Ruminating on the American parking lot

Here is part of a review of a new book that discusses better ways to design large-scale parking lots:

Mr. Ben-Joseph does offer some parking-lot success stories, few that there are. He introduces us to the Herman Miller factory in Cherokee County, Ga., whose segmented, 550-car lot is sympathetically integrated into the surrounding woodscape. He also approvingly notes the canopied car plaza in front of the Dia:Beacon Museum in Beacon, N.Y. (a collaboration between American artist Robert Irwin and the architecture firm OpenOffice), where the angled planters separating the parking spaces point the way to the museum entrance. Renzo Piano, redesigning the old Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, took a similar approach, creating dense and splendid colonnades of trees…

Mr. Ben-Joseph is also guilty of sociological overreach. “Parking lots are a central part of our social and cultural life,” he writes, calling them “a modern-day common.” Wait, what? They are? Yes, teenagers gather in parking lots for one rite of adolescence or another: fighting, racing, dancing. True, community farmers markets spring up over the weekend in business and municipal parking lots; tailgating is a ritualized feasting before sporting events; RV drivers form impromptu villages in Wal-Mart parking lots, a practice known as “boondocking.”

But these interactions happen despite the forbidding nature of open parking lots, not because of them. I find parking lots to be intensely anti-social. I do not engage with strangers on my way to or from the car, and because these tracts are typically shelterless, there is no architectural cue as to where to congregate even if you wanted to. One can’t let go of a child’s hand in a parking lot for even a second. If you’re in a car, a parking lot is an obstacle course to negotiate. If you’re on foot, it’s a place to escape unscathed.

Surface parking lots don’t have to be the minimalist slabs of nowhere-ness we’ve grown accustomed to, Mr. Ben-Joseph suggests. Maybe. And yet there are few signs that this aspect of our infrastructure will get much better anytime soon. For now, I was glad to reach my car and drive away.

I think you could make a case that parking lots really do matter beyond what kind of social activity takes place in them. Thinking more broadly, parking lots represent the American love affair with the car and development based around driving. The zoning laws about the required number of parking spots suggest that one of the worst things we can imagine in everyday life is the lack of an easily available parking space. Shopping malls and big box stores and fast food restaurants are dependent on these giant lots. In cities, parking lots are often profitable holding operations until the land is profitable enough to justify a large development. Overall, the big parking lot is emblematic of a whole lifestyle built around cars and trucks that took over America starting in the 1920s.

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