Rethinking the Parking Lot

Everything we know about the automobile is under scrutiny, and so is everything we know about the parking lot. Should they be made of concrete or grass? Is their greatest purpose to generate revenue, store cars or act as a public space for people?

It feels illicit and maybe even illegal. It is the moment when your car’s wheels leave the asphalt and begin to leave tire treads on -- gasp -- grass. These exceptional moments tend to be limited to overflow parking for things like weddings, concerts and sporting events such as stock car racing or baseball games.

Yet there may be a permanent place for grass in parking lots. As cities work to make large swaths of concrete and pavement more sustainable, they are rethinking the lot as a public space that benefits the people who live and work nearby. It is not enough to add landscaping to regimented rows of freshly striped asphalt. That model is limiting, not liberating, says Michael Lehrer of California-based Lehrer Architects. He suggests turning the conventional model on its head. “Park cars in a park, not trees in a parking lot,” he says.

When I met Lehrer this summer in Des Moines, he had just toured much of the city’s heritage architecture and the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a 4.5-acre refuge in the city’s center. The experience reinforced his core belief that good architecture shapes space “to create practical and emotive places.” He speaks in terms that are more poetic than those used by most urban planners -- that “beauty and delight are rudimentary to human dignity.” Lehrer, who has applied that thinking to the design of homeless shelters, neighborhood centers and commercial buildings with after-hours community uses, now asks, “Knowing what we know, can we redeem the lowly parking lot?”

To do it, we need to challenge our assumptions about their composition -- from concrete to permeable (or porous) asphalt to grass and other ground cover -- and how we measure their value -- as a metered revenue-producing civic asset, a storage space for unproductive cars or as a public space for people.

Lehrer is extending arguments made by the handful of researchers who have studied parking lots. Former urban planner Eran Ben-Joseph, now a professor and the author of ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, argues that parking lots are “ripe for transformation” from single-purpose “repositories for stationary vehicles” to social, public spaces with the potential to contribute “as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks, or plazas.” In his detailed history of a century of parking lots, he argues that the lots themselves -- not cars -- were “a key element in the destruction of the small-scale pedestrian urban fabric associated with ‘good’ cities.”

Parking lots lack a natural constituency. While reforming parking lots is not a big priority, rethinking how we approach them could be allied with sustainability, urban renewal and economic development. Ben-Joseph writes that parking lots get scant attention even from the people who are responsible for them. “Planners, designers, developers, and the public rarely pay attention to the design of parking lots. Most parking regulations deal not with the design of the lot, but rather with the minimum number of spaces required for new developments.”

Everything we know about the automobile is under scrutiny: its relationship to public transit, the future of the internal combustion engine amid a growing number of high-tech alternatives, and whether it can (or will) drive itself. It follows that greener, cleaner vehicles could use a greener, cleaner place to share with those of us who still rely on them. If we get it right, “park” can be a both a noun and a verb.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.