Can today’s car parks become tomorrow’s housing developments?

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
rows of cars in car park
Image credit: Shutterstock

Towns and cities across the UK are suffering from a shortage of affordable housing – but a redevelopment of urban car parks could hold the key to new homes for one million people.

Nearly 10,500 car parks in the UK’s urban centres could be freed up to potentially create 400,000 homes, Nick Whitten, associate director of UK Research, Residential at JLL believes.

“The changing use of cars in town and city centres means that space currently devoted to parking could become available for residential development,” he says.

Environment-led government policies such as park-and ride campaigns increasingly encourage people to choose public transport over driving in cities, while an OECD study projected that the uptake of driverless cars and taxis could lead to a 90 percent worldwide reduction in car ownership in coming decades. In London, where up to 75,000 new homes could be built on current car parks, congestion charging and cycle-sharing are just two aspects of a city-wide initiative seeking to reduce the number of cars in its crowded centre.

A shortfall of houses

Over the last two decades, a trend for urban living has led to rapid population growth in UK cities, where local authorities have been challenged to meet a rising demand for homes in areas where there typically is little available land.

“The need for new urban residential development sites has increased significantly, driven by young professionals, students and recent graduates choosing to live close to employment hubs and culture and entertainment quarters,” Whitten says.

The overall population in the UK has also been steadily increasing by about 400,000 people every year, and is forecast to reach 71 million by 2030. To accommodate this, the government recently raised the national housebuilding target from 240,000 to 300,000 homes per year – yet on average, the UK builds about half that.

A decrease in demand for urban parking would free up inner-city space for homes where they are most needed.

Converting the car parks

In the past, the UK’s housing shortage has been met by government initiatives such as office-to-residential “permitted development rights” (PDR) policies that allow developers to bypass standard planning permission when converting unused commercial buildings. Between 2013 and 2016, this resulted in just under 10,000 vacant offices being proposed for development, which would have resulted in 85,000 homes.

“A similar car park-to-residential PDR policy could prove as successful in enabling the creation of new residential development sites,” says Whitten.

Crucially, more than half the car parks identified by the JLL report lie under the control of local authorities, suggesting that the UK government has the power to enable around 200,000 homes to be built on urban car parks. The private sector operates car parks that could be developed into up to 145,000 homes, while rail operators control sites that could be turned into up to 25,000 homes.

With the vast majority of these car parks, residential developments can be built without sacrificing parking spaces. Similar conversions in urban locations include London’s Marylebone Square, built over the Moxon Street Car Park, its 115 parking spaces reprovisioned as 95 public spaces in a basement lot; and Kent’s Swanley Square, a 3.5 acre town square regeneration that created 340 homes and added 345 new car spaces to the original 200.

Homes out of warehouses, shops and stations

Across Europe, repurposing disused industrial and commercial facilities has been a common solution for cities dealing with urban growth.

In Paris, an urgent need for affordable housing in a densely built city has been met with plans to convert former government and state transport sites, including 376 public housing units in the old Ministry of Defence building.

To meet the demands of its growing population, the Amsterdam government is currently offering grants for store owners to convert their unused shop space into houses.

A wave of asylum seekers travelling to Europe has also inspired flexible housing concepts to house more people in given spaces. For example, in Berlin and Hannover, designers have proposed building homes on underutilized parking lots and roofs, and in abandoned stations and offices.

“There is no one single policy that will solve the housing crisis, and further innovations are needed to increase supply,” Whitten says. “One certainty is that demand for city centre living is expected to continue to increase.” For that, imaginative urban planning for a city’s lesser used spaces will be crucial.

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