Better parking lot design: Is it enough?

Rethinking A Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, by Eran Ben-Joseph, MIT Press, 2012, 157 pages, $24.95

With parking now consuming as much as 30 percent of precious urban land in some American cities, it’s no wonder that parking has become one of the leading hot-button issues in planning and urban design. Rethinking A Lot enters the parking fray with MIT Professor Eran Ben-Joseph tackling the issue of ubiquitous and banal surface parking lots.  Ben-Joseph believes that these lots are ripe for design interventions with the potential to make parking lots a significant civic element like plazas and parks. Parking lots are, Ben-Joseph argues, the most commonly used public places — the site for chance meetings where we step out of climate controlled environments and arrive when visiting most destinations — yet most people think very little about these places.

Rethinking A Lot tackles the parking issue in three sections: first, a review of the various issues effecting parking provision; next, a brief, well-illustrated, history of surface parking in the US; and finally, examples of exemplary parking lots. Ben-Joseph was inspired to tackle this issue after questions from students wanting to know if there were examples of “great” parking lots. Starting with horses and carriages, through the rise of the car, the demise of urban centers and the rise, and eventual decline, of the suburban shopping mall, Rethinking A Lot takes a somewhat ethnographic approach to the many ways parking lots are intertwined with American life, from Boondockers in Wal-Mart parking lots to teenage cruising and tailgating at sporting events. Ben-Joseph takes a cautious view on the proliferation of parking and its impact on cities. While he skirts the edge of the issue several times, and presents a multitude of reasons to be anti-parking lot, Ben-Joseph does not believe we should simply get rid of or minimize surface parking. In fact, he avoids this normative question all together. Instead, he accepts parking lots as a major part of our current development pattern and asks: “Why can’t parking lots be modest paradises?”

Eran Ben-Joseph argues that a need for parking is unchallengeable in the near term, yet, if only we could redesign the parking lot — incorporating tree canopy, water infiltration, and a sense of artistry — placeless lots could be transformed into meaningful civic spaces. As he puts it: “The task is first to rediscover their virtues and common good, and second to elevate their design beyond mediocrity.”

A narrow lens

Rethinking A Lot aims to focus directly on off-street parking through a very narrow lens. There are plenty of references dealing with parking demand, regulation, on-street systems, and parking garages, Ben-Joseph explains.  What he believes is missing, however is significant discussion of the design of surface parking lots. Someone unfamiliar with Ben-Joseph’s other works on streets and urban form might get the impression that he is blind to the many negative impacts parking, particularly off-street surface-lots, has on urban places. Or, the reader may think he took a Landscape Urbanism-esque position that we should make the current patterns as ecological and artful as possible while ignoring the larger systematic problems as beyond the purview of analysis for designers. I don’t think that is the case; Rather, the narrow scope Ben-Joseph carved out for himself leaves little room for these wider discussions.

Parking lots are ubiquitous and as he points out, most guidance for students and professionals on the matter ignores design almost entirely. In the narrow scope he’s chosen, Ben-Joseph does an admirable job finding examples of parking lots that were designed with intention — there is even a nod to woonerf-like shared spaces that blur the line between street, plaza, and parking and he points out a great loophole I was unaware of that allowed Seaside, FL, flexibility in streetscape design by classifying many neighborhood streets as parking zones. The book is quite accessible, provides a great introduction to parking in general, and links curious readers to the best other resources on the subject. 

The fact that the main recommendation of Rethinking A Lot is to add trees and some ecological function to parking lots falls a little flat. Beyond the fact that the primary problem with surface parking lots is not that they are ugly and contribute to the heat island effect — they are an inefficient use of urban land, pushing apart destinations and encouraging unnecessary car use — the recommendations seem out-of-step with the economic forces that make parking lots the plain blacktop surfaces we’ve grown to expect. Incorporating more “green” in parking lots is great for a showpiece like the Fiat factory, a museum, or a resort, but enlarging parking lots in an urban context to provide these amenities seems counter productive to the goals of Smart Growth. Expecting suburban big box parking lots to become orchard like park systems is antithetical to every design decision that goes into big box retail.

Ubiquitous parking lots aren’t giant swaths of asphalt and paint because no one ever thought of using greener or more attractive materials and layouts: They are what they are because of the economics of development. Parks, plazas, and other significant civic spaces are expensive, and therein lies the rub.  I would argue that first and foremost we need to right-size parking to control demand, only then should we focus on design. That said, you can’t fault a designer for wanting to make the best of the design brief they are given. If the budget is there and you need to design a parking lot for 500 cars, following Ben-Joseph’s advice could help a great deal. But if you can shrink the lot substantially and put the savings towards some greening, that would be even better!

David West is principal of Randall-West in Ithaca, New York, and guest lecturer at Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning.

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