Joni Mitchell got it right: We have paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. There are 600 million cars in the world, and they’re each idle 95 percent of the time — we have to put ‘em somewhere when nobody’s behind the wheel.
I have lamented our lack of creativity in making a home for our cars before, wondering why these vast, empty expanses of concrete can’t be humanized with solar panels that recharge electric cars, wind turbines, green gardens, rock concerts, art shows and sculpture gardens. Instead, parking lots — and especially multi-story garages — are among the most soulless places on Earth, and getting stuck in one is like a vision of hell. I’ve been reading a lot of Bill Bryson lately, and here’s his description of parking garages in Notes From a Small Island:
Just consider the average multistory car park. You drive around for ages, and then spend a small eternity shunting into a space that is exactly two inches wider than the average car. Then, because you are parked next to a pillar, you have to climb over the seats and squeeze butt-first out the passenger door…The remarkable thing is that everything about this process is intentionally — mark this, intentionally — designed to flood your life with unhappiness. From the tiny parking bays that can be got into only by maneuvering your car through a 46-point turn (why can’t the spaces be angled, for crying out loud?) to the careful placing of pillars where they will cause maximum obstruction, to the ramps that are so dark and narrow that you always bump the curb, to the remote, willfully unhelpful ticket machines...
Bryson says that dealing with parking garages (like the one at right) is “the most dispiriting experience of your adult life,” and who is going to disagree with him? I once hit one of those pillars in a particularly diabolical garage in, I think, Zurich. The European ones are even worse than the American, because they were designed for really small cars.
So we are ripe for reform. Well, now I have an ally in Eran Ben-Joseph, an MIT professor whose new book is called "Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking."
Ben-Joseph wrote in this New York Times piece that there are three non-residential spaces for every car in the U.S., 800 million in all, covering 4,360 square miles — an area larger than Puerto Rico. All those spaces repel rainwater, which leads to increased stormwater runoff. And acres of uncovered pavement turns cities into “heat islands.” Lots cover a third of Los Angeles, a third of Orlando — so that’s why I have trouble with those cities!
"We all use parking lots, and we all kind of hate them," Ben-Joseph says. "Yet they're part of everyday life and we have to deal with that. There are cultural and psychological issues around parking lots, and a lot of anxiety about how people behave and drive in them. We need to think about these spaces as being an important part of our daily lives."
And how. Right before finishing this story, I lectured at a college and parked in their garage. Among the indignities: There was no clear indication of where visitors should park; there was no way to walk out of the garage without being directly in the traffic stream; and getting to the college from the lot involved crossing a busy, median-divided street with whizzing cars and trucks everywhere. The garage was dark and scary at night. Typical, right?
At UC San Diego, a student lot bristles with tall sun-catching “trees” from Envision Solar. At the time of my visit, they weren’t yet set up to recharge EVs, but that was the plan. In Ann Arbor, Mich., I visited the Fletcher Street garage, which holds annual “Top of the Park” movie screenings and concert events as part of the three-week Ann Arbor Summer Festival. You could groove with a great view, and sample the fare from the food trucks.
Ben-Joseph’s prescription for a happy parking lot:
- A forest of solar canopies to “produce energy while lowering heat”
- Porous asphalt to stop stormwater runoff and trees “planted in rows like an apple orchard, so [the park] could sequester carbon and clean contaminated runoff.” The Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, has such a lot, minus islands and bumper-busting curbs and with “rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.”
- Regular activities, including farmers markets, games of street hockey, tailgate parties, and the aforementioned concerts and film screenings. This is “found” space; let’s find it!
I love the green roof idea, by the way. The 12-story parking garage at 900 North Michigan in Chicago (at left) has 16,866 square feet of cultivation, featuring five planting mixes of, among other things, stonecrop, sedum, chives and feather reed grass. Just across the way is a luxury condo with its own green roof, featuring ornamental grasses.
And get this: The new Yankee Stadium has a unique garage rooftop park that covers seven acres and a full city block, with trees and abundant plantings, not to mention a soccer/football field, a 400-meter running track (with bleachers), eight handball courts, four basketball courts and even a workout place. Dare I mention the “comfort station”?
Here's a closer look at green roofs, courtesy the Wall Street Journal: