Peoria is a central Illinois town of about 114,000 with a profile typical of many small Midwestern cities: pockets of poverty, reliance on one major employer, seen better days... But we're highlighting it today because it illustrates a common problem that most American cities have—a problem with parking.

Our friends at Urban3 did some serious analysis on Peoria last year and parking was a dominant theme. Josh McCarty at Urban3 explains, "The pavement is oppressive there. [...] They have, what I'd call, a Midwestern attitude about land: it's flat and it's endless." Urban renewal during the middle of the twentieth century led to the destruction of countless Peoria homes, businesses and neighborhoods—all sacrificed for the sake of pavement, whether in the form of highways or parking, as part of a concerted effort to remove certain populations from the city. Combine this with the white flight typical in the 1960s and 70s and the city was virtually hollowed out, with suburban style development blossoming on the edges, filled with ever more pavement.

How does that impact the overall economic productivity in the city? Is it feasible for a city to build this much parking and financially survive? How is the city working to combat this parking problem?

Let's set the scene. The graphic below illustrates the value per acre of land in Peoria County, IL. Gray land has no taxable value and green has very low value. Red and purple areas have the highest value—over $2 million per acre. Three guesses where downtown Peoria is...

This is the same story that we've seen in Lafayette, LA, Huntington, WV and Des Moines, IA. It's the story of most American cities. The highest value areas are those traditional downtowns with mixed-use developments and walkable streets, where residences, businesses and people are concentrated in productive clusters and prioritized over parking and roads. 

Why is that? Because land is used to its highest potential in this pattern of design and the utilities (i.e. roads, pipes, etc.) needed to service productive land are not very far apart and thus not very costly.

Compare this to the typical land use in areas surrounding downtown and on the suburban fringes of the city. In Peoria, it looks like this:

Can you spot the human?

Can you spot the human?

In fact, Peoria is so full of parking that the amount of land devoted to surface parking in the county actually surpasses the amount of land devoted to buildings. If you factor in another big form of pavement that dominates our cities—roads—the amount of buildings in Peoria makes up a mere half of all the paved areas in Peoria. 

That's a problem, because parking lots are worth very little. As you can see in the graphic above, the value per square mile of the buildings in Peoria is more than 24 times the value of surface parking in Peoria. Roads, meanwhile, contribute nothing to our municipal budgets and instead cost our cities money—in this case, to the tune of $250 million per square mile. (Before you start arguing that roads provide transportation value in our cities which isn't accounted for in this graphic, please read our series on the I-49 connector in Shreveport for an explanation on why this sort of "social value" is not enough.)

Let's take this down to the micro level. Why is it that parking offers so little value in our cities, yet takes up so much space. This illustration should help explain:

Because Peoria is the home of Caterpillar (a construction machine manufacturer), Josh at Urban3 used one of their machines to illustrate the size of a typical parking space. You can see that a mere three spaces of parking are close to the size of the average building. If a small business owner has to provide even one parking space, he's suddenly occupying 1.3 times the land he would've used, and this is land that will frequently sit empty.

Now let's take a look at the average value of a square foot of building space vs. parking space:

There's no contest; the building's value far surpasses the parking's value. Now multiply that across an entire county and it's no wonder Peoria has loads and loads of low-value areas.

To get a sense of how the dominance of parking impacts the street-by-street land use, here's an illustration. In this graphic, roads are highlighted in gray, parking is red and buildings are black.

That's quite a lot of paved space in comparison to productive space occupied by buildings. This snapshot is actually from downtown Peoria, which, if you recall, is the most valuable area in the city. So you can imagine that if this is what the downtown looks like, the rest of the city is a heck of a lot more imbalanced... 

But in case you can't imagine it, here's a comparative illustration showing several different areas of the county using the same color coding. The first four are on the suburban fringes of the city, the fifth is the snapshot of downtown shown above, and the last is a warehouse area just south of the downtown.

Even with all that parking, the downtown area is still nearly twice as valuable as the highest performing suburban area (Grand Prairie). Furthermore, note the peak value per acre in the downtown—$29,799,016—and compare that to the peak value per acre in any of the other neighborhoods. There is no real comparison.

Visually, it's also striking to see just how much of the suburban neighborhoods—particularly the three in the top row—are dominated by parking. They are veritable seas of red. Here's a breakdown of the percentage of each area covered by parking, buildings, roads and other uses:

We'll stress again that Peoria's downtown has a lot of parking, especially for a downtown, and yet, it still manages to scrape together a good amount of value with its productive buildings in stark comparison to the rest of the county.

Peoria is a particularly egregious example of excessive parking, but it's probably not terribly different from your own town. It's startling if you've never given it much thought, but next time you're at a mall or a big box store, take a look around. Recognize just how much land is occupied with pavement and how much is occupied with buildings. Heck, do it in your downtown. Then check out the site on Google Earth and the imbalance will become even more clear.

But Peoria isn't doomed. It may be turning a corner. The city removed parking minimum requirements for commercial developments two years ago, which means we should see a decline in new parking constructed. Not only that, but Peoria took the bold step of transforming all of their parking minimums into maximums, and city staff report that this was a welcome change in the community with little pushback from residents and business owners. That's good news indeed. (Visit this page to see a full map of parking minimums removed across the continent.)

And the fact that the city invited Urban3 to visit and analyze its land use shows a sincere awareness of the problems that Peoria's development pattern has created. The city wants to move in a better direction.

Josh McCarty at Urban3 believes that is entirely possible if Peoria can cultivate a sense of hope and pride:

Peoria is a place that’s been punched around and really kind of betrayed by its leaders for a long time. It’s something you see happen in Rust Belt cities a lot. People made mistakes and went down the wrong road, and people stop believing they can do anything great. A cloud of mediocrity sets in. [...] 

Towns that are down on their luck need to be able to reclaim their heritage—to see that they were great once and they can be great again.

We'll be talking more about the great history of Peoria in an article next week but for now, take in this meditation on parking and why it's so darn problematic for our cities. One thing's for sure: Your town can't be strong if it's covered in parking lots.

A big thanks to Josh McCarty and the team at Urban3 for their work on this analysis and graphics. All images copyright Urban3.

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