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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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.