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Lots of Trouble

An urban planner rethinks our parking spaces.

Quick: Name a great parking lot.

You probably can’t think of? one. If you could, it would surprise Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at MIT. While teaching MIT’s site planning class a few years ago, Ben-Joseph found himself struggling to find examples of exemplary parking lots among the vast fields of asphalt and utilitarian garages.

So he began asking friends and colleagues if they could name lots that had even a few good qualities. “Most people can’t point to one,” he says.

To raise public awareness of this issue, and to encourage designers and planners to pay more attention to it, Ben-Joseph has produced a book about it. In Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, he questions the most common forms of parking lots and suggests improvements. “We all use parking lots, and we all kind of hate them,” he says. “We need to think about these spaces as being an important part of our lives.”

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Parking lots take up one-third of the surface area in some major cities, says Ben-Joseph. That is a lot of lots. In fact, as UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup and others have shown, engineers and planners routinely overestimate how many parking spaces a given development will need. Many parking lots are built to accommodate far more cars than they hold on most days. The largest mall near you probably has a lot that approaches capacity only during the holiday season; football stadiums have massive lots that may be fully used just 10 times per year.

One reason lots take up so much space is purely economic: parking garages can cost four times as much as flat lots, and underground lots can cost six to eight times as much. But enormous lots can create environmental problems: for instance, all that pavement makes water run off faster than plants can extract pollutants from it.

So how can parking lots be made better? For one thing, Ben-Joseph says, planners might plant trees in them, as the architect Renzo Piano did at a Fiat factory in Turin, Italy. Low-use parking lots need not be entirely paved, either: Miami’s Sun Life Stadium has large grass lots that are environmentally better year-round.

Parking lots are also more user-friendly when they’re designed with the recognition that drivers become pedestrians after they park. Ben-Joseph likes the redesign of the Porter Square parking lot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because it helps pedestrians traverse its entrance more easily and “has a nice relationship to the street, almost more like an urban plaza.” He also commends the Market Place Shopping Mall in Tustin, California, whose tree-covered parking and walkways offer shade and reduce storm-water runoff.

More than anything, though, Ben-Joseph regards the parking lot as a work in progress. “Parking lots are not going to disappear,” he says, “so we should think about how we’re going to design them.”