ReThinking a Lot: the weird, massive, hidden-in-plain sight world of parking

A press-release from MIT Press describes ReThinking a Lot, a fascinating-sounding book by MIT landscape architecture and urban design prof Eran Ben-Joseph. Ben-Joseph is obsessed with the odd role that parking and parking lots play in our urban landscapes, and ReThinking a Lot looks at the weird world of American parking, where the available non-residential parking spots cover a landmass the size of Puerto Rico, often sitting on prime real-estate in the middle of cities. Ben-Joseph asks 'Have you seen a great parking lot lately?' and recounts a few not-terrible examples of the species, and sets out some general principles for better parking.

In some places, to be sure, this problem has lessened, particularly with the urban revival in many cities during the last couple of decades. “You look at aerial photography of the downtowns of U.S. cities in the 1950s and 1960s, you’ll be amazed at how many surface parking lots there were,” Ben-Joseph says.

But the parking lot problem is also a suburban issue, not just an urban one. Many huge suburban parking lots are built to accommodate a maximum capacity of cars that is only rarely needed. The largest mall near you probably has a parking lot that only approaches capacity during the holiday season; football stadiums have massive parking lots that may only be used 10 times per year.

Apart from everything else, these parking lots can create multiple environmental problems: More asphalt creates more heat, and leads to faster water runoff — which means plants might not have the chance to extract pollutants from water, as they often do in creeks and streams.

Moreover, the economics of parking lot construction means that surface parking lots, where the whole lot is on ground level, occupy a large footprint because they are relatively cheap to build — four times less expensive than parking garages and six to eight times less expensive than underground parking lots.

ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

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