Parking Houses and Houselets: Critical Followups

My post on “Parking Houses” from earlier this week got some great responses from people including Shannon Spanhake of the SF Mayor’s Office of Innovation, Steven Price of Urban Advantage, and Allison Arieff of SPUR (San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association) and contributing architecture editor at the New York Times; also Lloyd Alter of Treehugger, and Joy Ceilidh Dunlap of The Liberated Kitchen, Portland.

Allison sent me some questions, and I answered them in a sort of follow-up essay. I and some of the quotes were featured in her New York Times feature, “How Small Is Too Small?” (October 19, 2012). The story opens:

Most people see a parking space and promptly back up into it; Tim McCormick sees one and thinks, “I could live here.”

Below are Allison’s questions and my full answers (from email interview):

> Why a parking space? Why not a small lot somewhere?
It could be done on a small lot, or as many units on a large lot — for example, if a corporate campus or convention center wanted to add accommodations, like Snoozebox popup hotels in the UK.
However, what’s particularly intriguing to me about parking spaces is that, unlike land lots which are expensive, scarce, irregular, and owned, parking spaces are standardized, ubiquitous, easily accessible, and available practically for free.

Andrew Maynard’s Corb 2.0 housing

In dimensions, I was struck by the fact that standard parking spaces are around the same as standard shipping containers, so a 10′ container can drop right on one space or a 20′ (1 TEU) container footprint onto 2 spaces. There’s of course a whole existing infrastructure to very efficiently handle every aspect of picking up, storing, shipping, delivering such units to street sites.

What’s powerful to me is the potential great efficiency and adaptiveness of deploying housing and other facilities this way.  Rather than just thinking of a typical 800 square-ft apartment space vs. an 80- or 160 square foot houselet space, what’s more relevant is to consider a scenario where you could easily buy or rent one of these units as you would a small car, tailor and decorate it to your liking, month-by-month move it to a spot close to where your current work or project or wintering spot is, put it in storage when you don’t need it, and avoid much of the huge risk, cost, and hassle of fixed housing.

I’m suggesting that this alternate scenario could make a lot of sense to many people who currently struggle with the housing system, such as new arrivals to the city, recent college grads trying to start careers, single people generally, low-income, freelance & contract/project-based workers, people who may wish to spend some nights in the city instead of commuting to a distant home, etc.

> Have you approached this thru official channels and if so what > has the response been?

well, I’ve just sprung into action with this project, but so far my sense is that officials and most everybody else probably see it as unhinged raving or some kind of Burning Man gypsy agitprop. But I find this creates an interesting communication problem as part of the project — how to get people to even think about or take seriously this apparently preposterous and alien idea.

However, I did bounce it off the good people at the SF Mayor’s Office of Innovation, and Shannon Spanhake nicely retweeted my article and proposed the name “Houselet” which I think is perfect. I’m trying to get Shannon and Jay Nath (director of the office) to entertain the idea of doing a houselet design contest, then giving me and the winners parking spaces to live in for a year as the prize.

I say, quite honestly, that at the moment this is my “dream house.”So I’m trying out different angles with the agitprop. One is to observe, as Shoup does in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” that currently cities are giving away all this precious public space to support car use, even though this runs counter to just about every smart-urbanist goal; and meanwhile we have pressing issues such as inadequate/inflexible housing supply, and creating walkable environments, which we might apply this resource to. Arguably, what’s preposterous is to still be exclusively privileging street parking, in a place like San Francisco that’s crying out with other needs.

Second, I propose an experiment: what if we just took away the constraints that current forbid alternate uses of this streetside space, and let people propose what they’d do with it and how much they’d pay? Let developers, housing advocates, cranks, armchair urbanists like me, and anyone else examine housing prices, rents, what facilities are needed, costs to make these modular units, etc., and see what they’d like to propose. If it turns out that in many places, people would value other uses more highly than parking, then we can ask, why should the city forbid that?

Sure, people want and need to park, but they can express that need through willingness to pay, and the market could provision parking accordingly.  People also urgently need housing, small office/work spaces, storefronts to start businesses, etc., why would we just totally rule out even considering these uses for those spaces? In that respect, I feel that I’m suggesting, with a certain deliberate naivete, a sensible radicalism.

