Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Rethinking a Lot" by Eran Ben-Joseph

"Rethinking a Lot: The Culture and Design of Parking," Eran Ben-Joseph's unexpectedly lyrical ode to the humble parking lot, displays imagination and a broadly creative approach to something that many of us, frankly, spend little time thinking about. (It's also an opportunity for many puns. The book's three sections are called, respectively, A Lot in Common (the current state), Lots of Time (a brief history of parking), and Lots of Excellence.) Being able to park our cars is something we take for granted, until we can't find a spot, and Ben-Joseph gives us excellent reasons to do two things: to think about how many parking spaces we need, and to think about how those spaces, and the lots they are in, are built.

How many parking spaces are there, in the US and the world? No one is quite sure of the answer, and Ben-Joseph provides a range of estimates: in the US, the middle estimate is about 500 million parking spaces. How many are needed? Again, the answer is surprising, especially when you consider that, according to Ben-Joseph, "95 percent of the time cars are immobile." (And that does not mean stuck in traffic.) One answer he provides, based on the fact that 95% of the US workforce commutes to work by car, means space (two spaces, actually, one at each end) for 119 million vehicles. The amount of space for work parking alone translates into an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. And that doesn't include parking for shopping or recreational use, not to mention the other two, three, or four cars many families have.

That's a lot of space, and the environmental and esthetic consequences are enormous. But, and here's where the imaginative part comes in, Ben-Joseph identifies a lot of things municipalities, companies, and individuals can do to re-imagine the lot, and in the process make the car-city-pedestrian interface a little smoother (and quite possibly safer). Adding trees to lots gives shade cover and cools down both the lot and the surrounding area. (The photo above is from the Herman Miller factory parking lot.) Changing storm water capture to do more than ensure efficient runoff allows water conservation and, perhaps, filtering through local plants. Off hours, lots can be used for farmers' markets, flea markets, recreation, and even theatre and art. And integrating lots more into street life can slow traffic down, increasing safety. Examples include New York City's recent expansion of its "Slow Zones" program and Chicago's campaign to reduce traffic fatalities to zero in 15 years (I have written about that metric here).

The book is well-designed, clearly written, and beautifully illustrated. It's a great guide to an important issue most of us have thought little about.

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