How can city car parks help solve the housing crisis?

You too could live in the supermarket car park of your dreams! Terms and conditions apply. Image: BRE Group

There’s an SNL skit I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s called Target Commercial, and part of it is about a woman who drives to a large supermarket car park to sit there in her car and just have a bit of a… moment.

It’s obviously part of SNL’s post-election content – the litany of oh-dear-he’s-actually-going-to-be-president-what-do-we-joke-about-now sketches – but it says something more profound about car parks as spaces. They’re wastelands – barren places functioning as empty hollows into which you can offload worries, emotions, tantrums, rages, or...

Houses.

There’s no particular need to talk about the housing crisis in detail at this point. There is one. If you’ve read anything on this site before, you’ll know about it. If not, have a Google – it’s a real treat. There’s a reason this publication’s unofficial motto is build more bloody houses.

But the problem is there are all sorts of logistical barriers stopping more housing being built in cities. For one, the dastardly evil green belt stops the city spreading its tendrils into England’s green and pleasant land profoundly average patches of nothing that have been unduly blessed. Brownfill sites get snapped up by developers with their eyes on a sole prize – large pots of cash – and with affordable housing quotas so low (and the classification of affordable so high), these developments often just turn into havens for the wealthy; money-banks for investors.

Which is where car parks come in.

Look at that sweet, sweet car park and tell me you're not excited. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Forth runs software company imactivate, and is an Associate at ODI Leeds. One of his many handy data-visualisation projects looks at the space taken up by car parks in some of Britain’s biggest cities – Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham.

Within the bounds of Manchester’s inner ring road, 9 per cent of the total space is taken by parking – 357,000 square meters. By Forth’s calculations, thats enough space to build 3,570 homes at a density similar to London’s, 10,710 at a Paris-style density, or 17,850 if you want to bring a touch of Barcelona to the Northern Powerhouse.

Do the same thing with the space inside central Birmingham’s ring road, and you can build 3,440 London-esque homes. Sheffield’s equivalent gives you 1,640 homes; Leeds offers 3,540. Cover over all the car parks identified in Ford’s research, and boom – you could have as many as 1.2m homes built. Job done. Everyone can go home.

Only problem, of course, is that it’s not that simple. As much as most people hate car parks, we can’t just do away with them entirely. While it’s true that reducing the infrastructure for cars can, conversely, decrease congestion on the roads, and in cities like Cambridge – where parking is so impossible and/or expensive that it’s not even worth bothering – cycling and public transport become more popular, you can’t just get rid of them all.

For a start, the elderly and disabled are much better off in a world where you can get in a car, park it in a place, and then cover the short distance between the car park and your final destination yourself. Abolishing all car parks would be rather cruel to those people.

Not to mention that covering car parks over entirely would probably bring you back to square one as regards developers screwing everyone over for the sake of some shiny penthouses for nobody to live in.

Mmmm... shiny expensive things. Image: Jim Lindwood / Flickr. 

So, as Boris Johnson taught us, the trick is to have one’s cake and eat it.

With a typically gimmicky name, ZEDpods aim to be the solution. Erected on piles above car parks, they preserve both the original parking space whilst offering cheap and quick-to-build housing above. The dead air space above a parking bay becomes a home for someone to live in.

Cute (aka small), but affordable. Image: BRE Group.

An open-plan kitchen and living room (with an adjoining bathroom and balcony) takes up the space directly above the car parking space, whilst a mezzanine floor above provides a reasonable double bedroom.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

They can be built in a single terrace above one line of parking spaces, or in two facing lines with a communal space in the middle if the car park is bigger.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

There are double pods, too – with space for two bedrooms, a larger open-plan dining-living area, and a separate kitchen.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

And for the more ambitious-minded car-park owner, the homes can be stacked in two stories, though the construction of these involves resurfacing the car park.

Click to expand. Image: BRE Group.

Hypothetically speaking, a developer or – more preferably, a local council or housing authority – could pay a nominal fee to the owner of the car park space (with appropriate legal wranglings), or rent the air space on an annual basis, and built atop the car parks of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and so on.

And there’s no shortage of prime spots that could benefit from such a construction. My local large supermarket has a gargantuan car park just metres away from a prime zone two tube station with interchange – which is currently space going completely underused.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

North Greenwich – another zone two station with great connections via the Jubilee Line – has all sorts of underused parking space.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

There’s a splurge near Neasden.  

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

A muddle at Blackhorse Road.

Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

And that's just in London. There are many national rail stations up and down the country that have wasted car park space that (fairly obviously) sits right next to prime transport connectivity.

Obviously, there are caveats. There are always caveats. They are a plague on both our housing developments.

For one – who wants to live over a car park? It’s often noisy, highly likely to be smelly, and if it’s a supermarket car park then there’s the profoundly mundane rattle of shopping trolleys for most hours of the day.

The plans that BRE Group have offered for the ZEDpods have no clear disabled access either, and there is still the issue of dead space. Just as nobody wants to be alone in a dark car park at night – who wants to walk through dark covered car park at night to get to their front door? The potential of these spaces to become macabre crime hotspots is very real, and apparently ignored in BRE Group’s plans.


It’s clear the plans need a final finesse before they become the grand design to alleviate the housing crisis.

But for too long our car parks have gone unchallenged – leviathan wastelands obstructing the long arc of progress in our cities towards that utopian dream of, you know, people having somewhere to live that they can actually afford.

Even if the steps we can take towards remedying that are mere baby steps – it’s probably better than the nothing we’ve been doing for nigh-on a century.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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