Unlocking the Grid: Or, How Provo’s Streets Encourage Parking Lots and Dullness

I’ve written before about the need to cultivate walkable streets, where pedestrians and bikers have route choices and aren’t forced to travel along the same paths as automobiles. This idea is sometimes described as making “human scale” cities, and this Planetizen article discusses, among many other things, the utility of streets with differing widths.

But as I look at Provo’s layout, I’m struck simply by how wasteful it ends up being. In other words, walkability aside, we’re throwing away a lot of valuable real estate.

That picture is an overhead view of the south Joaquin neighborhood (near my own home, actually) and is realitvely indicative of many parts of the city, particularly older and downtown areas. The picture shows an area about 0.3 by 0.3 miles, or, very roughly, 2.5 million square feet.

You may need to click on the picture to really see the detail, but what’s interesting is that the center of almost every block is filled with parking lots. Some blocks are certainly worse than others, but only one of them isn’t covered in large swaths of asphalt.

The number of long, narrow apartment complexes is also significant. Many of these apartment complexes were built quickly (i.e. cheaply) in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Many of them look more or less like this sad example near my house:

There’s much to be said in favor of this mosaic of apartments and homes. Jane Jacobs, for example, praises architectural diversity over and over again in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Apartment complexes also increase population density, which in turn improves walkability, diversity, sustainability, etc.

But the particular mixture of diversity and density in downtown Provo is problematic. For one, cheap apartments like the example above — and which can be seen all over in the grid picture — are widely hated by longer-term residents. They are perceived as lowing property values. They rarely attract long term residents themselves, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that they’re not architecturally “loveable,” or beautiful, in the sense that Kaid Benfield is discussing here.

The parking lots cause similar problems, inspiring hatred among residents and lowering property values. Even worse, they waste space, reduce density, and likely contribute to urban heating and runoff problems, among other things. Look at the grid above for any time at all and it’s quickly apparent that most of the space isn’t habitable, it’s simply paved. This is exactly what Chuck Marohn was talking about in this video when he mentioned wasteful infrastructure and “living beyond our means.”

So if we can agree that the ugly apartment complexes and parking lots in downtown neighborhoods are a problem, what caused the problem? And, looking to the future, how can we solve it?

As I look at that overhead view of the neighborhood, the answer seems obvious: the grid itself is to blame.

First, the grid leaves a considerable amount of land with no street access or frontage. Historic Provo neighborhoods used to be filled with large, luxurious lots, but as those lots were developed the rear sections became parking lots because other structures wouldn’t have been accessible in the middle of the block. (A block near my home actually does have an apartment complex in the center and it’s ugly, difficult to access, and despised by many in the neighborhood.)

The deep lots with limited street access also incentivized the construction of narrow apartment complexes — like the one above — that turn a blank, dull wall to the street. Think about it: a single homeowner could tear down her home and replace it with a long and narrow 10+ unit apartment complex without ever acquiring any additional land. That’s a lucrative and very tempting prospect. I could do that right now to my own house, and make a lot of money (though I won’t).

Many people gave in to that temptation — including many non-resident investors — creating a dull hodgepodge of ramshackle, low-value apartments. More thoughtful zoning laws could have mitigated the problem, but the reality is that the grid gave people relatively large parcels of land with very limited street access. Because people need to go to and from dwellings, limited street access is a problem.

But imagine if the grid was altered to have additional streets running down the center, as represented by the orange lines in the image below:

The streets bisecting the block above could be much narrower than those around the perimeter, but would still open up the center of the block for the development of single family homes, street-fronting condos, apartments or town homes.

The green boxes represent hypothetical new lots in this scenario. Note that some of the boxes are as big or bigger than several existing homes in this image, even though the homes running along the right side of the block are quite large. I mention this fact only to point out that this concept could be used to implement a variety of development types. I’d personally perfer relatively high density, high-quality town home-type development — say, brownstones — but that’s by no means the only approach that would work and ideally there would be a mix of structure types. If people preferred, this approach could also certainly be used to put in a lot of nice, single-family homes as well.

Some urban planning schools of thought dislike roads because they see them as inherently wasteful. But in this case, the addition of even a couple of simple, narrow roads would eliminate wasted parking lot space, increase density, and could potentially have an extremely positive impact on surrounding property values. In other words, more streets might actually mean less pavement.

