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As most of us city-dwellers can attest, the parking lot is generally an ugly heat island (or gusty frozen wasteland) separating us from where we want to go.  Can’t all those big ugly parking lots be made into something better? Something more humane, playful or artistic?  Can’t they have multiple uses?  The author Eran Ben-Joseph dangles this out there like a ripe plum.

Ben-Joseph is a Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at MIT.  The book is divided up into three sections: A lot in Common (the ugly state we’re in; Lots of time (historical overview); and lots of excellence (examples we can learn from).  It’s this third section where we hope there will be a multitude (dare I say lots) of great designs for the great blight of the large parking lot.  

Unfortunately, the great-examples in the “Lots of Excellence” chapter falls mostly flat when it comes to the urban context.   Yes we can use those lots for other uses: farmer’s markets, festivals and summer pop-up patios.   Yes there’s the eye candy of green parking lots with grass and trees liberally sprinkled around the lot.   This doesn’t do much for the fundamental flaw of the parking lot in the urban context-- that parking lots create too much distance between pedestrians and their destinations.   Most of the great parking lots in this book are in places with low density and low land values.    

The problem of parking design in high density/ high property value cities is fairly clear: Put parking underground; or wrap an above ground garage with an active use or a beautiful facade.  If you must have a parking lot at all, put the building up against the street and the lot behind.    To his credit Ben-Joseph gives a nod to shared streets as a way of making street parking flexible-- and with the right materials more beautiful too.  But these are not the dreaded parking lots that make the urban context so brutal.   These are simple city streets that more fairly accommodate all modes of transportation.  

What I found to be the most beautiful parking lots profiled in Chapter 3 are for the most part all small-- and perhaps that’s the best lesson for cities: small lots can function as decent public spaces-- but large lots really are a sacrifice of urban space for the suburban prerogative:  To live in the burbs with unbridled access to the city by automobile.  

One urban parking lot cited as a positive example in the book is the Porter Square Shopping Plaza about a five minute walk from my home.  The gateway to the lot shown is seen by most residents as an ugly and disorienting place.  While thousands of pedestrians pass through the Katayam-designed crosswalks every day, very few stop to take in people watching.  Even a most basic crop of park benches and trees would create what Jan Gehl calls a staying place at this location.    The contrast is particularly stark when compared with the two adjacent subway stations which are lushly populated with strollers and musicians.

The book has examples from around the world, but clearly the cultural audience is that of the United States.  This book will be appealing to small cities and suburbs who want their free and plentiful parking to be as beautiful and “green” as it can be.   It’s a good coffee table book with snippets that can be read comfortably in less than a minute.   For the cities that are working to to end the curse of the ugly-out-of-scale parking lots, this book will provide interesting facts on history and some ideas for design.  Hopefully it will inspire some truly captivating urban surface parking lots.  

In the meantime, lets get the price right!