Planners and urbanists have boisterously made the case that parking lots are a nightmare in terms of land use, and with good reason behind it. Considering the amount of land a typical shopping center’s parking lot takes up, there is a lot of ‘dead’ space in our communities. But what if parking lots are truly alive and can be made more alive with certain activities and creative design?
A piece in The New York Times covered what kinds of techniques are being implemented to make parking lots more usable. The article briefly dives into a number of ways that parking lot design and usage needs to be improved. Here at the Urbanist Dispatch, John Cruz described the greening of parking lots with greenhouses and farmers markets filling in the vast sea of parking. There are certainly plenty of cheap opportunities to fill up parking lots and create a sense of place even before a person reaches the distant storefront.
One great perspective drawn out of the NY Times article is that even in a parking lot of a dead shopping center, life can be found. The article describes the Dutchess County Mall in Fishkill, NY (which lived a short life from 1974 to its official closing in 1998). The parking lot in its abandoned state would host a plethora of activity from fast food junkies stopping to eat their meal in the car, to the presence of a hot dog truck vendor, as well as a weekend flea market. An Ohio State University thesis paper describes the observed social behavior in shopping center parking lots. Talking accounted for 77% of all social behavior observed in the study, while 7% of social activity was play. Carefully scan a sea of parking next time you find yourself there and don’t be surprised if kids are pulling off skateboarding tricks in the back corner.
Taking notice of the types of social interaction that goes on within a parking lot is crucial to understand what to do with these spaces in the future. The perception may be that pedestrians struggle to live and move within the landscape of the automobile. Yet taking advantage of observed actions already going on in parking lots may provide better functionality for these large swaths of land, empty or busy alike.