Archaeology of Parking in the Contemporary World

This weekend, when I should have been doing some more pressing, I read Eran Ben-Joseph’s Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking (MIT 2015). It’s a fun and vividly illustrated book which considers parking over time as well as a contemporary design challenge for architects and planners.

It’s a short book and fairly affordable as a paperback, so there’s not much sense in reviewing it. If you want to get a sense for the book, MIT Press has made a section available for free here

The book gave me a few thoughts (which seems like the most we can hope for at this point of 2020):

1. Parking Lot Stratigraphy. My wife and I have been working on a few projects that involve the history of the mid-century growth in Grand Forks and the history of transportation in and through the city. In both projects parking plays a key role as car become a ubiquitous concern for planners in the post-War city and reshape the city’s landscape from a reasonably compact grid of the downtown to the more sprawling later-20th century city defined by its four-lane arterial roads. 

In the mid-20th century the first shopping centers appeared in town on Washington Street which was a major arterial road in the city. Parking lots fronted these shopping centers and surrounded the newly constructed South Forks Plaza (now Grand Cities Mall) the first indoor shopping mall in North Dakota. Today as then, the size of a parking lot is set in proportion to the interior space of the building that it is to serve. The ratio of parking to floor area, however, has shifted over the last 70 years as has the amount of room reserved for each parking spot. In general, lots are designed to balance between the need to accommodate the maximum number of cars on a peak shopping day and the need to avoid looking of empty and desolate. Ordinances dictating the design of lots, requirements for green spaces and trees, the need for drainage, and even barriers separating the lot from through roads further shape the form and density of parking in town. As a result, there should be some rough correspondence between the parking ratio (lot size: building floor area) and the date of the lot (if we allow for other variables). It would be intriguing to map this across mid-century commercial building and lots in town.

2. Parking Lot Innovation. Ben-Joseph argues that, when compared to other areas of architecture and design, parking lots not seen their share of innovation. His book made clear how dreadful most of Grand Forks’s surface parking lots really are.

North Dakota is the kind of town where parking is important. This is not only because we’ve well and truly embraced sprawl but also because for four months of the year it’s punishingly cold. Moreover the need for spaces to allow for snow removal (and the incredible persistence of snow over the course of the winter) create the need for a generous attitude toward surface parking. We’re also a growing town and parking lots (and shopping centers) often appear to be aspirational in the number of cars and shoppers that they can accommodate.

Even so, a recent survey on the University of North Dakota’s campus showed that we are significantly over supplied with parking. Moreover the recent number of high visibility store closures suggesting that some of their aspirations for shoppers and parking were miscalibrated. While UND continues to work to strategically eliminate excess parking (with the predictable hue and cry from students and staff), commercial parking – particularly along the Washington Street and 32nd Avenue corridors – continues to offer bleak vistas of empty lots surrounding closed (or closing) big box retailers. 

I can’t help but think that these lots are an under-utilized resource for our community especially during the six, non-winter months. Parking lots have long served as sites for informal commercial activities like flea markets, farmers markets, and “car boot sales” as well as various food and beer festivals. While Grand Forks has a fair number of these kinds of events, they tend to be concentrated downtown in the alleys and open spaces there. I wonder if our community might be well served by more events in the under-utilized parking lots of big box stores south of town? 

I also wonder whether the struggles of the community’s two shopping malls and various big box retailers might lead planners to think about lots with more flexible designs that allowed them to be repurposed in different ways as needs invariably change. Parking lots do have the advantage of being particularly well suited for informal activities and events and in an age where public spaces seem always to be at risk, parking lots do have the potential to be a kind of community commons.     

2. Parking Lots and Pandemics. It’s been pretty amazing how the humble parking lot has emerged as a key element in how we’re negotiating the current pandemic. Even here in the antipodes, parking lots have become the scene for drive-in movies and concerts. Parking lots are a requirement for the drive-through COVID testing that 

While I’ve not heard of it in Grand Forks, I know that several communities have used parking lots for drive-in churches (and since so many of our churches have generously aspirational parking lots, this would seem to be an ideal opportunity!). I’ve also not heard of parking lots being used as places for the community to gather to watch sporting events (presumably on a large screen!) or to share in other forms of community-building activities usually reserved for face-to-face gatherings. I keep thinking of a drive up food festival (which I recognize would expose servers to greater risk than patrons).

The great think about parking lots is that they are essentially blank canvases and represent the potential even in the desert of our car-focused culture.

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