There are an estimated 800 million nonresidential parking spaces in the United States. Yet despite their ubiquity, there has traditionally been little to no thought given to surface parking lot design. In his compelling book, ReThinking a Lot, MIT professor and urban planner Eran Ben-Joseph examines the past, present, and future of surface parking lots. “For something that occupies such a vast amount of land, and is used on a daily basis, the parking lot has received scant attention,” Ben-Joseph writes. “It’s time to ask: what can a parking lot be? It’s time to rethink the lot.”
We spoke with Ben-Joseph about the potential for surface lots, and how those innovations might take place in the suburbs, in summer 2014.
(Note: Ben-Joseph was part of the team that created the Civic Arches proposal—a design that would free up surface parking for new uses in downtown Rockville Centre, NY—for the Long Island Index’s ParkingPLUS Design Challenge. The ParkingPLUS Design Challenge solicited designs to rethink the 4,000-plus acres of surface parking in and around Long Island’s downtowns. Build a Better Burb and the Long Island Index are both sponsored by the Rauch Foundation.)
Your book shows examples of parking lots as social spaces—from marketplaces to dance venues—often in urban areas where people naturally gather. How might suburban areas also encourage these uses?
Eran Ben-Joseph: There are great opportunities in suburban and mall lots. For example, there are already many farmers markets, fairs, swap meets, classic car shows, etc. Often it is the owners of these lots themselves who rent or organize such events as a way to attract customers to their location or even generate revenues by renting the space.
Are there economic benefits to this?
Ben-Joseph: Many people gain from these uses. Landowners (municipal or private) gain through any type of rent paid (as in stalls for a craft or farmers market); municipalities gain in that if more people are using previously inactive and empty environments, more street activity will likely occur and surrounding businesses may prosper, increasing municipal tax revenues, civic engagement, and a community’s reputation of having interesting places to visit or activities to attend; and developers gain from including amenities and thus luring potential users into nearby restaurants and shops. There are also examples of nonprofit-sponsored events that utilize parking lots in suburban locations to increase economic impact on a community.
In addition to social uses, how might developers and planners also be prompted to create more environmentally friendly lots?
Ben-Joseph: There is an effort to create a “ranking” system for parking—similar to LEED—that I’ve been involved in through the International Parking Institute. This effort could incentivize developers to create sustainable designs in order to win prizes/citations and gain publicity. It has worked very well for buildings. Also similar to LEED, such parking certification could recognize developers’ commitment to environmental issues within their community and industry, and qualify them for state and local government sustainability initiatives.
Lots could also be planned to respond to changes in environmental or use conditions. Lots that are infrequently used, such as those adjacent to large sports stadiums, could be designed with amenable vegetated surfaces to reduce environmental impacts. Other lots located in flood zones could not only act as temporary detention facilities for floodwaters but could also in the long run develop into active wetlands. These strategies have the potential for a more complete integration of parking lots not only to a community’s transportation systems but also to its environmental ones.
Are there any parking lots that combine environmentalism, utility, and aesthetics?
Ben-Joseph: Unfortunately, there are very few and none are perfect. But some good examples would include parking lots at El Rio de Los Angeles State Park, CA; at the Dia art museum in Beacon, NY; at the old Fiat Lingotto factory, Turin, Italy; and various lots in Almere New Town, Netherlands.
Could suburban zoning codes and laws be modified to require more innovation and better parking lot design?
Ben-Joseph: Enforcing codes and regulations that impose a particular design solution may not always be the best way to achieve desirable results. An alternative is to incentivize and promote change through voluntary initiatives rather than through rules. Parking lots provide a blank canvas that can accommodate many changes and uses within the built environment. We must not forget this aspect of these unique spaces, or all parking lots will look and function alike and be deprived of their potential ability to be spontaneously changed.
But if you insist… here are some specific ideas:
Parking maximums, not minimums
Parking maximums instead of parking minimums help to reduce overall presence of parking lots. This caps the total number of parking spaces required, as opposed to setting a base number which a developer is free to go above.
Allow changes in use for parking lots
These can include a variety of acceptable uses. For example, some cities have introduced zoning changes that increase the ability for car-sharing vehicles to be parked in residential and commercial areas. Other places have changed their zoning codes to facilitate use of parking lots for farmers markets.
Rather than working by means of restrictions, this form of regulation shapes the built environment by imposing limits on impacts, leaving greater flexibility in design and construction. It allows for a mixture of different types of solutions on a given site. Example of parking lot performance standards can include variables such as impervious surface ratios, shading ratios, parking configuration types, shape, and inclusion of natural features.
Who do you think should be responsible for making more innovative lots: planners, designers, developers, or the public?
Ben-Joseph: All of the above.
Interview has been condensed and edited.