ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking by Eran Ben-Joseph is a beautiful book from the MIT Press. Fully illustrated and printed on very heavy paper, although it only had 157 pages the book seemed a lot thicker. It was a pleasure to hold and examine ReThinking a Lot, and I learned more than I could ever imagine about parking lot construction, the history of parking lots and about the environmental impact lots have wrought. A casual reader such as myself can be entertained by a book about parking lots, and Ben-Joseph showed how lots can serve drivers as well as those without cars.

Through data gathered from municipal plans, parking revenues and mall layouts, Ben-Joseph asserts that there is a superabundance of parking places in the US. So how come drivers are always complaining about the lack of parking? The answer is that drivers are greedy, and expect a convenient spot everywhere they go. This sense of entitlement makes drivers circle endlessly through lots looking for a better spot. Ben-Joseph cites a study about this circling phenomenon, which concludes that drivers who park further away from their destination (like the mall doors) take less time getting there than drivers who keep trying to find a spot that is closer. In the long run, the extra driving doesn’t pay off.

Ben-Joseph continues:

“Something similar to this ‘split personality’ is at play in our attitudes toward parking lots; we demand convenient parking everywhere we go, and then learn not to see the vast, unsightly spaces that result. For many, parking lots are a necessary evil–we hate them, but we can’t do without them.”

It is this reference to lots as “unsightly spaces” that interests the author the most:

“Parking lots may be utilitarian and practical, unexceptional, and even unpleasant, but their magnitude and sheer frequency of occurrence merit greater attention. The task is first to rediscover their virtues and common good, and second to elevate their design beyond mediocrity. Even when dealing with the generic, there should be ambition and a desire for perfection.”

Nothing is more unsightly than a blacktop lot radiating heat. What can be done to make lots more attractive? Ben-Joseph examines many lots that integrate the natural environment and which are friendly towards their surroundings as well. Asphalt is impervious and hinders drainage. It also creates parking lots of soaring heat. Wastewater and rain can be absorbed by using grass or porous paving materials. Sports stadiums, homes to many of the biggest lots which lie empty most of the time, are the biggest offenders. Why not use these porous materials or otherwise landscape the surface to better drain water? Plenty of examples were given–most of them in Europe–where the lots are camouflaged by tree cover and are thus shaded, making it less of an oppressive atmosphere to walk from or back to one’s car.

Landscaping in parking lots has benefits other than to the environment. Ben-Joseph states:

“CPTED [crime prevention through environmental design] strategies toward crime prevention and the increased perception of safety have also been applied to parking lot design. While one of the most common parking lot design approaches is to maintain vistas and reduce vegetation (natural surveillance), research also shows that feeling secure in parking lots correlates with attractive landscaping. The research suggests that vegetation may increase perceptions of both attractiveness and security if it is well maintained and attractively landscaped. The presence of unmaintained, weedy vegetation might have the opposite effect on security perceptions, particularly in isolated, rundown areas.”

When parking lots are not occupied by cars, they lie open and ready for the taking. Ben-Joseph discussed alternative uses for parking lots, many of which originated as spontaneous drop-in events like flea markets and concerts. A wide open space free for the taking is irresistible for those who are hosting community events which draw mainly pedestrians–hence no need for parking.

“As the examples in this book illustrate, a successful parking lot is one that integrates its site conditions and context, takes measures to mitigate its impacts on the environment, and gives consideration to aesthetics as well as the driver-parker experience. Designed with conscientious intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks, or plazas. For this to happen, we need to release ourselves from the singular, auto-centric outlook for the use of the lot. We need to reevaluate conventional parking requirements against evolving lifestyles and changing priorities. Above all, we need to accept that parking lots are primary settings for many aspects of public life for Americans, and for a growing number of others across the globe. For something that occupies such a vast amount of land, and is used on a daily basis, the parking lot has received scant attention. It’s time to ask: what can a parking lot be? It’s time to rethink the lot.”

The MIT Press made ReThinking a Lot attractive to the look and touch. Its typeface was unfortunately too small for me, and I read the book at home with a magnifying glass. I found steadying a magnifying glass while trying to read on the bus not easy. The lengthy captions under the photos were repeated word for word in the adjacent text, so there was a lot of redundancy when a shorter caption would have sufficed.

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