Really, I wish to ask people, how well is this system working for you, if you’re not in the lucky portion of people with a lot of income, home equity, or good stabilized rent?  If you’re trying to move to the city, or grow a company, or start a family, the housing situation is a colossal problem. The mayor wants San Francisco to be the world capital of innovation, but most innovators can’t afford to move there, and the current tech boom is already helping to drive housing prices sky-high, which chokes the city’s creative potential, let alone its everyday residents’ needs.

> How do you account for the resistance not just to something really
> unconventional like your Houselet idea but the presumably less
> controversial idea of living in a small space.

>  People begin to get flustered when you get into the triple digits
> (say 400, 300, 200 square feet). Why do you think that’s so?

Clearly housing is a deep taproot into people’s emotions, psyches, cultural expectations and aspirations, and economic status. It’s so elemental and deeply rooted that people are often extraordinarily conservative in their notions of what appropriate housing is — even tech titans are often that way, as you noted in your recent article. I believe that, as Bachelard argued in The Poetics of Space, our notions of comfort and spatial relation are rooted in deep cultural and early-life experience, which continues to shape how we perceive and inhabit space life-long.

Americans, compared to most people in the world, tend to be born into and inhabit huge amounts of space, life-long. I have a certain continual sense of disjunction with that, perhaps because I grew up in smaller spaces in London — a 6’x8′ bedroom in a there-typical 1000 sq. ft. semi-detached family home — and I recall that when I came to the U.S. at age 10, houses seemed just enormous, as did many things.

Much later in New York, I lived in various small apartments, and for some time shared a 500 sq-ft apartment with my girlfriend; many Americans would consider this implausible, but she observed it was vastly spacious compared to the 100 sq. foot apartment she shared with 5 family members growing up in Guangzhou. (250 sq. ft/person vs. 15). I speculate that there’s a geopolitical dimension to this: that Americans’ expansive inhabitation of space relates to the nation’s long history of territorial expansion, and more recently, global imperium. I think that many of the ways Americans are characterized by foreigners — for example, blundering, loud, oblivious, insensitive — are the same things that were often said about the British in their great imperial era, before they retrenched and became Greece to our Rome.

When you ask people to consider spaces smaller that what they’ve normalized to, I think it tends to trigger elemental associations of constriction, claustrophobia, a sense of being like a trapped animal. Also, associations of degeneracy and depravity, and class fear. But other than that, there’s no problem at all for Houselets!

No really, I think you have to find ways around all those acculturated and visceral reactions, and for example observe that we often inhabit small spaces like bedrooms, bunk beds, dorm rooms, hotel rooms, tents, cabins, RVs, and we’re usually ok with that for certain times and purposes. Then you might ask, how well is our current system working, from the standpoint of human needs?  There’s this great paradox that people are obsessed with, utterly invested in homes and housing, but at the same time, our housing system often fails terribly. It creates huge economic burden, risk, and inequality, is conspicuously mismatched to trends in household makeup and employment patterns and healthy lifestyle and environmental needs, etc. The housing industry and system is so driven by ideology, dreams, received practices, and reactionary bourgeois fear that it is tremendously shackled from evolving to meet our changing real needs.


Conclusion: Soft(ware) Urbanism.


from Archigram, 1960s

I think the Bay Area today could, just possibly, be a place to break some of the shackles of urban land-use dogma, and allow radical experimentation to occur — because here there are  resources, the culture of innovation, local genius, and need.

I’d like to see buildings and urbanism explored here with the same radical inventiveness and confidence that characterizes our business and technology culture, and explore how the built environment could be developed as software is, in radically agile, adaptive, scalable, continuously innovating ways.

It could become a capital of future humane urbanism — a “soft city,” in Jonathan Raban’s phrase — as well as of venture capital and software.

What do you think? got some new items, projects, examples, or patterns to suggest? Let me know via comment box below, or email me: tmccormick at gmail dot com, or Twitter, etc.

Follow me on Twitter at @tmccormick.
RSS feed, subscribe to posts by email, etc. on the Contact Page.

.. .

Parking Houses: modular housing to fit on city parking spaces

houses by students at Emily Carr University, Vancouver BC

Many cities such as San Francisco face a multi-dimensional housing crisis, with large portions of the population heavily burdened or priced out of ownership by housing costs, unable to find appropriate housing, or facing onerous transporation expense and stress.

