Today, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to recapture some of the space we need make our cities more liveable.
Americans love cars and shopping malls, but changes on the horizon suggest that this love affair will not last. Technology is triggering massive transformations in our economy, and changes in retail and transportation are creating both significant challenges and opportunities. We need to change how we use space in our cities, both to build more housing and to open up public green spaces in our urban centers for generations to come.
The retail industry is changing dramatically. Analysts project that one out of four malls will close down within the next five years. Major national chains like Macy’s have laid off thousands of workers over the past year. As more shopping shifts to the internet, more changes are in store. Today, over half our households use Amazon Prime, and that number is only going up.
These changes call for new thinking. We have built cities around large shopping malls, and our local governments depend on sales tax revenues from these outlets. Now government needs to reimagine how we use the massive amount of retail space that will be coming free. Given the shortage of good quality housing nationally, local governments should rezone land currently used for retail to make it available for housing.
We should also be broadening our tax structure to recognize we are becoming a service economy and think about how we tax online sales. While Amazon now pays sales taxes for shipments in every state that collects such taxes, it does not require third-party sellers to do so. Other online marketplaces do not collect any sales tax. Federal and state governments should close these loopholes to ensure local governments retain the revenue they need for public services.
The transportation industry is changing. We’re moving toward a world in which most Americans don’t own their cars, but instead share autonomous vehicles. Since the average car is only used 3% of a given day, we could be using autonomous cars instead of driving to work and parking. This will take cars off the road and dramatically reduce the amount of parking we need. Houses and apartment complexes that dedicate significant space to parking will no longer need that space.
A massive amount of parking in our downtown areas is about to come open. We should plan for how to turn that space into infill housing and green spaces. For example, in California, Los Angeles County has more than 200 square miles of parking spaces, equivalent to 14% of the county’s incorporated land area. This land could be repurposed for public parks or housing. As millennials move to urban centers, we have an opportunity to recapture parking lots and turn our cities green.
When I started working at a small online start-up called eBay in 1997, people asked, Will people ever really buy things on the internet? When I said yes, it sounded as crazy then, as their question sounds to us today. Our economy is changing faster than most of us understand. Today, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to recapture some of the very space we need to build housing and to make our cities more liveable. There is no doubt that technology poses some great challenges, but it also creates some great opportunities. It is time to turn some of those challenges into opportunities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.