As the timeless sage Joni Mitchell sang, we don’t need to pave paradise to put up another parking lot. Together, we can build neighborhoods that make better use of land without adding more parking to our communities. In less than a hundred years, we’ve come to accept (frequently empty) parking lots as ubiquitous when in fact, cities all over the world have worked to make better use of public and shared space. Cars have their uses, but not at the expense of housing, open space, connectivity, and social and cultural programming. Walkable mixed-use communities have multiple benefits to embrace.

Why not more housing?

Many of our cities are experiencing a lack of housing. Most communities in this country are facing an acute housing shortage, causing a toll on the quality of life and opportunity. We can’t help but think about how we can do better with our land when we see underutilized parking lots baking in the sun or gathering snow and ice. With gentle density achieving up to 40 units per acre, missing middle housing has the opportunity to provide urgently needed housing while building neighborhoods that benefit communities in more ways than one. We have a choice about how we set up our cities. Imagine a world where we develop 40 units of housing on an acre of land instead of 120 more surface parking spots.

Why not more open space?

Philosophers have been known to opine that our choices define us. The same is true for the built environment – including how we use our finite and precious land as a shared resource. We can create a different mix of uses on the same plot. Instead of a vacant parking lot, imagine a space where there’s a well-lit communal park marked by climate-conducive vegetation, local art installations, play equipment, and benches and shade structures for comfortable gatherings. Or, if your neighborhood is one of many facing food desert challenges, imagine there’s flexible open space that can support pop-up urban farm stands and night markets. Open space has myriad benefits and uses, from supporting greenery, walkability, and community-building to the brass tacks of providing healthier air and more abundant light.

Why not more walkability and street connectivity?

A walkable neighborhood provides far more community and resident benefits than a parking lot. Urban design and landscaping that prioritizes walkability and connectivity stitch a neighborhood to the broader world while bringing people together. Storage of private vehicles brings nothing more to the table for residents or a community. Instead of a nearly empty parking lot, imagine a flexible design that allows for an intimate street grid, knitting the walkable, mixed-use community’s interior world together with the neighborhood’s external world. Here multimodal pathways for pedestrians, people on wheels, and shared vehicles, as necessary, allow for infrastructure to fit into a broader multifunctional landscape. There’s room for form to serve the holistic well-being of both residents and neighbors. Here form meets functions – plural.

Why not more programming?

You’ve probably heard the adage to buy clothes that serve more than one purpose. The way you can dress up or down a little black dress or a white Oxford shirt. We should approach our land use similarly. We can design communities that dedicate space for inflexible parking lots, or we can envision a world where we use the same land more creatively to provide adaptability. We can deploy land otherwise set aside for private parking instead for a farmer’s market, an outdoor community movie night, a career fair, or a meet-and-greet for new parents. A surface parking lot has one use, whereas flexible urban design allows for multipurpose open space to evolve its programming to meet resident and community needs over time. Where parking is necessary, each space can be shared by different uses at different times of day, week, or year.

Removing or reducing parking frees up space so you can do more with finite land.

Why not use space as creatively and flexibly as possible to provide more housing, valuable open space, walkability and street connectivity, and diverse community programming? Why not prioritize people over parking lots? Why not a community garden with vegetable beds instead of parking rows? Why not a community market with small business stalls instead of another empty rectangle delineated by painted white lines? Why not…more? Better? Different?

We believe there’s more opportunity with how we utilize land. We believe that together, we can reimagine how we design, build, and program space and operate businesses to create someplace better. On all levels. Not just environmentally when it comes to how we use and allocate resources, but as individuals and community members. How we reimagine, build, and use limited space can be a big part of the answer to living healthier, more fulfilled, and more connected lives. We must remember that it takes a village.