However, while urban housing is highly controlled, expensive, and inaccessible, large areas of adjacent, valuable public space is given away for uncontrolled, free parking.  As has been argued most influentially by Donald Shoup in The High Cost of Free Parking. (2005), this practice amounts to an extraordinary privileging of private automobile use over other goals such as housing affordability, pedestrian / bicycle / transit use, street-level livability, or environmental sustainability.

Shoup and other reformers advocate more appropriate pricing of parking, or even the conversion of spaces into “parklets”, i.e. tiny parks featuring planters, trees, benches, café tables with chairs, fountains, artwork, sculptures, bicycle parking, etc.

A parklet on Valencia Street in San Francisco.

movable bench + planter, San Francisco

However, why not take this idea to the logical conclusion and put actual housing units on parking spaces?

New York, San Francisco, and other cities are already reallocating scarce parking spaces for parklets and benches, so why not try using these spaces for something potentially far more valuable: compact mobile housing units?

Naturally, in the U.S. most people would immediately ask, who would ever choose to live in units with a footprint of a parking space, 8 feet x 10-16 feet?

First, millions of Americans, and billions of non-Americans, already do live in such spaces: they’re called bedrooms, dorm-rooms, hotel rooms, hostels, mobile homes, etc. I myself live comfortably in a converted 1-car garage of 200 square feet, which allows me to live inexpensively near downtown in super-expensive Palo Alto.

Parking-space units could also be multiple levels high, and/or span multiple parking spaces.

Secondly, generations of tinkerers and homesteaders have been building and living in tiny houses in back yards, and on vacation properties since, forever. In the last 10-15 years, this has exploded into an international high-design lifestyle movement, and now a steady sub-genre of architecture book publishing.

Often, tiny house concepts overlap with mobile and modular design, for example in the thriving architectural sub-field of shipping-container-based housing.

A much-reported case of housing specifically built on a “parking space” is the Fuyuhito Moriya’s house in Tokyo, built on a 30 square meter area formerly used for a parking space.

Getting us closer to mass production and mobility would be SnoozeBox, the UK-based company that offers popup hotels assembled from room units made of converted shipping containers. In their case, 40-foot containers (2 TEU, in shipping-industry parlance) are used, each containing multiple rooms.

Nobody in the U.S. would live in a housing space on top of a parking space?  Who knows, why not try it? Presently, paternalistic housing regulations mandate, for Americans, minimum living spaces that would be considered luxuriously expansive to much of the world’s population. Meanwhile increasing portions of the population, particularly the young, face prohibitive obstacles to renting or owning property, particularly in the concentrated urban areas where most job growth and career advancement is available.

Personally, I think that a highly affordable cabin located in a vibrant part of a central city, which I can relocate or put into storage as needed, seems radically unconstrictive compared to being trapped in a rental costs of 50% of my income, or in a 30-year mortgage, or worse, stuck with underwater property after a housing market collapse.

Already in New York and San Francisco, traditional housing-space requirements are being challenged by officials, developers, and housing advocates as obstacles to supply and affordability.

Berkeley-based developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests is advocating new buildings of 160 square-foot apartment for the SoMA area of San Francisco (see diagram at left).

A Call for Entries and Occupants

San Francisco is a capital of both lifestyle experimentation and housing unaffordability, so let’s work with what we’ve got and try a radical experiment:

give or rent parking spaces out to homesteaders willing to design, build, and live in Parking Houses.

Afterword: Agile Housing

Taking a cue from agile software development, we might call this approach “agile housing”: build small, fast, and flexibly, don’t try to discover and fulfill every possible requirement at the outset. Decades of experience and studies in software engineering have shown that iterative, adaptive development is often more effective, or even the only possible approach under conditions of high-uncertainty mission or environment.

Analogously, why should we build only with fixed forms? Building for fixedness, like trying to completely specify complex software systems at the outset, creates high costs and risks or failure or underperformance.

