Pave the lawn, spoil the neighborhood?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Regina Blosser need only step out her front door to see a view that breaks her heart.

Four doors down, she still remembers the little garden that once was – a tidy corner amid the press of concrete where hydrangeas bloomed and calla lilies poked feathery white heads above a sidewalk fence. Today, that pastoral plot has been sacrificed to the almighty automobile.

In this sandwiched city, hemmed in by hills to the south and water everywhere else, there are more registered vehicles per square mile than any place else in the United States, often making the daily search for parking an impromptu city tour.

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For frustrated residents, like Ms. Blosser's neighbors, one answer has been to simply pave over the front lawn – an approach that has become increasingly common nationwide. Yet even here, where parking spaces can be as treasured as family heirlooms, a backlash has begun, as cities rise up to rescue neighborhood green spaces from asphalt's onward march.

The list is growing:

• By the end of the month, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors will consider a proposal to strengthen an existing mandate that 20 percent of front lawns be devoted to landscaping.

• Virginia's Fairfax County earlier this week decreed that only 25 percent of a front lawn can be paved.

• San Jose, Calif., recently passed an ordinance that requires well-maintained front yards and could prohibit parking RVs and campers in front of houses.

• In response to the growing problem of people parking on front lawns, the Chicago suburb of Highwood, Ill., and the Buffalo suburb of Lockport, N.Y., last year strengthened traffic codes to stop the practice.

The trend is yet another sign of how deeply automobiles have influenced American society. Throughout the past century, cities have been built and then reshaped around the automobile, from the grids and beltways of the 1950s and '60s to the suburban sprawl of the 1990s.

Now, the parking crunch is once again pitting plants against pavement. "Even in regions that aren't growing, congestion is increasing," says Timothy Rood, an urban planner at Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, Calif. "Car ownership is up, and mileage traveled is up because of the [1990s] boom."

Even in this most activist city, where people rally for everything from Palestinian statehood to overweight Jazzercise instructors, parking issues seem to stir the blood more than most.

A city of meter maids

It's no wonder. On an average day, an estimated 500,000 vehicles vie for 320,000 legal street parking spots. The city hands out more than 100,000 parking tickets a year just to motorists who commonly choose sidewalks when no space is available.

When word got out that at least two wealthy citizens – including novelist Danielle Steel – had bought more than 20 special residential parking passes, the public furor prompted a change in the law, limiting each household to no more than four.

Yet the great parking debate has taken on a different flavor here in the Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco. Along Blosser's street, the landscape is a tangle of power lines on concrete slabs tilted askew by weather and wear. She can walk the length of the street pointing to where gardens used to be, but are now paved over.

On evenings and weekends, she says, her neighborhood looks like a parking lot, with rows of cars sticking their tails toward the street. Some here say the change has even hurt home prices. Blosser doesn't know if that's true, and she isn't under the delusion that she can remake the neighborhood in the image of what it once was.

But she hopes the Board of Supervisors will approve the paving ordinance, which would preserve existing greenery – and force future developers to add at least some color beside gray.

"We're a real blue-collar neighborhood," says Blosser. "We would just like a little class."

Immigrant woes

To critics, however, the move has broader cultural overtones. Not only does it infringe on people's property rights, but it also could discriminate against immigrants.

In many cases, those moving in and paving over their lawns are new immigrants who have come to America with large families. To them, having several cars is not a matter of choice, it's a matter of necessity. Eliminating the ability to expand parking without improving public transportation or providing an alternative would make it harder for some to get to their jobs.

Penelope Gross has heard those concerns before, but in her experience, the problem cuts across all classes – and has more to do with personal discipline than family need.

The Fairfax County supervisor once had to call a company to tow away her son's old car, she says, simply because he was too nostalgic to get rid of it.

The new law in her Washington suburb is intended to nip in the bud a situation that had "the potential to be a problem."

"When you pave over front yards, your neighborhood loses its residential character," she says. "When you buy a house, you buy a neighborhood. Why would you want the American dream turned into a nightmare?"

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