Photo: John CharlesExcessive surface parking creates virtual deserts of wasted space in cities because parking lots take up a disproportionate amount of room compared to the value they contributes to a city’s economy.  Some places have taken action to limit or reduce the amount of surface parking in their downtowns to create more walkable and people-friendly communities, as well as to encourage economic development.

Denver is one such city.  According to, slum clearance programs in the 1960’s and 70’s bulldozed many blighted properties.  The subsequently vacant land was turned into parking to accommodate the influx of downtown workers in the city’s new office towers in the 1970’s and 80’s.  By the 1990’s, the city realized that the proliferation of parking had become a problem.  Denver combated surface parking downtown by changing the zoning code so that these parking lots were no longer allowed by right.  This policy, as well as a general consensus that cultural attractions should be located downtown, has led to the redevelopment of lots that were once empty save for cars.

Other cities are now following in Denver’s footsteps to end the proliferation of surface parking.  Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was awarded first place in a contest for the biggest downtown “parking crater,” is putting a temporary moratorium on new surface parking lots until the city decides how best to control the parking situation.  While a tax structure that incentivized the demolition of buildings also played a role in converting property to parking lots, the parking moratorium is certainly a significant step toward reconfiguring land use in downtown Tulsa.

As more people choose to take public transportation, bike, or walk rather than drive, cities should reconsider the amount of downtown space that they allocate to surface parking.  By following the example of places like Denver and Tulsa and taking steps to reduce surface parking, more cities can improve the vibrancy and walkability of their downtowns.

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