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Guest Blog: Not In My Car Park

By Grant Leggett, head of Boyer London

Across the country, communities are at war over car parking, with those who depend on the car for their day-to-day existence on one hand, and those who believe we have passed ‘peak car’ and are looking towards ‘active’ travel as a sustainable alternative.

In London, the Mayor and Transport for London (TfL) want to build homes on car parks located at several of outer London’s underground stations. Win-win: tackle the desperate need for homes while at the same time ridding us of large expanses of tarmac that encourage car use. As London Plan principles go this has slam-dunk written all over it.

But the users of those car parks do not agree – their opposition to such proposals has ground them to a halt in several places and led to an embarrassing impasse. And those people are very cross. In some cases they have built their lives around their ability to park at these suburban tube station car parks and they fear that is being ripped away from them. They are aghast that the planning authorities have no sympathy for them in this in regard and puzzled why this impact on their amenity is not being considered.

As ever there are two sides to this war, and I have sympathy for both. The planning professional side of me agrees that the private motor car creates a great many problems, not only in terms of carbon emissions and air quality – you know, the sorts of things that can destroy the planet or literally kill people – but also in that they unduly dominate the design and quality of our entire townscape. The need for cars and their parking spaces gobble up space on our residential streets and in our town centres and in new developments that could be much better put to use for amenity. I therefore support all the London Plan’s policies that seek to reduce car usage, from the policies that seek to repurpose large-format retail stores for higher-density and less car-hungry development, and its policies that seek car-free housing in all but the least-accessible areas. But only to a point.

On the other side, though, I am a parent that lives in the suburbs. I take the train (or once in a blue moon when it’s not too cold or rainy and I’m not feeling a bit tired, cycle) to work. But on the weekends my car is our family’s saviour. We have clubs to take the kids too. I play golf. We enjoy the outdoors (if you count National Trust Membership as outdoorsy). And we just like a change of scene from time to time. So we drive.

I have been told many times – usually by local authority transport officers – that it is possible to have a perfectly functional life living in Zone 3 without a car; to cycle everywhere including to and from rugby practice on a January day, or to take the bus a triathlon with my bike and wetsuit stowed in my backpack. But I’m not buying it. Life without our family car would not be much of a life, or would at least be wildly different and less rich and full of variety than it is now.

The London Plan and TfL’s plans to build housing on car parks are blunt instruments that are trying to drive (no pun intended) everyone towards a car-free or at least less car-dependent lifestyle. It is forcing people to change, which is never a good idea. People don’t like change and people – especially British people – don’t like being told what to do. They need to come around to an idea more gradually, such that it becomes their choice. And it’s going to take some serious time before the availability, reliability and choice afforded by public transport or other sustainable transport modes such as autonomous taxis take over and people decide to sell their cars, or at least not use them to drive to a train station car park.

But where does that leave us now? I think we should be looking at whether the parking – or at least a proportion of it – could be re-provided in the development, but its design future-proofed such that it can be re-purposed in future for other uses.

Take Blenheim Strategic Partners’ ‘parking barns’ – a pioneering approach to parking and community development which has been designed by Pollard Thomas Edwards for the Hill Rise development of Passivhauses which goes before West Oxfordshire District Council’s planning committee in spring 2022.

The invention benefits the environment by protecting the street scene, while also providing a community hub which can adapt over time. The barns are high quality, flexible spaces which serve, initially, as both car storage, flexible community spaces and include an e-commerce collection point, e-bike hire, amongst other useful community services. The design evolves as the community’s needs change. Initially parking barns (complete with electric chargers and space for car club use) are used primarily for car storage, but as transport trends move away from private car ownership, the spaces will evolve too – gradually evolving to accommodate new uses such as a Library of Things (equipment hire) and storage for electric bicycles and scooters. Ultimately the barns will be solely for community use, providing an excellent venue as a home-working hub and for pop-up events, markets and community meetings.

In Blenheim Strategic Partners’ proposed scheme, parking barns will provide supplementary parking for residents in a series of courtyards distributed along the primary street. Each courtyard cluster is small in scale, bound by low mortared limestone walls and integrating infiltration swales, structural planting and street trees. Each is strategically positioned on the green links throughout the development, connecting to other community facilities including another innovation, the Green Living Room.

The future of urban design could be transformed by ideas such as this which work with, not against, human nature – putting an end to the wars and creating a win-win situation for all.

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