Off Hours

By day this lot is full of vehicles as all the commuters need a place to stash their ride, but come five o’clock it empties out, leaving and empty 1/2 a city block in the heart of downtown completely abandoned. The downtown flat lot always fascinates me because it takes what should be valuable land and wastes it with a blight that is only used for a small part of the day.  In a continuation of last weeks introduction to Patchopolis, this week we consider the urban impacts of one of my favorite urban sites – the flat parking lot.

After 5:00

One of Milwaukee's many flat lots, nearly abandoned at 5:00

There are approximately 240 million passenger vehicles in the U.S. While that number is staggering to me, what I find most interesting is the infrastructure necessary to make that number possible(University of California Transportation Center, para 5).  When you buy a car, the assumption is you will have a place to park it when at home, work, shopping, or out to dinner.  To making the simple amenity of parking available, there are estimated to be 92-1,100 million on-street parking spaces and 520-790 million surface lot spaces nationally (University of California Transportation Center, para 7). This comes out to an estimate of as many as 8 total parking spaces per vehicle in the U.S.

Average change in the difference between urban and rural temperatures, 1961-2010

From the Louisville Courier-Dispatch, James Bruggers, 05/06/2012

The downtown lot not only is a visual blight that creates a break in any pedestrian strip, they come at a large cost to community community health between concrete emissions and the effects of urban heat island.  While the direct effects of urban heat islands can be hard to see, cities even in more temperate climates have been getting warmer over the last 50 years (James Bruggers, The Courier-Journal).  Increases in urban temperatures have contributed to over 8,000 heat-related deaths since 1979  (James Bruggers, The Courier-Journal).  When health care and environmental damages are taken into account each parking spot costs $6-$23 a year (University of California Transportation Center, para 3).

So if parking lots are visually and physically a disruption to our city streets and contributing to poor health, what can we do to lessen the impact of this necessary utility?  Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT and author of ReThinking a Lot, I think phrases the question best — “Can parking have beauty and greatness in the less than obvious traits of aesthetics and form?” (Tom Vanderbilt, Slate)

To liven the space up, people must be brought to the lot and given the opportunity to use parts of the space, making it less car-centric. How do we liven up the space? One way is to find means to re-utilize the lot during off-hours.  An example can be seen in a recent Milwaukee event, where a lot was used for a tailgate and broadcast of an out of town Brewer’s game.

Beer tent, food trucks and a large projection screen draws a few hundred to watch the road game.

This, however, is a temporary use of the space.  ““Why can’t parking lots be modest paradises?” Ben-Joseph asks. Why can’t they be “a pleasant place to visit and coexist with cars”?” (Tom Vanderbilt, Slate) .  This will be the focus of many future articles of this blog.  Rather than a site for off-hours gathering and community events, how does parking become more city integrated, with regular business making them more pedestrian friendly and integrated with the downtown?