Blog: Mark Nickita

Mark Nickita is the cofounder of the award-winning multi-disciplinary design firm Archive Design Studio. A resident of Birmingham, Mark was selected by Crain's Detroit as one of its 40 under 40 business leaders, is the winner of several architectural & urban design awards and sits on the Birmingham Planning Board. Mark will be writing about Metro Detroit's need for livable, workable, and walkable urban neighborhoods.

Post 4: Way Too Many Parking Spots, And Other Inefficiencies

The "Great Recession" that engulfed the country over the last couple of years has injected a new required way of thinking into our municipalities.  Cities, villages, townships, counties, and states have all been forced to look themselves in the mirror and ask, "How can we move into the future in a very different, efficient, and effective manner?"  There are many areas of a municipal budget that can be evaluated for economic efficiencies.  They include services such as police, fire, waste management, public works, building department, inspection, clerical, maintenance, and planning, just to name a few.  A significant amount of these costs are related to staffing, or the people who are required to make a city function on a daily basis.  Costs can vary depending on the amount of employees, how much they get paid, what benefits they have, whether they are unionized, etc.  Streamlining a municipal budget can be achieved by altering any one of these elements or by outsourcing or privatizing. 

As we are currently witnessing, coming from the leaders in Lansing, addressing these items in one way or another is often difficult, politically charged and unpopular.  Change is always challenging regardless of whom it affects and how deeply.  However, there are other significant aspects of government costs that are often overlooked and, if thoroughly analyzed, could assist in balancing these illusive budgets.  Every year, cities, counties and states spend enormous amounts of tax dollars on physical infrastructure and facilities. These are the assets of a municipality, which include, parks, buildings, streets, parking lots and other properties.  Maximizing the efficiencies of a cities' physical assets can have an impact on its bottom line, often leading to an increase in the quality of its built form.

Considering the current challenging economic environment, most building and land owners in the private sector are examining their assets and procedures to uncover new ways of working.  Municipalities need to aggressively follow their lead and identify maximum efficiencies by rethinking their own properties.  Every square foot of property comes with a cost. Buildings needs constant observation, maintenance, and enhancements, and interior spaces need to be conditioned for winter and summer seasons.  Land areas need to be maintained, green space and landscaping requires watering, cutting and pruning while paved areas need to be patched, sealed, plowed in the winter and illuminated every evening (often when no one is using them).  All of this comes at a high cost, both in terms of money as well as energy/resources.

Where is the Waste?

In general, municipalities are chock full of areas to rethink.  Land use is one, as most communities own large and small parcels of land, many of which are unproductive and cost money to maintain.   A detailed analysis of all land owned by the municipality should be conducted to establish an inventory.  With a review of future planning needs, it can be determined as to how these parcels will benefit the community in time.  If there are no foreseeable uses of the property, then selling it would make sense, resulting in a revenue gain to the city and the cost savings of upkeep.  

Streets are also a considerable expense to governmental bodies and their maintenance can be one of the largest portions of an annual budget.  Nationally, a complete rethinking of our street infrastructure is in order.   For example, streets are often wider than they need to be.  Typically, they have a singular function – to move cars, which is generally inefficient.  When it comes time to rebuild a street, narrowing them can achieve many positive results, including slowing traffic and making adjacent areas more walkable.  Also, smaller streets equate to less concrete or asphalt, less maintenance, potholes to fill and snow plowing. Additionally, a city should have a goal to provide an environment that encourages walking, riding a bike, taking transit and minimizing auto dependency when developing its street system.  As for police intervention, a slower street can lead to less need for speed patrolling and limited car crashes.  In summary, a Complete Street that is an appropriate width accommodates pedestrians, bicycles and transit, results in maximizing the infrastructure while creating a valuable asset – more bang for the buck.

Codes and zoning can be valuable tools in creating maximum efficiencies for cities. Antiquated ordinances need to be re-examined for increased parking requirements, densities, mixes of uses and other physical guidelines.  These changes can result in the placement of buildings within closer proximities, which make land use efficiencies easier to achieve. Municipalities can assist in guiding private development to be more efficient and, more importantly, can use these tools to lead by example with their own policies. 

Parking is a good example as lots are typically more expansive than they need to be and municipal parking requirements have traditionally been far too generous. In many cities, commercial spaces require huge amounts of parking that often sit empty 360 days a year and, if lucky, are used only for a few days during the Christmas season.  In the summer of 2010, the first nationwide count of parking spots was conducted by civil engineers from the University of California, Berkeley. Their findings were that there are over three parking spaces for every car and truck in the U.S., or some 800 million spots.  In most cities, zoning ordinances are requiring excessive parking allotments for public and private uses, many far beyond what is actually needed. To address this, current strategies like shared parking allow for less space requirements when uses take places during different times of the day. These concepts need to be embraced and applied to zoning requirements in order to diminish the excess use of land and ultimately save costs.

Other areas to reconsider include park and green spaces in cities, which are usually considered an asset.  However, green spaces don't always significantly contribute to the quality of the community; often times they can be detrimental.  It is important to keep in mind that the quality of green space should be a priority rather than simply the amount of space.  A small pocket park in the right location can be an overwhelmingly positive asset to a city, drawing thousands of users in a year. Conversely, a large green space that is the wrong size and in an inappropriate location can be a burden with little value for users.

Buildings can also be a source of great inefficiencies and financial liabilities as they are often too big for their intended uses and can include multiple spaces that are often left empty. To remedy this issue, municipalities should move to identify under-producing buildings and consider selling them as one option. Another approach is to explore potential consolidation – the joining of facilities, equipment and infrastructure. This is a logical approach for inefficiently used structures and equipment, and is being strongly encouraged by the government in Lansing.  A thoughtful study to join the use of facilities can be a positive move for the cities involved.

These are only some of the ways in which municipalities can become more efficient and help to meet their budget requirements. Moving forward, there are many ways to address outdated and costly ways of working, while increasing the quality of the environment for which we live.  There is a growing need to evaluate the efficiencies of all space, both with buildings and their internal square footage as well as overall land and park areas.  We should question the way these spaces are being used with a view toward the future.  With a critical eye, we can examine past uses, identify significant functional changes and look for opportunities to carve a new path to a different way of working.  A spatial and land use audit, done by an architect, urban planner or other building design professional can provide additional insight, resulting in the determination of strategies that can be applied to become a more effective governmental body.

Most of these issues are also applicable to institutions as well and private land holders.  Whether in a hospital complex, cultural institution, university, large corporation, or in a shopping center, the need for efficiency is an increasingly important issue and can help to balance a budget, or more importantly keep an organization solvent.