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Books and Culture

Emily Washington
The Secret Life of Parking Lots
Could all this paved space have better uses?
13 July 2012

ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, by Eran Ben-Joseph (MIT Press, 184 pp., $24.95)

In the iconic movie American Graffiti, the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant serves as a public space for teenagers, offering the freedom of being away from home at a low cost. The characters use the lot to show off their cars but also to socialize outdoors, in the way that urban planners seem to want people to use open space. In his book ReThinking a Lot, author Eran Ben-Joseph imagines parking lots along just these lines.

Even those who appreciate the utility of parking lots typically think of them as single-purpose. Ben-Joseph challenges this perception. He begins with an overview of city planners’ legal requirements for parking and how these rules have shaped the size and design of open-air parking lots. While he acknowledges that many such lots today are uninspired and unattractive, he suggests that they don’t have to be—perhaps they might become something like the version that appears in nostalgic movies.

Parking lots first became common in the suburbs in the 1920s, Ben-Joseph shows. Their prevalence soon prompted urban retailers to demand parking space of their own to compete with suburban businesses. Cities like Denver even attempted to revitalize their central business districts by supplying free parking on city-owned lots—as if parking lots themselves would attract customers to stores. Many cities also began requiring property owners to offer a minimum amount of free parking for their customers. The minimums were based on the properties’ square footage, a method that Ben-Joseph—like Donald Shoup, author of the urbanist classic The High Cost of Free Parking—criticizes: square footage is often not a good indicator of how many people will park somewhere and can inflate the estimates of needed space. But city planners don’t have the resources to develop requirements for parking on a lot-by-lot basis.

Following Shoup, Ben-Joseph argues that cities should stop telling property owners how much free parking to offer. Instead, he suggests, cities should require design standards for parking lots. Lot owners would then dedicate some of their parking space to landscaping, public art display, or other forms of beautification. “The surface parking lot has ravaged large swaths of the landscape,” Ben-Joseph writes. “It (along with the highway) was a key element in the destruction of the small-scale pedestrian urban fabric associated with ‘good’ cities.” Better-designed parking lots would help repair the fabric; so would the alternative uses for parking lots that Ben-Joseph highlights, from farmers’ markets and food trucks to basketball courts and makeshift bowling alleys.

Yet Ben-Joseph doesn’t explain why urban planners would be any better at producing design standards than they were at determining optimal parking allotments. He seems to struggle with his view of parking lots, seeing them simultaneously as blights and as positive contributions to communities’ open space. This prevents him from acknowledging that they can serve all these alternative uses only after they have become empty swaths of asphalt. He seems to believe that if parking lots were better designed, with landscaping to provide shade and public art to provide interest, they could meet diverse demands for public space. But some of his suggestions could actually diminish the potential for public uses that parking lots serve today. For example, if a lot’s most valuable alternative use is as a basketball court, city planners would do a disservice to the community by requiring the owner to landscape it.

Changing the focus of parking-lot regulations, as Ben-Joseph suggests, won’t solve the core problem: city planners can only arbitrarily determine the most valuable use for a piece of land. Still, Ben-Joseph’s book offers a solid history of how parking requirements evolved and will open eyes about the surprising potential of parking lots to be more than just places to park your car.

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