Learning from community housing movements: Unlocking the social potential of parking spaces

Parking is a resource-intensive use of space. What if these resources could be freed up to boost social connection instead?

A shipping container has been converted into a sheltered parklet with colourful benches, tables and chairs inside. The parklet replaces a former parking spot on the street. The container is painted with a mural.
A street parking spot in front of Quayside Cohousing in North Vancouver has been transformed into a vibrant parklet. Photo: Meg Wray 

May 18, 2022

Parking is a resource-intensive feature in most North American buildings. What if these resources could be freed up to boost social connection instead?

Tomo House, a 12-unit cohousing building under construction in Vancouver, will only include four parking spaces. While this number may seem low, the reduced number of stalls frees up room for bike storage and other community spaces, which help promote active and sustainable travel—and social connection. Tomo residents will make the most of these four spots by organizing car sharing within the building. And because the stalls are intentionally located next to the courtyard, residents will be able to repurpose the parking spaces for social activities as needed, and as the community’s needs change over time.

Tomo’s parking reduction was made possible partly by the City’s flexible parking policies—in addition to the project team’s efforts in advocating for reduced parking. In 2019, Vancouver eliminated parking minimums downtown and reduced parking requirements in other neighbourhoods, provided that a building is located near to transit, and offers features including car sharing, free transit passes, or bicycle storage facilities. By meeting these conditions, Tomo House is allowed to repurpose what might have been parking spots into amenity rooms and other features that help residents connect, while meeting their daily needs. 

Why reduce parking space?

The construction of private, underground parking can cost upwards of $65,000 to $70,000 per stall. And, from an architectural standpoint, fitting the required number of parking stalls places huge constraints on the overall layout of the building. Yet, a 2019 study by Metro Vancouver found that there is between a 25 to 42 percent oversupply of parking stalls across all types of residential buildings. Eliminating underused parking spaces at the design stage is a crucial strategy in the face of an urgent housing and affordability crisis.

Beyond just reducing parking requirements, a growing number of municipalities across Canada are thinking of eliminating parking minimums entirely for new developments. Vancouver is currently considering an “open-option parking” system, which would make on-site parking optional in all new buildings.

By reducing the number of parking stalls in a building, developers can free up resources in the budget and space for other types of common amenities. Reduced parking requirements also allow for investment into spaces that support cyclists, such as bike storage rooms that accommodate cargo bikes or mobility scooters and are easily accessible from the street. 

Text: In the average multi-unit building in Vancouver, 35-42% of parking spaces are underused.

Graphic: 10 parking spots, 6 are filled, 4 are empty.

Text: Cost per space: up to $70,000. Area required per space: 13.75 sqm

As more and more cities look to eliminate or reduce parking minimums, building developers can look to examples from co-op and cohousing communities to learn how to maximize parking space for other uses—particularly ones that support social connection. This article outlines four strategies to increase the social potential of parking and bicycle infrastructure in multi-unit buildings, drawing from our research and interviews with members of six different co-op and cohousing buildings. 

This article is Part 4 of a four-part series on learning from community housing movements. You can read the series introduction here. Part 2 examines social lobbies, while Part 3 dives into social corridors.

Design strategy 1: Reallocate parking space to boost social connectedness 

Principles: Evolution, fruition, co-location

Parking is a resource-intensive use of precious space. Depending on your city’s requirements, reducing the number of parking spaces at the design stage can be an effective strategy to gain area for other functions that boost social connectedness. 

Parkades generally fulfill a variety of functions, including garbage and recycling, parking, storage, and bicycle facilities. A key way to maximize the social potential of these spaces is to create “mobility nooks” that go above and beyond standard parkade programming. Mobility nooks describe spaces originally designed for parking that are enhanced with design elements to foster social interaction. In particular, designers can think about the location of amenities in relation to one another, and allowing different activities to take place in the same area of the building, which provides opportunities for different residents to interact with each other.

Putting this strategy into action:

  • Where policies allow for it, reduce the number of parking spaces in the overall building design.
  • Include social spaces underground in the parkade, such as wood-working shops, bike maintenance areas, an art studio, or a music room.
  • In a mobility nook, provide space for four to eight people to carry out activities at the same time (ideally, a space of 4 metres by 6 metres). 
  • Co-locate uses that can share infrastructure. For instance, a large sink and floor drain can be used for both pet and bike washing. 

Examples: 

At Little Mountain Cohousing, the community minimized the number of parking spots in the building to free up budget and space for additional common areas, such as a music room. Even with the reduction of parking stalls, there is no shortage of spaces.

At Quayside Cohousing, residents have adapted parking spots to serve other purposes since the building was constructed. They have converted two parking spaces into a gray water room, and another two spaces into an elaborate, community-organized recycling room. Residents work together to recycle everything, and take responsibility for emptying the bins. 

At Driftwood Cohousing, the building designers and residents intentionally chose to co-locate uses in the parkade. They added a workshop near to the bike storage, which has become an important social space where residents exchange knowledge about bike repairs with each other.

