10 Minute Neighborhoods Will Take a Little More Time

The idea is simple. People who live close – within a 10 minute walk – to grocery stores, transit lines, parks, and other essential services, can more easily minimize environmental impacts and maximize a healthy lifestyle. Making choices that benefit one’s self and society at large should be a real option, not a constant battle against the mainstream. It seems only natural that the way we construct urban environments should conform to the principle of practical proximity.

Since the 1990s, city zoning laws in Portland have sought to promote 10 minute neighborhoods by offering developers the opportunity to construct residential buildings designed for car-free living. According to this policy, residential complexes built near major transit lines are not required to provide on-site parking. This makes a lot of sense for the resident committed to lowering his or her impact, and helps reduce the cost of the building for developers. People who prefer to make use of the city’s ever expanding public transit system or join in the growing culture of bicycle commuting save a lot of money living in apartment communities built with their values in mind. At the same time, developers can reduce the overall cost of construction by focusing design on the much less expensive amenities attractive to mass transit riders and cyclists. So why isn’t everybody happy?

Portland’s reputation as an attractive place to live and the city’s progressively-minded urban growth policy may be contributing to escalating tension among citizens.

In the last few years many have found ample reason to declare Portland a great place to live. It’s a scenic city surrounded by forests and mountains and nearby to every imaginable outdoor activity, a haven for food enthusiasts and musicians, and a center for liberal politics. These reports have not gone unnoticed – the city’s population continues to steadily increase. Meanwhile, Portland’s pro-density urban development policy means that this growing population competes for housing in a limited area. Accordingly, vacancy rates are at an all-time low.

The global financial crisis that erupted in 2008 led developers to put all construction on hold. Recently, with the economic turnaround, climbing rent prices, and continuing in-migration of civic-minded and creative young people, developers have taken advantage of this opportunity and launched a wave of new apartment building construction. Of 40 apartment building projects filed in the last 18 months, 25 offer no parking. For some communities, this wave feels like a tsunami.

Neighbors of new parking-free buildings have voiced concern, to say the least. Protests against buildings without parking have erupted in neighborhood association meetings all over the city. Members of impacted areas argue that rather than attracting only those dedicated to alternative forms of transit, these buildings will house people who own cars and have no place to put them. No place, that is, other than already crowded street parking.

Neighborhood concerns over parking displacement illustrate the gap between design and implementation. Here, a great idea to improve the practicality of using lower-impact transit comes under the test of real life. Neighbors in these areas have a valid concern about the unforeseen consequences that such buildings pose. Even if only a portion of the building’s future residents don’t adhere to a car-free lifestyle, the impact on those around these buildings could lead to anything from everyday annoyances to a community divide. Fortunately, there are a range of viable solutions.

Portland’s Willamette Week suggests that one option might be to create zone parking districts in affected areas, with already established residents receiving a free permit. This would effectively put the burden of parking costs squarely on apartment residents who own cars rather than building residents as a whole. It might also help contribute to neighborhood development funds. Another idea is to encourage buildings without parking to work closely with car sharing services, like Flexcar and car2go, which offer an affordable, low impact way to gain access to a car when needed. Alternate approaches recommend phasing in parking-free housing more slowly by limiting the number of permits for such housing in each neighborhood per year. Another solution, used for apartments downtown in other cities (e.g Bloomington, IN) is to require residents to sign a charter that they will not own a car while living there.

Embracing residents with varied lifestyles offers another route to solutions. Some have suggested that developers build limited parking spaces while the city continues to focus on making alternative forms of transit more practical. The buildings under question tend to offer smaller living spaces, like studio and one bedroom apartments, which makes them attractive for singles on a limited budget. The smaller the space, the more likely it is that the occupant will adopt the encouraged alternative forms of transit, especially when the building offers good bike parking. In contrast, bigger apartments might house people with a greater income, or even families, whose needs sometimes make alternatives less practical. So another approach to avoiding parking feuds might be to attach these limited parking spaces to larger apartments, or to charge an additional monthly fee to whoever might need them. This approach offers the additional benefit of encouraging a building filled with a more diverse composition of residents.

Whatever the solution, one lesson rings irrefutably true: achieving the 10 minute neighborhood is bound to cause growing pains. Cities pushing the edge of urban design are important not just because they make ideals reality, but because they show the uneven and contested process of implementing innovations to our built environment.

Portland’s emergence as a national media darling couldn’t have come at a better time. City planners all over can easily learn from the way the city irons out the kinks of a good idea.