The Solution to Urban Blight: Parking Lots

Urban planner Eran Ben-Joseph believes parking lots can serve as a focal point for social and cultural activity in Israeli cities.

Approximately 2 million cars travel Israel’s roads every day. If they were to be parked together in one place, they would fill a parking lot of about 20 square kilometers ‏(equivalent to the size of Holon‏). And that doesn’t factor in the necessary spaces between cars, the automatic payment stations ‏(or guard booths at less sophisticated parking lots‏) and the access routes leading drivers into the depths of the lot.

These figures are ticked off in succession by Prof. Eran Ben-Joseph, a senior researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reflecting a world that is obsessed with the car − and where to park it.

In the second half of the 20th century, parking lots became a common sight in the cities of the Western world. In the past decade, China and India have been catching up and transforming tens of thousands of acres into parking lots. In certain cities in the United States, up to 30 percent of the area within municipal jurisdiction is taken up by parking lots. In some American cities, there are more parking spaces than inhabitants.

Ben-Joseph says the dominance of parking lots on the municipal landscape has a direct influence on the inhabitants’ quality of life, their social relationships and even the ecology of their living environment. In “Big Yellow Taxi” − written over 40 years ago − Joni Mitchell sings about the rapacious urban development of Hawaii: “They paved Paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

Ben-Joseph’s new book, “ReThinking a Lot” ‏(The MIT Press‏), is a contemporary manifesto about the history and use of parking lots, and about possible ways to reinvent them as a focus of social and cultural activity in the 21st century.

The book has received extensive coverage in such papers as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and on radio and television networks worldwide. Ben-Joseph is hoping it will also soon find its way onto the shelves of planners and local authorities in Israel, and in the homes of ordinary citizens who are interested in the urban space. After all, who has not experienced the frustrating search for a parking spot?

Ben-Joseph immigrated to the United States with his family 12 years ago. Prior to that he worked in Israel as a landscape architect. He now heads the joint program in city design and development at MIT. Next January, he is slated to become chairman of the urban planning department there, one of the most renowned in the world. His previous books dealt with, among other things, the effect of planning regulations on the urban environment and a critical look at the planning of new streets.

Parking lots are considered one of the least attractive phases of the planning process. Architects often pass their design to interns or young colleagues, who are required to fulfill a number of technical requirements dictated by the authorities in any given city.

“You drive through Boston and come to a wonderful museum, but its parking lot is disgusting,” says Ben-Joseph. “Architects tend to ignore parking lots and say the parking lot doesn’t interest them, that it’s not part of the planning. Why is it that when I drive to the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, I have to plunge into a sea of asphalt? I think parking lots can be a fruitful place for creativity if people would only devote more thought to them.”

A 61-second walk

Ben-Joseph was already interested in parking lots when he was still working in Israel, but the move to the United States renewed and deepened this interest. Perhaps this is because that country holds the world record in this area: There are an estimated 500,000 million parking places there, and their number increases from day to day. ‏(Incidentally, there are approximately 1 billion cars in the entire world.‏)

In a course Ben-Joseph teaches every year in the urban planning department, he is repeatedly asked whether there are examples of good parking lots, or ones worthy of mention. “The truth is,” he says, “that I couldn’t think of a single one.” He decided to research the subject and focus on aboveground lots, rather than underground or automatized ones.

His book has three parts. The first section is an up-to-date overview of parking lots worldwide. He shows the similarities and differences among various countries, citing figures and studies − some bordering on the bizarre − about the lots’ quality, quantity and dynamics. For example, there is an American study about “What is the best parking space.” ‏(Answer: One that is a 61-second walk from the entrance to a mall.‏) It also emerges that the size of the parking lot at a U.S. shopping center must be determined by the maximum number of shoppers who come for the popular post-Thanksgiving sales.

True, parking lots are gray, desolate places − a kind of scar on the urban fabric. But they also serve as an important gathering place. In many cases in the United States ‏(and also in Israel‏), the lots outside clubs become a place where young people congregate to party, sometimes without even going inside. These parties are so popular, they are now referenced in the lyrics of rappers such as Jay-Z and Trey Songz.
Does Ben-Joseph think this is a disreputable use of urban space?

Ben-Joseph: “And if it is disreputable, so what? Kids of 14 and 15 also need a place to gather. For young people living in the suburbs, this is a possibility for going out and being together.”