Design strategy 2: Leverage pathways to and from the parkade to increase opportunities for social interaction

Principles: Transition, co-location

Multi-unit building residents likely store their car or bicycle in the parkade. To travel to and from the parkade, residents typically take an elevator, which doesn’t create much potential for spontaneous meetings between neighbours. To create the possibility of a more pleasant commute, consider designing the building so that residents walk through a courtyard or lobby in order to access their vehicle from their unit. 

Putting this strategy into action: 

  • Consider the pathways that people will typically walk through to reach different building spaces—for example, private units, garbage and recycling, or parking—and how opportunities for social interaction along these routes can be enhanced through intentional design. 
  • To ensure that people feel safe, at ease, and encouraged to chat with neighbours in the parkade, prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety. Ensure that stairwell and elevator entrances are easy to access, and consider adding a separated pedestrian walking path with railing along the parkade exit ramp. 

Examples: 

At False Creek Co-op, parking is located adjacent to the courtyard. When residents park their car or bike and exit the parking area, they arrive in the courtyard and travel along the external walkways to access their unit. Many social interactions occur between neighbours along the route from the parking area to individual units.

Photo showing the parking area at False Creek Co-op, which is located adjacent to the exterior walkway. People walk from the parking, along the walkway and through semi-private patio spaces in order to access their units.
The layout of False Creek Co-op encourages residents to stop and chat on their way to and from their vehicle. Photo: Richard Evans

Design strategy 3: Enhance parking spaces after move-in 

Principles: Evolution, fruition, integration

Residents’ mobility needs can change over time, making it important for the community to be able to repurpose parking spaces as needed, whether at-grade or underground. At-grade parking is easiest to repurpose, but underground parkades present social opportunities as well. When repurposing occurs in an underground parkade, residents need to consider safety from vehicles as well as air quality, lighting, and wayfinding—elements that should be considered in the design of any parkade. 

Putting this strategy into action: 

  • Locate at-grade parking spots near outdoor social spaces, such as a courtyard, so that they can serve as spillover space for activities. 
  • Consider adding shelves or other storage for paint, tools, and toys that can be used to activate the parkade.
  • Create opportunities for interactive art and murals in parking areas. 
  • Use lighting, colour, and graphics to enhance the wayfinding and accessibility of parking for people of all ages and abilities. 

Examples: 

In front of the Quayside Cohousing building, residents opted to replace one of the street parking spots in front of the building with a parklet. The cohousing community’s strong presence on the street front and its minimal parking needs made this location ideal for a parklet. 

Design strategy 4: Work together to manage parking spaces 

Principles: Evolution, fruition 

In many cohousing projects, parking spots are decoupled from individual units, which allows for greater flexibility in terms of vehicle use and storage. For instance, many cohousing and co-op buildings purchase memberships in existing carshare programs or design their own internal car sharing model. Car sharing helps reduce household expenses, decreases the overall need for parking, and creates lines of communication between residents as they coordinate the sharing of resources. Working together to share resources helps neighbours build trust and form connections with each other. 

Putting this strategy into action: 

  • Decouple the ownership of units from the ownership of parking stalls.
  • Allow residents to trade parking stalls over time as their needs change, whether due to having a baby, getting a larger vehicle, or otherwise. 
  • Consider scheduling times for residents to use the parkdade during off hours for games such as street hockey, darts, or chalk drawings. 

Examples: 

At Driftwood Cohousing, Quayside Cohousing, Little Mountain Cohousing, and Tomo House, parking spaces are decoupled from units. Since these buildings are operated by cohousing groups, residents self-manage the allocation of parking stalls based on need. For instance, some residents at Little Mountain use parking stalls to store cargo bikes and watercraft. 

At Driftwood and Quayside Cohousing, kids have also repurposed the parkade for activities such as scootering, learning to ride a bike, and hockey. The kids help take ownership over the space by providing input on rules for using the parkade safely, such as agreeing that an adult must always be present. 

Two bikes and two canoes are being stored all within one car parking space.
At Little Mountain Cohousing, residents use parking spaces for alternative uses. Different municipalities have varying rules about use of parking areas.

Key takeaways

Cohousing and co-op housing communities build flexibility into their parking infrastructure, making sure that design decisions maximize opportunities for meeting residents’ evolving needs. Parking for cars and bicycles is crucial to the functionality of co-op and cohousing buildings. However, parkades can satisfy more than just a building’s mobility needs. 

The truth is, we can’t afford to keep building so much unused parking in new residential buildings. Thinking about how parking spaces are designed at a deeper level reveals opportunities for social connection, whether by replacing parking spaces with another amenity or by enhancing bike parking with a mobility nook. 

Share your examples with us!

Have you lived in a multi-unit building with social mobility infrastructure? Share your examples with us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn!

This series is part of a CMHC-funded demonstrations project, in which Happy Cities will conduct a post-occupancy study of Tomo House. For more details on this research, please visit the project website. 

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