Time to Reinvent the Parking Lot

Some urban planners and architects say we can do a lot better than asphalt slabs and concrete boxes

Some things never change: Disneyland's parking lot in the '50s.
Some things never change: Disneyland's parking lot in the '50s. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Aroid

In his new book, “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph asks a simple question: “Have you seen a great parking lot lately?” which is kind of like asking if you’ve enjoyed a plate of runny eggs lately.

Not that parking lots have ever been a testament to innovative thinking. I mean, we’re talking about paving over dirt. This has never been a big brain-drainer.

But Ben-Joseph says it’s time to give these big, drab open spaces their moment to shine, beyond their oil spots glistening in the sun–particularly now the the world’s population is pouring into cities. And his vision is not just about making better use of all the dead space. It’s also about minimizing their impact on the urban and suburban neighborhoods around them. Parking lots are notorious heat islands that toast whatever surrounds them. And they gunk up runoff water from heavy rains with oil, anti-freeze and other nasty stuff.

By Ben-Joseph’s estimate, in fact, all of the parking lots in the U.S., if connected, would be able to cover Puerto Rico. That’s a whole lotta lot. As he pointed out in a piece that ran in the New York Times earlier this week, “In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.”

So what does Ben-Joseph have in mind? He’s a big fan of the solar canopies popping up in parking lots around the planet. They provide both shade and solar energy, in some cases to charge electric vehicles. He also thinks it only makes sense to use more porous asphalt that would reduce flooding and polluted run-off. And he believes that parking lots should become a much bigger part of our social lives, not just for farmer’s markets, but also for movie nights and programs like the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” festival that happens every summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

As for aesthetics, well, Ben-Joseph seems enchanted by the lot outside the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, a design about which he waxes almost rhapsodically. He describes “rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.”

It would somehow seem wrong to fight over a space while under a soft canopy of foliage.

The magic of garage weddings

But what about the parking lot’s bulky, boxy cousin, the garage? Clearly, it’s done its part to ugly up the landscape. Ben-Joseph doesn’t go there, but some cities have started to, particularly Miami Beach, where parking garages have become architectural showpieces. Seriously.

It started in the ’90s with the unveiling of a five-story garage built atop a block of historic buildings on Collins Avenue. Its official name is Ballet Valet, but most locals know it as the “Chia pet” garage because that’s what it looks like, with its exterior walls seeming to sprout plants–in three different shades of green, no less–hiding the concrete bunker within.

That was only the beginning. Last year celeb architect Frank Gehry unveiled the New World Center concert hall, adorned with a parking garage covered in steel mesh and lit by a dazzling display of programmable, multi-colored LED lights. But wait, there’s more. A seven-story garage designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, is so sleek and stylish that weddings and bar mitzvahs are held on its top floor.

And construction will begin this year on a structure that looks more suited for space pods than anything on wheels. The brainchild of London architect Zaha Hadid, it’s the anti-box, a swirl of mismatched, looping ramps with nary a right angle in sight.

I’d hate to get lost in there. Then again, maybe not.

It’s an asphalt jungle out there

Here’s more innovative thinking about city living:

  • Feel the surge: Qualcomm, the wireless tech giant recently announced that it will run a trial in London later this year of a technology that will allow electric vehicles to be charged wirelessly through a transmitter pad embedded in a parking lot.
  • Towers of power: A team of MIT researchers have developed 3-D solar towers that can produce significantly more power than conventional solar panels. The towers could be installed in parking lots to charge electric cars.
  • Time is on your side: A new gadget called EasyPark is an in-your-vehicle parking meter that allows you to pay only for the time you’re actually parked.
  • I’ve grown accustomed to your space: A mobile app called iSpotSwap lets you know when a parking space you want becomes available.

Video bonus: If there’s such a thing as an anti-parking lot anthem, Joni Mitchell sang it more than 40 years ago.

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