Can Parking Lots Be Great?

How we get from here to there.
March 31 2012 12:10 AM

Empty Spaces

Can parking lots be great?

Illustration by Pat Grant

Illustration by Pat Grant.

There is a wonderful moment in The Parking Lot Movie, Megan Eckman’s unmissable 2010 documentary about a lot in Charlottesville, Va.—which does for parking attendants what High Fidelity did for the record shop—when one of the lot’s attendants, highly educated and chronically bemused, recounts how he once had to turn away a hulking SUV. “There was just no room for them. I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s just no room for you to park your car in this lot. Maybe you can find room to park on the street. But I doubt it.’ It’s like you could almost see the truncated syllogism in their head. Like, I bought the car, how could there not be a place to park it? Surely it comes with a parking space.”

It’s not hard to imagine the would-be patron’s bafflement: Parking, from the moment we drive the car off the lot, seems to be everywhere. No one ever has—or could, really—put an exact number on the number of spaces in the United States. One common estimate is eight spaces for every vehicle, which would yield a number approaching 2 billion spaces; other estimates set it at 844 million spaces. The cost of these spaces, measured, as one study notes, “in the form of adverse health impacts, building damage, and reduced agricultural production, to name a few,” ranges somewhere between $4 billion and $20 billion per year.

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Parking can reflect the health of the state: Witness the collective anxiety brought on by the aerial photographs of the 245-acre parking lot at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a dystopian Disneyland filled with fleets of unwanted cars at the height of the financial crisis. Or the psychic malaise that open asphalt engenders, like an early sailor’s dread of the open sea, at a failing mall. (Indeed, companies like Remote Sensing Metrics use aerial imagery of retail parking lots “to determine year-over-year traffic growth, market share, and comps forecasts.”) It can also seem a topographic plague, and I am not talking here about “Big Yellow Taxi” but cities like Buffalo, where density and urban fabric were sundered by pervasive archipelagoes of surface parking; or suburbs where buildings and site capacities themselves were forced to shrink as surrounding parking grew larger. The depthless scale of parking lots betrays what they could theoretically house.  

The parking lot is one of those forms so visible that we no longer see it (or indeed, what lies beneath: Everything from Hitler’s bunker to Henry VIII’s “lost chapel” has been covered by parking). Of course, another reason we do not see it is there is not much to see. The Onion captured the kind of shabby banality we associate with the parking lot in a story headlined “Wal-Mart Parking Lot Puts Municipal Parking Lot Out of Business.” “I'll miss the old lot," the Onion quotes a patron. “There were some oil stains, but there was character.” This comment invokes one by Ed Ruscha, who in works like Thirtyfour was one of the few artists to ever make an artistic claim for parking lots, at least from above (and at least before a parking lot claimed, with cosmic irony, his very studio). “Architects write me about the parking lots, because they’re interested in seeing parking lot patterns and things like that,” he said. “I’ll tell you what is more interesting: the oil droppings on the ground.” The bigger the spot, the more desired the space.

BOOKS_rethinkingalot
ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking
by Eran Ben-Joseph
The MIT Press

In his new book, ReThinking a Lot, Eran Ben-Joseph, noting that “in the American context, parking lots may be the most commonly regularly used outdoor space,” wants to know: “Can parking have beauty and greatness in the less than obvious traits of aesthetics and form?” Over the years, students have asked Ben-Joseph, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT, for examples of notable or “great” parking lots. Writes Ben-Joseph: “I could barely think of one.”

While parking garages have received plenty of attention, the humble lot has been rather marooned, not only culturally but by the profession. As Ben-Joseph notes, in the 463-page Wiley Graphic Standards, a common reference book for planners, parking lots loom as a kind of uncomfortable afterthought, with a scant three paragraphs of guidance. (“Parking lots should offer direct and easy access for people walking between their vehicles and the building entrances.”) Roughly speaking, more attention has gone into determining the proper geometries of the spaces themselves than to the overall design of the lot and how it relates to its surroundings; nevertheless, as Joseph quotes the text of a design competition, “there is almost no other place of the public environment that people experience more in their daily lives.”

Can parking lots be great? Given that the bar is set so low to begin with, it doesn’t take much to make them better. Merely adding a small tree island planter in the middle of the lot (as opposed to the edge, where most developers choose to place them), notes Ben-Joseph, has been shown to reduce surface temperatures by as much as 30 degrees. Some of the better designs (like the tree-columned lot at Dia: Beacon) do not forget that the parking lot is, in essence, a building’s lobby, and strive for some sense of occasion. There are some great meta jokes, like the since-destroyed SITE-designed Ghost Parking Lot at a shopping mall in Connecticut, featuring 20 junked cars, emerging tar-pit style from the black pavement. Some sport engineering improvements which channel storm-water or reduce the “thermal battery” effects of lots. But perhaps tellingly, the most visually appealing examples in the book, like cobblestoned “shared space” in Germany, seem to work because they do not look like parking at all.

But there is a difference between mitigating noxious effects and creating good places. That’s the big game Ben-Joseph is after: “Designed with conscious intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks, or plazas.” And, in theory, just as any open space can be converted into a parking lot, however temporarily (as for county fairs), a parking lot can be converted, however temporarily, into a public space.

And so parking lots house farmers’ markets on the weekend, or temporarily carnivals, or even political protests: A number of the Occupy protests actually occurred in parking lots. (Whether this represents spontaneous public space or a cordoning by police is an open question.) On the fringes of Wal-Marts, one even finds temporary settlements. “We’ve seen people sitting around the asphalt telling campfire stories,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson says of the “boondockers” who congregate in lots in their RVs. One conjures Edward Abbey rolling in his unmarked grave in the Cabeza Prieta desert—and it’s thankful he was buried so remotely, to avoid the fate of one person described in the book, whose lone, fenced grave was ultimately surrounded by parking.

Eran Ben-Joseph
Eran Ben-Joseph

Photograph by Dominick Reuter.

The dilemma with weekend farmers’ markets or Sunday pregame tailgate parties comes on Monday morning, when that festival atmosphere is now a windswept void. Ben-Joseph wants to know what can be done to make stadium parking less glaringly nonfunctional, but the better question may be why stadiums need massive parking lots to begin with. Attend a soccer match at, say, London’s Chelsea Stadium, and instead of tailgating, one finds people walking from local pubs to the stadium, a boisterous, merry procession. And the next day, those same pubs are doling out fish and chips to regulars.

As noble as Ben-Joseph’s endeavor is, one wonders if the limitations of the form are simply too daunting. The real question is: Can parking lots become great spaces as parking lots? Could they be places that people are drawn to, want to linger in, rally around, where children can play? People adapt to parking lots, fashioning public uses out of them because, primarily, they have to. (I speak from teenaged experience.) But would anyone—and the ultimate test here would be someone outside of a car—go to a parking lot by choice? To consider the Project for Public Spaces list of what does and does not represent place-making, parking lots fall overwhelmingly into the negative ledger: “Design-driven,” “exclusionary,” “monolithic development,” “overly accommodating of the car,” “privatized,” “one-dimensional,” and so on.

“Why can’t parking lots be modest paradises?” Ben-Joseph asks. Why can’t they be “a pleasant place to visit and coexist with cars”? Well, for one, they are filled with drivers, who have the unfortunate habit of striking people in parking lots (when not getting all aggro over claiming spots). I do know of one such place where it’s pleasant to visit and coexist with cars. It’s called a car show. They look nice, and they are never go anywhere.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.