls, on pages 278-279, for the idea that electric and/or autonomous vehicles somehow change the nature of space, time, geometry, and human experience. The telling phrase is "the shake-up in store if autonomous vehicles one day master the roadway" (p. 279). This kind of technofuturism eroded American cities much in the same way as the promise of ample parking. Technological futurism--through rhetoric, regulation, and routine--crowned the automobile as the apex of the American city as described by Peter D. Norton in his books: Fighting traffic: the dawn of the motor age in the American city (2008) and Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving (2021). Other historical analyses and cultural commentary have shown how an automobile-centric emphasis grew throughout the 20th century (Kay, 1997; Kunstler, 1993; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021). Autonomous and or/electric vehicles warp the nature of cities exactly like gasoline-powered cars do.

Grabar aptly summarizes the policy ideas he encountered on his journey (p. 280): Abolish parking minimums, unbundle car parking costs from rents of apartments, relax parking mandates to increase housing supplies, allow mixed uses to share parking, charge market rates for street parking, return revenue to neighborhoods, intelligently manage street space, allow buildings to be designed around people walking, ask drivers to pay for part of their external costs, and turn extra parking into something beneficial.

However, Grabar's final, surprising conclusion is in his last paragraph. He states: "Parking is access. But it is access of the most superficial sort, one that often papers over deeper inequities we're unwilling to address... a primitive kind of access that both overshadows and impedes a more profound and widely held right to the city." (p. 284). Thus, Grabar completes his book by opening a more extensive discussion: What does it mean to empower people--in all their diversity and abilities--to participate fully in a community? Unraveling the knot of parking in the city is just one small step towards answering that question.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©