The Parking Chair-ization of Philadelphia Public Space Policy

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(Cross-posted from This Old City. I was arguing on Twitter the other day with a dude about why parking chair is such an illiberal concept, and I ended up doing some ideological riffing on this idea over at TOC.)

Sarah Goodyear at the Atlantic Cities blog recently took issue with the term “stakeholders” in land use and streets politics, panning it as a cover elite planners use to flatter the interested public while denying them real decision-making power. But there’s an even better argument against “stakeholders,” very similar to Chris Bertram’s case against the word “taxpayers.”

Chris’s specific complaint is that using the word “taxpayers” as a neutral synonym for “the public” isn’t really neutral at all, and promotes a perverse view of the state where propertied interests count more than others – an elitist take on democracy we’ve rejected in this country since the 1800’s. In reality, people who are net payers into the public fisc have no legitimate claim to extra political authority over how public money is spent:

Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

The same is true for the politics of public space. Even if it were the case that Philadelphia property owners or motorists paid in more money to maintain the public streets closest to their assets, why would that entitle them to any special private claims on the use of nearby public property?

It doesn’t. That’s the reason the notorious Parking Chair is illegal – it’s a (temporary) private claim on public space. You may have shoveled out that car-sized slice of the public’s road space, but it’s not “your” private space any more than the snow you removed is your snow. This may be the ultimate You Didn’t Build That issue.

Public space is everybody’s public space. That’s a key value of liberal politics. The road space out in front of somebody’s fancy house in Mt. Airy is just as much mine as that homeowner’s, not because I paid any money for it or I live nearby, but simply because I am a registered voter in the city of Philadelphia.

The illiberal politics of parking chair rears its ugly head wherever this principle is applied inconsistently, which happens quite frequently in city government.

As I wrote about the Bainbridge Green pedestrian plaza, the city actually requires 100% of landowners to sign off on any change in use of the public street space near their properties. If we want to close off a redundant stretch of road to create a nice public plaza, but take away some parking spaces in the process, we currently need 100% of landowners on board with the change or it doesn’t happen.

You can’t even get 50% +1 of the 17 City Council members to agree on plenty of good ideas, let alone 100%. Make that dozens of property owners, and you’re basically blocking any change from happening, since even one grumpy person can veto it.

What is this policy if not the privatization of public space? It says that the “stakeholders” are entitled to extra influence over what happens to streets we all own equally, just because they own property.

The same parking chair-ization of the public interest is evident across so many different areas of city policy:

– How curb parking management strategies (permits, meters, time-limits, etc) are decided at the block level via petition rather than at the city level;

– How some neighborhoods can win special rights to require every new restaurant to get a zoning variance even though everyone citywide has a stake in the food market’s prices and wages;

– How District council members outnumber At-Large council members on City Council, making possible the perverse system of Councilmanic Prerogative that leads to apartment shortages in the most desirable areas of the city.

The list of provincial policies goes on, and in every case the city treats nearby “stakeholders” (in practice, those with the most time, money, and political power) to some extra influence over issues every Philadelphian has an equal stake in.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, everybody has a stake in every neighborhood’s public space issues, and proximity or property ownership should not confer any special rights over nearby turf, just as having shoveled out a parking space doesn’t afford anyone a legitimate right to stick a private chair on it.

One neighborhood’s parking policies impact the demand for curb space in the next neighborhood over. Whether or not new restaurants can open in one area impacts food prices and wages citywide. Whether new apartments get approved in rich neighborhoods impacts rents in poor neighborhoods. And whether tax-base enhancing open space is allowed to replace tax-base destroying parking spaces impacts our citywide tax base and budget.

The idea of letting “local stakeholders” make these important decisions sounds nice, but in practice it usually just translates into selfish special interests unfolding a big parking chair astride the broad public interest.

This entry was posted in Economy, Land Use.

5 Responses to The Parking Chair-ization of Philadelphia Public Space Policy

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » You Don’t Bring A Gun To A Fight About Snow Because Then The SWAT Team Shows Up

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  3. As usual, Jon Geeting has an interesting, fresh take on a problem. As one who is guilty of putting out a lawn chair to “save” the parking spot I dug out, I have to say Jon is right – mostly. The lawn chair doesn’t symbolize my “right” to the spot. But it does say, hey, gimme a break: I live here, ok? But if someone wants to ignore my plea, I’m out of luck. I can only hope they don’t run over the lawn chair.

  4. Jon Geeting says:

    Having been a car owner in cities for years (actually just gave mine up in September when I moved to Philly) I can totally sympathize with why people do it. It sucks! But car-owning Philadelphians need to realize that the public doesn’t owe them anything just because they chose to own a car. The problems that come with owning cars are personal problems, not public problems. If it’s that inconvenient, I recommend a combo of Zipcar + SEPTA. It’s much cheaper, to boot.

  5. Raymond Fuller says:

    Zipcar and SEPTA is an excellent combination. Well that’s my personal preference.