This concept could also realistically allow Provo to develop pocket neighborhoods like the ones discussed in this post. And of course, narrow “human scale” streets cutting through the block would be a huge boon for walkability. This idea can, and should, be seriously considered with respect to downtown because, as Jacobs argues, short blocks and frequent streets offer real economic benefits.

I’ll get into Jacobs’ attitudes in more depth in a later post, but its worth noting that she devotes all of chapter 9 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the importance of small, frequent streets. Significantly, she mentions that

“… frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood.” 

Obviously this post is something of a thought experiment, and making this concept work would require overcoming many obstacles.

But unless our goal is a city filled with massive and frequent parking lots, the current grid is wasteful and counterproductive. And ultimately, the collective problems plaguing Provo’s built environment, or that of any city, don’t exist simply because people act foolishly or selfishly — in this case tearing down homes and putting in parking lots. Rather, foolish and self-interested action is symptomatic of a system that incentivizes such behavior. In Provo’s case, that system starts with problems in the grid.

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16 Comments

Filed under community, construction, Development, parking, urban

16 responses to “Unlocking the Grid: Or, How Provo’s Streets Encourage Parking Lots and Dullness

  1. Drew

    Great, great post. I like the grid, so from the beginning I was hooked. I also thought I’d find a “gotcha” moment in here, but the post is well thought out and supported.

    Very good point about the wasted interior space in the block, and the need to rectify that especially in the downtown. I completely agree that the neighborhoods closer to the downtown need to be more dense. Sadly, that may be a difficult argument to make in Provo (or most places in the West). Based on your explanation, I envision something not much bigger than an alleyway. However “alleys” sound ugly, so we’d have to call them “residential lanes.” 🙂 The biggest hurdle any planner faces when proposing high density (once they sell the residents on it) is the fire department. Firefighters want BIG, WIDE streets. Many of their arguments are based on the status quo and could be overcome with a progressive fire chief on your side.

    You, and Jacobs, are spot on. Smaller blocks make things more interesting for the pedestrian. They feel they’ve traveled further in the same amount of time due to more frequent breaks in the block. This only encourages them to walk more. It’s sort of a psychological trick on the pedestrian.

    One more argument for the townhouse/brownstone: neighborhoods function better with a diversity of residencies. If you loved your neighborhood, you could literally never have to leave. A young couple could rent a townhouse until the day they could buy a bigger home down the block for their growing family. Maybe one day, they are able to afford the large lot on the corner that has not been diced up over the years. They’ve always admired that house over the years anyway. Once the kids start to move out and they don’t want nor need such a big place, they can move around the corner to a small 2 bedroom house. Idealistic, I know, but the idea is that neighborhoods function better when there’s a mix of income, needs, and demographics. It’s the opposite theory of gated communities.

    Please keep writing.

  2. This is a good post and a good thought experiment. I have had many a conversations lately with my architect husband about the inefficiency of the grid. The positive seems to be that it is easy to find addresses, which positive is actually a big deal to people like me, who have trouble with that, but there are a lot of negatives and a lot of waste, like you mentioned. I am also for diversity of building/living spaces.

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  16. People forget that these beautiful family homes that have been here for decades have been converted into apartments. Our old 100 year old home was converted into four apartments, and I have seen others carved in to more apartments. Even if each family in these homes has just one car, that’s four cars! “Ugly” apartments have, in a number of cases, replaced older homes that were so old and not renovated as to render them unsafe. Ad to that a growing BYU campus. When these beautiful homes were built, people didn’t use cars like they do today, and BYU wan’t as big as it is today. If we don’t want these parking lots in residential, we need to stop carving the old homes in to too many apartments. But it’s too late. They’ve already been carved up. Landlords are making too much money. I don’t think Provo’s streets encourage parking lots and dullness. It has been a choice by the people of Provo through the years to allow these gorgeous old homes to turn into too many apartments. It’s a choice of landlords to not care about how their properties look. Many of the homes are rentals and the renters don’t want to go out and buy lawn mowers to take care of the yard, they don’t care to make changes or upgrades to the property because they won’t live there for long. Yes, we need walkable places and we need safety for everyone. I think new streets would be great. However, I think the starting point is to realize that the PEOPLE have let Provo get this way. Imagine if the homes were each only converted into TWO apartments instead of 2, 3, or even 8!! We’d show we cared more about preserving history and beauty rather than making money.

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