Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

May 17, 2012

Let's be honest. It's hard to get excited about car parks. That probably accounts for the paucity of serious studies about them. To make matters worse, car parks - known in the US as parking lots - do not exactly enjoy a positive reputation in most quarters. As Joni Mitchell famously put it in her 1970 song Big Yellow Taxi, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

According to urban planner Eran Ben-Joseph, there are now three non-residential parking spaces for every car in the US, with as many as 30 in Houston and some other US cities. This translates into nearly 800 million parking spaces covering an area larger than Puerto Rico. With roughly 600 million passenger cars throughout the world, other communities and countries face comparable parking and commercial situations.

The author hardly opposes parking lots altogether, for cars must be left somewhere. Not surprisingly, moreover, ordinary parking lots are infinitely cheaper to construct than garages. But the immobility of cars approximately 95 per cent of the time makes it imperative to establish additional uses for parking lots. By contrast, in numerous UK communities with large football stadiums, fans often walk to and from matches while nearby pubs are open on most other days as well.

Ben-Joseph proposes a parking-lot makeover, beginning with a change in outmoded zoning codes for cities such as New York that require far more parking spaces per housing and retail space units than are realistically needed. He goes on to urge that we tart up the parking lots themselves, covering them with solar canopies to generate energy and lower heat, planting trees to reduce carbon footprints and simultaneously to beautify the entrances to buildings, repaving lots to reduce storm water run-offs and, in turn, to lessen damage to watersheds, and adding both charging stalls for electric vehicles and wind turbines for providing electricity to shops and offices.

The growing use of parking lots for periodic functions such as farmers' markets, charity fundraisers, church services, theatre and movie performances, dances and street-hockey games also draw Ben-Joseph's attention and commendation. The recent Occupy protests in the US also frequently utilised parking lots. Since 2005, a global event called Park(ing) Day has resulted in the extension of many lots in dozens of countries into areas for temporary health clinics, bike-repair shops, seminars and weddings. Whether, however, many conventional parking lots could ever become permanently attractive public spaces remains to be seen.

Although Rethinking a Lot focuses primarily on the present and the recent past, Ben-Joseph provides a fascinating chapter on the history of parking horses, chariots and wagons long before the invention of cars in the late 19th century. Like the other chapters, this one includes many wonderful photos and diagrams with helpfully detailed captions.

Ben-Joseph's clear writing is filled with puns, beginning with the book title and continuing with its chapter titles: "A Lot on my Mind", "A Lot in Common", "Lots of Time", "Lots of Excellence" and "Musing a Lot". He also enjoys connecting his serious research with popular culture, starting with the dust-jacket photo of a 1989 Dustin Shuler sculpture entitled Spindle, a 50ft-high spike with eight cars impaled on it, which graced an Illinois parking lot until 2008. Nor can he resist citing a tabloid's 2002 front-page story headlined "Ancient Parking Lot Found on Mars". Insisting that "alien civilizations DO exist", the article asks whether the Martians might be running out of parking spaces and so seeking to invade Earth in order to use ours.

Whatever challenges may be facing the Martians, Rethinking Lot challenges Earthlings not to banish parking lots from any future potential paradises.

Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

By Eran Ben-Joseph
MIT Press, 184pp
£17.95
ISBN 9780262017336
Published 5 April 2012

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