As an environmental organisation, you would expect us to be against car parking for environmental reasons but the problem stems much deeper than that. It not only increases the number of cars pumping out asthma inducing and climate changing pollution in the city centre, but also has a significant impact on the local economy. If it hadn’t already been covered by the Birmingham Mobility Action Plan, then I could write about the amount of congestion on the roads and the number of hours wasted by people sitting behind a wheel, when they could be sitting behind their desk. I could also lament the £2bn that congestion costs the West Midlands economy.
Instead, I want to talk about urban density, creativity and synergy. From Mesopotamia to Silicon Valley, we can see that having lots of people in one place makes it vibrant and innovative. Indeed, this is the basis of the planning regulations in Portland, Oregon. In the 70’s, they decided to put a halt to urban sprawl, reduce surface level parking and introduce more cycling and walking facilities.
Portland politician Rex Burkholder said that these policies saved it from the same post-industrial fate as Detroit, which now has acres of empty properties and a chronic unemployment problem. Portland hasn’t just survived; it has now become one of the five best places to live in the world.
This is relevant to Birmingham Friends of the Earth’s building, The Warehouse, because it is based in Digbeth, a.k.a the car park of Birmingham. If we want Digbeth to remain a cheap place for businesses to start and grow whilst increasing its vibrancy, then we need to fill in the spaces.
A lot of the car parks exist because property developers bulldozed their buildings to avoid paying business rates and car parking makes more money than building. There is the potential for them to remain land banked car parks until property prices are high enough for them to build and recoup their pre-crash investments. Many of them are eyesores: rubble, litter and vermin strewn, giving a bad impression to all who visit Birmingham.
It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Nottingham City Council has introduced a car parking levy for car parks bigger than 11 spaces and uses the money to fund public transport and cycling infrastructure improvements. Those that need to drive as part of their job can afford to pay for the levy because of the amount of time they save through reduced congestion. Those who use their cars just to commute have access to improved public transport and cycling as a way of reducing costs.
Rather than leave the remaining land empty, a land value tax could be used to deter land banking, whilst breaking it up and selling it to smaller developers would encourage building.