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They paved paradise and put up a paradox

I just finished David Owen’s Green Metropolis, the book-length treatment of his 2004 article claiming that New York is the greenest city in America. A full review will have to wait until next week, but if you want a taste of the sort of twisted environmental logic that drives Owen batty, check out this USA Today article on “eco-friendly parking garages“:

> “Green” is the new black in planning, design and construction philosophy, and it’s no different for the parking industry. Parking designers are embracing practices such as using recycled materials, solar panels and energy-saving lighting and turning concrete rooftops into green surfaces to reduce storm-water runoff.

> “Any parking garage nowadays that we’re involved in from a design standpoint balances constraints of a budget with the desire and philosophy of a green building,” says Rich, whose firm designed the Blue Cross Blue Shield garage in downtown Detroit, one of the first parking garages to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council.

You can slap all the grassy roofs, solar panels, and bamboo banisters on a parking garage that you want: it will still be the farthest thing from green, because the environmental impact of garage comes not from its design and construction but from the system of transportation that it enables. One can only imagine the amount of cognitive dissonance the poor architects suffered from when trying to draft LEED standards for parking garages.

> Technology plays a big role: Pay-on-foot kiosks that eliminate fumbling for money at the exit booth, engines running; signs that alert drivers to levels with vacant spots to eliminate the need to circle; systems that allow drivers to pay for parking from their cellphones.

These sound less like green features than convenience features. And convenience is generally a fine thing, except that in this case it necessarily equates with an inducement to drive. How much idling time at the exit booth has to be reduced to negate the effect of even a single extra trip to the parking garage?

The kicker, of course, comes buried at the end:

> There are limits, however, to garages’ eco-consciousness.

> “No matter how green a parking structure is, it still means people are driving, and it’s driving that’s responsible for 30% to 40% of all greenhouse-gas emissions,” Ohland says.

Oh, is that all? But does that figure factor in the new energy-efficient lighting systems being used in our nation’s eco-garages?

There are ways, at least in theory, to make a greener garage, but they have little do with the design of the garage itself and everything to do with the system in which those garages are embedded. For example: getting rid of on-street parking in densely settled areas and charging a lot for garage parking can be a way of tilting transit choices away from cars. Pairing garage parking with an effective mass transit system might also help to move people out of their cars.

In both cases, the design of the garage itself is irrelevant. What matters is placing the garage in a context that makes other choices more convenient than driving. And this concept — inconveniencing drivers — is antithetical to notion of most garages, eco-friendly or otherwise. Take a look at the picture up top. Does that look like a neighborhood you want to walk around?

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