Reclaiming the parking lot

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Til it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

You don’t have to look further than Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi to get a sense of public sentiment for parking lots. No one really likes them, yet they are an inherent by-product of American car culture.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Michael Kimmelman writes that one study estimates there are eight parking spots for every car in the country. That’s a lot of black asphalt.

But Kimmelman argues there’s a design opportunity to be had in all that empty space.

For starters we ought to take these lots more seriously, architecturally. Many architects and urban planners don’t. Beyond greener designs and the occasional celebrity-architect garage, we need to think more about these lots as public spaces, as part of the infrastructure of our streets and sidewalks, places for various activities that may change and evolve, because not all good architecture is permanent. Hundreds of lots already are taken over by farmers’ markets, street-hockey games, teenage partiers and church services. We need to recognize and encourage diversity. This is the idea behind Parking Day, a global event, around since 2005, that invites anybody and everybody to transform metered lots. Each year participants have adapted hundreds of them in dozens of countries, setting up temporary health clinics and bike-repair shops, having seminars and weddings.

…Of course suburban and urban lots are not all the same, and it’s glib to say we should just buy fewer cars. Yes, we ought to wean ourselves from automobiles in favor of public transportation. We rely too much on cars because our public transit systems are often so abysmal. But cars aren’t going away anytime soon, certainly not in the suburbs or in cities like Los Angeles, and we can’t just wish away lots in which to park them. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, the landscape writer who died in 1996, years ago pleaded that the parking lot be treated like the city common, with its own community values.

Kimmelman goes on to describe the efforts of the architecture and planning firm Interboro Partners, as it attempts to bring new life to both parking lots and abandoned strip malls. He also details some innovative new designs in parking lots to make them both “greener” and more aesthetically pleasing.

Here in Minnesota we certainly have our fair share of parking lots, and for that matter, parking ramps. Many of them have been taken over for neighborhood farmers’ markets. But what else could they be used for? Is there an opportunity here that we’re missing?