Applying this observation to cities is as old as software development, as it happens. In particular, two 1960s radical architecture movements, Archigram in the UK and Metabolism in Japan, envisioned and theorized (and occasionally built) a city environment in which many or all components would be movable, adaptable to changing needs. Visionary architects have been rediscovering and extending these ideas ever since:  for example, Andrew Maynard’s Corb 2.0 housing system, which uses standard industrial container-handling equipment to make a reconfigurable block.


Addendum:  see also my followup post “Parking Houses and Houselets: Critical Followups” in which I respond to a set of questions from Allison Arieff of SPUR / NYTimes.




thanks to Romy Ilano for ideas, pointers, and conversations about rethinking health and urban space.

1. “parklets” (Wikipedia).

2. Shoup, Donald. The High Cost of Free Parking (2005).

Rebooting the Academy: how to get sample chapter or ebook on any computer

After I announced the publication of the book I co-edited, Rebooting the Academy, a number of people asked how to get the free sample chapter, or get the sample or whole book if you don’t have a Kindle or other e-reader device.

To do so, go to the book’s page on Amazon, and look for these boxes on the right-hand side of the page:

In the lower box, click on the link “Kindle Reading Apps“, then follow instructions to download a Kindle application for the device or computer you wish to use, e.g. Windows or Mac computer.

Once you have installed that application, return to the book page, and now you can either click on the “Send Sample Now” for the free chapter (in upper box shown at left), or “Buy Now” to immediately download the complete book for $4.99.

Two words: Total. Magic. In theory, you could, on-the-fly: buy, download, and read the book from the North Pole, or while cruising at 30,000 ft, or even from right inside a bookstore when you realize that getting this e-book will be a delightful, economical, burden-free alternative to that unwieldy, $21.95 tree-book you’re currently hefting in your other hand. Free your mind, and free up your storage unit(s)! Take it from one who knows!

Also, thanks for all the nice feedback on and interest in this project. I am encouraged by this to explore further book ideas. Of making many ebooks there will be no end.




Rebooting the Academy book I co-edited is out now

The book I co-edited with Jeff Young, Technology Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is now out from the Chronicle. It includes the profiles from the original Chronicle special feature, “Rebooting the Academy: 12 Tech Innovators Who Are Transforming Campuses,” plus essays by each contributor, and an introduction by Jeff.

This was an exciting project, at what is clearly a watershed moment of change in higher education. Aside from profiling and celebrating a group of extraordinary education-tech innovators, we were also exploring the new possibilities of book publishing today, when the doors are wide open for new parties to assemble and publish books, and in some ways the notion of “book” is open for reinvention.

Rebooting is available for $4.99 in multiple outlets & formats, and a free sample (includes the introductory essay) is available:

Thanks, Jeff and the Chronicle, it was great working together on this. Full table of contents is below.

See also the Chronicle’s announcement.


Table of Contents:

Rebooting the Academy 12 Tech Innovators Who Are Transforming Campuses

Introduction – Jeffrey R. Young, Chronicle of Higher Education

1. Salman Khan, Khan Academy
Profile: An Outsider Calls for a Teaching Revolution
Essay: YouTube U. Beats YouSnooze U.

2. Daniel J. Cohen, George Mason University
Profile: A Digital Humanist Puts New Tools in the Hands of Scholars
Essay: Is Google Good for History?

3. François Grey, Tsinghua University
Profile: One Researcher’s Solution to the Data Deluge: Enlist `Citizen Scientists’
Essay: Opening Up Science, One Lab at a Time

4. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Modern Language Association
Profile: An Academic Hopes to Take the MLA Into the Social Web
Essay: Networking the Field

5. Bradley C. Wheeler, Indiana U.
Profile: A Business Professor Turned CIO Practices What He Teaches
Essay: Fixing the High Price of Textbooks

6. Robert W. Mendenhall Western Governors U.
Profile: A President Brings a Revolutionary University to Prominence
Essay: Using Technology to Build a New Kind of University

7. Jim Groom, U. of Mary Washington
Profile: Self-Described `EduPunk’ Says Colleges Should Abandon Course-Management Systems
Essay: Innovation As a Communal Act

8. Adrian Sannier, Pearson
Profile: Software Evangelist Wants to Put Learning-Management Software in the Cloud
Essay: Education’s Digital Shift: If Not Now, When?