Various subcultures have developed around parking lots in the United States, like the tailgaters who picnic on the lots outside football and baseball stadiums. Then there’s boondocking, where motor-home owners park their campers at the lots of giant retailer Walmart. The chain welcomes them, because on the one hand they rely on the store for their provisions, and on the other they provide a kind of human dimension to these endless paved expanses.

In recent years at city center parking lots, a lively gastronomic culture of food trucks selling tacos and other delicacies has developed. In the past year, “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver has toured parking lots across the United States with the “Big Rig” Mobile Teaching Kitchen, as part of his “Food Revolution” docu-reality show for American television.

Parking in Nineveh

The second part of the book looks into the history of parking lots. It turns out that back in the 7th century, parking was a point of dispute between the administration and the citizenry. The Assyrian King Sennacherib ordered that the main road into his capital city, Nineveh, be kept free of parked chariots. Anyone found guilty of violating this was executed and had his corpse hung on a pillar at the entrance to his home. Modern parking lots − i.e., those used for vehicles, not horses and chariots − developed after the invention of the automobile toward the end of the 19th century, and especially in the first two decades of the 20th century. In light of the chaos that developed with the introduction of motorized vehicles, city officials in America began issuing regulations concerning speed, traffic and parking.

By the 1950s, parking lots had become an inalienable part of the urban and suburban landscape of the United States. Planners and architects tried to find ways to beautify them, believing that a handsome and well-tended parking lot could attract more customers. This was also the stage at which the first regulations were issued concerning efficiency, geometry and functioning of parking lots − rather than the driver or pedestrian experience in them. Surprisingly, these regulations have not changed significantly since.

The third and final section of the book deals with the parking lots of today, offering examples from around the world of the surprising planning and use of them. For example, the Dia:Beacon, a museum in upstate New York, decided to take its parking seriously. Most public visitors arrived there by car, so the museum authorities situated the parking lot, atypically, in front of the museum and surrounded by trees. The interface between the cars and the museum entrance is very attractive. “This isn’t a place where people get run over by accident,” observes Ben-Joseph.

An example of a successful ecological parking lot is found at the University of Arizona. The planners decided to roof it with solar panels; the energy they produce during the course of a day is enough to supply the electricity needs of 550 homes for 24 hours. Sunbaked Israeli cities could derive considerable benefit from the creation of solar energy stations on top of their public lots. With a small design effort, parking lots can also serve as places for channeling runoff water. And with the careful, considered planting of trees, they could reduce the heat index ‏(how hot it feels inside the lot‏) by about 20 degrees Celsius.

There are also places where parking lots have become an integral part of urban activity. On weekends, the parking lots in downtown Los Angeles become soccer fields for a poor nearby neighborhood. And in New York they use Wall Street lots for a Shakespeare festival − Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, inspired by Joseph Papp’s Central Park shows.

Ben-Joseph makes it clear that he is not “anti-car” or “anti-parking lot.” He just believes it is necessary for them to have a more significant role in our cities.

“I’ve had very varied reactions to the book,” he says. “There are people who say it’s necessary to burn all cars and blow up all parking lots, and from their perspective everyone can take public transportation or walk. Then there are people who complain they have a hard time finding parking and the city has to provide them a space. I start with the assumption that as long as we are using vehicles − whether propelled by gasoline, electricity or the sun − at the end of the day they have to be parked somewhere.”

The interview with Ben-Joseph takes place at a cafe on Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv. In recent years the municipality has invested a large amount of money in renovating the urban infrastructure in the area and has considerably reduced the number of parking spaces − despite an outcry from unhappy inhabitants. Ben-Joseph believes the municipality is acting correctly.

“In a place with varied land uses like Tel Aviv,” he says, “it isn’t necessary to keep a car − everything is close to you.”

If this trend continues, where are people supposed to park?

“The inhabitants of a city have a lot of rights, but no one says they have a right to parking. It is not necessary to use a public area for a parking lot and nothing else. If they want to keep a car in the center of the city, then they apparently will have to pay for it.”

Despite the rather grim future of parking lots in fast-developing cities, Ben-Joseph remains very optimistic about their fate. He believes that in densely populated countries, parking lots can become an integral part of the public street and a meeting place for inhabitants. They can even contribute to the urban ecology.

“Now is the time to rethink the role of the parking lot,” he declares.