‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’ sang Joni Mitchell on Big Yellow Taxi.

Hawaii – the inspiration for her 1970 hit – might feel a world away from our own corner of paradise in Bracknell. But we may well wonder whether something similar is happening here.

Grass verges across the town are being converted into parking spaces as Bracknell Forest Council and housing association Silva Homes try to ease the pressure on crowded curbsides.

It’s an issue that always sparks debate among Bracknell News readers. Some worry that gradually we could lose the green spaces that stop our streets being a mass of concrete and tarmac.

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But plenty of people welcome the changes, and even ask for more of the same on their own streets and roads. And they have reason to.

People with cars need somewhere to park them. Yet finding that space is a growing problem, as Andrew Hunter – Bracknell Forest Council’s executive director of place – explains.

“Bracknell Forest has relatively high car ownership levels,” he told the News. “Many housing areas built as part of the new town were designed with lower ownership levels, and for cars to be parked in garages.

“Over time there has been an increase in per household ownership levels and reduction in the use of garages. This puts pressure on local roads for parking.”

That’s a good summary of a very complex problem as the town’s mid-20th century design crashes into 21st century driving habits.

When Bracknell was designed as a ‘new town’ in 1949 its planners had easy travel by foot, bicycle and car in mind

Primary schools, shops, churches, community centres and pubs were built within walking distance of people’s homes. But ‘easy and convenient car travel’ was also part of the plan.

The plans were drawn up just on the cusp of a sharp rise in car ownership in Britain (see graph below). Town planners tried to design and redesign towns and cities to accommodate car ownership from 1950.

Bracknell News: Car ownership in Britain skyrocketed after 1950Car ownership in Britain skyrocketed after 1950 (Image: Government Office for Science)

In Bracknell, new houses were built with a garage each. But cars outgrew them – in size and number.

Today just over half of all households in the borough have two or more cars or vans. That’s according to data collected in the last census in 2021 (see graphic below).

What’s more, cars themselves have gotten bigger. Modern cars are often too big for the garages built to 1950s standards, and they take up more space on the roadside.

The council has long known of the problems this is causing – including ‘neighbour disputes.’

“Since many of the neighbourhoods and estates in the borough have been built there has been a significant increase in car ownership,” its parking planning policy says.

“A lack of adequate parking has resulted in local tensions, neighbour disputes and unsatisfactory parking on verges and open spaces.”

Bracknell News: Just over 50 per cent of households in Bracknell Forest owned two or more cars or vans, according to the 2021 censusJust over 50 per cent of households in Bracknell Forest owned two or more cars or vans, according to the 2021 census (Image: Office for National Statistics)

There are a few things the council is doing to try to tackle the problem. In the long term, it wants to encourage a shift away from car usage and back towards walking cycling and public transport. It calls this a ‘modal shift.’

This involves trying to improve bus services and build new walking and cycling paths. New homes built in Bracknell must have a certain amount of cycle parking spaces, and are tested for their public transport links before being given planning permission.

The council’s latest planning policy also wants most of the new housing to be built in town centres, where they’ll be less car-dependent.

But there’s only so much the council can do. A shift away from cars needs a much bigger shift in society.

People depend on cars for reasons that are often outside their control. They might have to travel long distances to work and shop in out-of-town business and retail parks for instance. And public transport might be too expensive, too unreliable – or both.

So at the same time as trying to ‘encourage’ a modal shift, the council also has to face up to the immediate problems that come with high car ownership now.

One of the ways it is doing this is to create more parking spaces. Over the past 12 months it has granted planning permission to pave over grass verges in neighbourhoods in places such as Great Hollands and Birch Hill

And last month its leading councillors approved a scheme to build even more across the borough.

Trying to encourage a shift away from cars while at the same time accommodating – perhaps even facilitating – a growth in car ownership can seem at odds.

The News asked Bracknell Forest Council for an interview with councillors and highways officers on how they’re tackling this dilemma.

The council replied with this statement from Andrew Hunter: “The council has had a long established programme of parking bays being created in verge areas to try and relieve such pressures. This year the council has set aside £300,000 to create more spaces.

“Looking to the future, the council will continue to encourage the use of alternative methods of travel, including by bus on subsidised routes and the use of our large network of walking and cycling routes.”

Whichever side of the debate you're on we have to hope the council's plan succeeds. If it does, travelling and parking in Bracknell will get easier for everyone. 

If it doesn't we could end up losing more green space – and as Joni Mitchell warned, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’