9. Burck Smith, StraighterLine
Profile: Entrepreneur Finds a Way to Offer Credited Courses on the Cheap
Essay: Disrupting College: Lessons from iTunes

10. Candace Thille, Carnegie Mellon U.
Profile: Treating Higher Ed’s `Cost Disease’ With Supersize Online Courses
Essay: Changing the Production Function in Higher Education

11. Laura Czerniewicz, U. of Cape Town
Profile: Technology Director Turns Cellphones Into Classrooms
Essay: Educational Technology for Equity

12: John P. Wilkin, U. of Michigan
Profile: Grounding Tomorrow’s Digital Library in Traditional Values
Essay: The Past, Present, and Future of the HathiTrust Digital Library

About the Editors




Waywalking: use mobile apps or sensors to trigger and hold walk signals

I recently twittered:

(cc-ing Palo Alto mayor Yiaway Yey and CIO Jonathan Reichental, also Allison Arieff of San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association, and Alexandra Lange of Design Observer).

This is an idea I had recently for improving and encouraging pedestrian experiences. It came about because I walk extensively around Palo Alto, as my primary means of getting around, and I started wondering why I so often seem to find myself jaywalking here, in this generally residential and pedestrian-oriented city.

The key experience was realizing that, again and again, on Middlefield Rd. (on which I live), Page Mill Rd., and others, I find myself standing at an intersection, with a green light for traffic going my way, but a red “Don’t Walk” sign. There may or may not be traffic turning across the crosswalk, or a turn light directing traffic to do so.  It seems to just be a signal configuration, common here as it is elsewhere, in which the walk signal has to be requested by a pedestrian, and otherwise doesn’t show.

green for cars, not for us, at Middlefield & Hamilton

Of course, the problem with this, from a pedestrian’s standpoint, is that it may force an interruption and delay at every single intersection along a path, and frequently it will tell you to not walk when there is not even any traffic.  While cars can increase speed to make up for traffic-light delays, pedestrians usually move at a consistent speed, based on their exertion and ability level, and so they lose all the time for which they are interrupted.

Signs/signals configured for “walk” only by request represent, and are, a system centered on automobile drivers and only secondarily accommodating pedestrians.  It both literally and psychologically impairs pedestrian experience.  Remarkably to me, it is also commonly encountered, even in highly pedestrian, residential, or urban-designed areas, testament to the ongoing dominance of automobile-centricity in our culture (particularly in traffic/civil engineering).

If we rewind back to the start of the auto era, we learn that the very concept and legal notion of “jaywalking” was actually promulgated and legislated in the 1930s by U.S. auto clubs and manufacturers, who sought to defend against restrictions and liability on auto-drivers. (see Peter Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City; Sarah Goodyear, “The Invention of Jaywalking,” The Atlantic Cities, Apr 24, 2012)

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Inside Technology)Previously, and emergently today, vehicles were considered to be presumptively at fault in case of collision with a pedestrian, and manslaughter charges were common against drivers involved in accidents.

I’ve spent a lot of time at ground zero in this fight.  Before living in Palo Alto, I lived for most of 14 years in New York City, and came to embrace the practice of its battle-hardened pedestrians:  a red light doesn’t mean no, it means negotiate. (so does a green light, for that matter, but it just means you have a lawyer in your corner).  I’ve also lived many years in Portland, OR, a haven of urban planning, transit and pedestrian/bicycle culture.

A further dimension to this problem and proposal regards a different constituency from the fit and aggressive like me: what about the elderly, less-abled, and distracted? Walk signals are typically timed to allow a fit and uninterrupted adult to cross the interesection within the signal time.  Many people do not fall within that parameter: the elderly, disabled, small children, people with strollers or shopping carts, or someone who dropped something or tripped.  Anyone in such a case is put into a hazardous situation by being in the intersection after the light changes.

Seniors sign in Palo Alto

As a matter of fact, I observe this happening regularly, for example near the large senior community around the corner from me, Lytton Gardens, where over 650 seniors live. Having talked to and assisted various residents across the streets, I know that many are often afraid to attempt street crossings because of the short walk signals and (in any case) unpredictable onset of vehicles into their path.

So anyway, what to do?  What occurred to me is, why not create ways for pedestrians to automatically signal ahead of time when they’re approaching a crossing, or (in the case of elderly/impaired, for example) keep it on walk?

