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


  1. Lately what I find even more striking than outdoor parking (which has long fascinated me with its massive commercial real estate and roadway allocation) is garages. Specifically, residential garages. One of the streets on the route I run near my home is currently being filled up with cheap duplexes. When a house is still just a stick frame without full walls yet, the size of the garage relative to the other rooms is more apparent. And these places… there’s more garage than living room. It’s just creepy as all hell to see.

    Douglas Adams was more correct than he could ever have known.

      1. The joke was that Ford Prefect named himself that because he mistakenly believed cars were the dominant life form on Earth.

  2. “Many huge suburban parking lots are built to accommodate a maximum capacity of cars that is only rarely needed. ”

    Definitely only applies to the USA.
    In the UK, car parks tend to fill up most weekends and parking spills out onto nearby streets, which upsets residents and, after a few months of a new shop opening, the “Resident only” signs go up.
    In Germany, car parks tend to be a similar size to the UK car parks, but everyone gets bus/train/walk/bike and the car parks are generally only half full except at Christmas when it turns into one almighty clusterfuck as people that never normally need to find spaces have to hunt them down. I drove round the periphery of a couple that had literally gridlocked themselves into a steaming mess of rage and horns.

    1. You have clearly never been to Milton Keynes*. Someone really needs to buy this book for the town council…
      *also known as ‘We really wish we were living in America in the 60s’ or ‘Satan’s layby’ to Bill Bailey fans

  3. Berwyn, IL spindle art represent!

    To bad they tore it down last year to put a walgreens in place, because the old walgreens at the end of the strip mall (just to the right this cover photo) couldn’t put a drive thru pharmacy at its old location.

    1. I heard it was because all their new stores were somehow “required” to be on an out-lot. It’s kinda hard to believe they couldn’t put a drive thru in on the end of the building since there’s plenty of room… Way to go! Wallgreens,  you ruined a wonderfully classic piece of art for a relatively new pile of shit. Oh, and thanks for the semi redeeming wind turbines that replaced the equally more cool kinetic sculptures.  

    2. I might read this simply because the spindle is on the cover. So glad I got to see it in person a few times before Das Walgreens started destroying inconvenient art.

  4. There are some very well designed parking lots at some of the newer supermarkets in the UK. Two design features in particular that I regard as crucial, that I’ve never seen anywhere in N. America:
    a) walkways between the rows of cars, so that people walking from the store to their cars never have to walk in the lanes where the cars drive. This dramatically improves safety, especially if you have young kids.
    b) trees. Lots of trees. For example, the walkways in (a) are lined with trees that shade the cars from the heat, soak up some of the pollution, and help to offset some of the carbon emissions. 

    Of course, if the walkways look elegant, using interlocking brick, raised planters with shrubs, etc, that also helps. The Brits do that type of thing so much better than the Americans.

    1. There are a few stores in Seattle that have about half of the parking in a garage below the store.  Huge parking lots are usually required by zoning laws.  

    2. It seems like there are more stores in Seattle that don’t have walkways in their parking lots. More walkways, please. All the way to the edge–some people don’t arrive in cars.

    1. MIT readers automatically translate that to “less expensive by a factor of four.” We all speak the same language at MIT, very, very, badly.

  5. Those big stadium parking lots may only be used by the fans of the team using the stadium ten times a year, but that doesn’t mean that is all they get used.  I have seen them used for commuter parking, which means that portions are in use almost every day except when there is a ball game/concert. They are also used during the week for driver’s and riders education programs; nothing like lots of clear ground for a new driver to make learning mistakes in.  And they are used by amateur sports enthusiasts when they can get them. Locally the SCCA has locked up the contract with the stadium authority, which is good for them but has hurt the other car clubs in the area by locking them out (to the detriment of the sport (autocross) locally.

    But there are a lot of uses that an occasional big slab of pavement can be, and are, put to besides parking cars on it.

  6. Last month I was in Paris for a meeting, and stayed near Stade de France, the big football/rugby stadium. Probably 50-60k seats. Zero parking. How? The RER train stopped a half mile away, and people are willing to take the train and then walk.

    1. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that 50,000 Americans would walk half a mile. No, really. I totally do.

      Let’s see, 5280 divided by 50k… that’s a little over an inch. Yep, they’ll go for that.

  7. Need a solar tycoon to lease the air space and put up solar panels, if what I read a few years ago about 100 sq mi of solar would power the country seems like you could get that just from the Atlanta to LA  sunbelt without having much distribution + covered parking

  8.  So does the book offer suggestions and solutions? I’d love to read some good concepts. I hate, hate, hate any form of parking (besides parking in your own private suburban driveway or garage), even in the suburbs but especially in cities.

    I understand the difficulty of the problem, but I often wonder if parking is deliberately designed to be unpleasant in some places. It kind of makes sense to do that, to encourage people to take public transit or walk – but in places where public transit is nonexistent and walking is overly difficult there are some sadists out there designing the parking.

  9. Brisbane domestic airport has a stunning carpark. Although just a concrete cuboid in shape, the side facing the terminal is covered in small metal plates hung from hooks. As gusts of wind blow past, they sway, altering their apparent colour to form ripples and eddies like a vertical pool of water – from a distance the illusion is striking. Google tells me it’s by a fellow called Ned Kahn (insert William Shatner scream here).

    (Really needs a video to do the effect justice. I’d love to cover my house in these things).

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