Of course, a variety of signalling mechanisms already exist for vehicles to trigger green lights:

standard inductive-loop traffic sensors buried in the road (detects metal mass), and various kinds of traffic signal preemption used by emergency vehicles, train crossings, etc., which may use acoustic, light, radio, or GPS means to signal. (when used to speed transit vehicles, it’s sometimes called bus priority or transit signal priority).

Priority Green - Preemption Products

preemption technology from Priority Green

The use of these technologies has, as far as I know, always been in support of vehicles, as opposed to pedestrians.  This obviously reflects the technology, economics, and policy of who can and will be in a position to preempt, but hey, the beginning is near.  Cities are gradually being reengineered away from the auto-centricity which was engineered over the preceding 75 years, and individuals are being radically more empowered by mobile technology.  And we’re just talking here about amending traffic signals that already do preemption and remote signalling, not creating entirely new systems.

So here are a few ideas:

  1. What if streets were built with sensors to detect incoming pedestrian traffic and preemptively request “walk” signals, as they do now for approaching vehicles?
  2. What if residents with special mobility needs could get signaler devices to automatically request and hold walk signals so they could more safely cross streets, like police and emergency workers do now for traffic lights?
  3. How about a city pedestrian mobile app, which might combine relevant map features, info on related city services and policies, with “pedestrian preemption” tech to help you way-walk, not jay-walk, in your own city?

How would you make your town more walkable? Email tim (at), or twitter @mccormicktim.




Urban unorthodoxy: North London rapper celebrates a reborn Tottenham estate

Wretch 32

UK rap star Wretch 32 (Jermaine Scott) was born in 1985 to Jamaican parents in Tottenham, a highly multi-ethnic and diverse area of North London. The same year Tottenham’s sprawling Broadwater Farms public housing estate was the site of widespread rioting, and was described in planning expert Alice Coleman’s “Utopia on Trial” as one of the worst places to live in the UK. It’s also close to where, in August 2011, urban riots throughout the UK were sparked by the police shooting of local man Mark Duggan;  and a few miles east of where I grew up until 1983 in Kenton, NW9.

File:Carpetright store after Tottenham riots.jpg

Tottenham store after 2011 riots

However, Wretch 32’s 2011 song/video “Unorthodox” offers an infectiously positive tour of Broadwater Farm and a message of personal and community empowerment. Implicity, he (and video director Ben Newman) suggest that he and his home borough of Tottenham, are breaking the rules by being positive. While there is a tradition of US rappers and filmmakers celebrating and reclaiming stigmatized urban areas, usually the depiction is of survival amid struggle. “Unorthodox”, on the other hand, is a cheerful and sunlit depiction, and most remarkably, the once-notorious area it depicts has in fact been transformed since 1985 into a sought-after and virtually crime-free estate.

still from Ben Newman’s video for Wretch 32, “Unorthodox”

Wikipedia:  “After the events of 1985, Broadwater Farm became the focus of an intensive £33 million regeneration programme in response to the problems highlighted by the riots…The deck level was dismantled and the overhead walkways demolished, with the shops and amenities relocated to a single ground-level strip of road to transform the semi-derelict Willan Road into a “High Street” for the area. The surrounding areas were landscaped and each building redesigned to give it a unique identity…

“Two giant murals were painted which now dominate the area, one of a waterfall on the side of Debden block and one depicting Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon and Bob Marley on Rochford block. Disused shops left empty following the withdrawal of businesses after the riots were converted into low-cost light industrial units to provide employment opportunities for residents and prevent capital from flowing out of the area.Since the redevelopment, the flow of people leaving the estate has slowed to a trickle, and there is now a lengthy waiting list for housing.”

Broadwater Farm today

In the cycle of representation and reality, death and life of a great British city (area), this time around the rap, subversive view is the positive, cheerful one.  “Unorthodox” subverts the dystopian tradition of the genre, but preserves it’s documentary function showing the world what Broadwater is really like now — quite a nice place.


You know me make examples
We’re history’s booth
This is a future cut

Yeah, I got a good heart
I was born on beat, that’s a good start
I had a feeling I pushed past
And now I feel like I’m the reason I should last..

“Unorthodox” – video