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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

ReThinking A Lot

Air Date: Week of
Artist, Toshihro Katayama, extended the striped pattern of crosswalks into a visual theme at the Porter Square shopping center. (Photo: Eran Ben-Joseph)

Parking lots cover huge swaths of our landscape, but are usually thought of as a necessary evil. A new book delves beneath the surface to show lots of uses for these ubiquitous spaces. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with author and MIT Urban Planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph.



GELLERMAN: You might not know this specific place, but you're definitely familiar with the scene. I’m at the parking lot in the Porter Square shopping area in north Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just down Mass Ave. is Harvard University and beyond that MIT, which is where Eran Ben-Joseph is a professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning and he joins me in the Porter Square lot to talk about his new book “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.” Professor, welcome to Living on Earth.

BEN-JOSEPH: Thank you very much, wonderful to be here, beautiful day!

GELLERMAN: Isn’t it ever? You know, I hadn’t thought of parking lots a lot until I read your book and then I realized how important they are and the role they play in American life.

BEN-JOSEPH: This was the reason I wrote the book. Hopefully, for people to pay more attention to these kinds of spaces.

GELLERMAN: You say in the book that there are 500 million parking spaces in the United States, these are just lot spaces not parking garage spaces, and that, what - over 120 million people drive to work everyday and they wind up parking in parking lots.

BEN-JOSEPH: That’s correct. We actually think that cars are immobile about 95 percent of the time. And in terms of parking estimates, I think that it’s very hard, some people say that there are even way more than 500 million spaces. On average, we think that there are three spaces per one car in the United States.

Some places we estimate, and again, it’s very hard to give a precise measurement - but by looking at aerial photographs, about 30 percent, sometimes, of the land could be devoted to parking lots, and there are some places it could be even higher than that, particularly where there are a lot of malls, places like Florida or even in some places in the Midwest.

(MIT Press)

GELLERMAN: So, this parking lot here you cite in your book as a being a good example of a good parking lot and it’s got kind of places we can sit, here’s the stores, it’s got a bunch of parking spaces there, some trees, some landscaping there, it’s not inhospitable..

BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely one of the better ones. First of all as you can see it’s almost like an urban square, it is very nicely surrounded by buildings that actually create a space, an open space. I especially like the front part, the part that is next to Mass Ave., because it is a little bit more narrow, there are wider sidewalks where we sit right now here in front of the café. There is a table, the cars actually kind of provide a buffer between us and the traffic. There is a lot of actual both movement of people, pedestrians, cars, bikers, and in a way I like it because it’s a big mix. You see like right now the biker is just:

Professor Ben-Joseph compliments the design of the Porter Square lot to host Bruce Gellerman. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)


BEN-JOSEPH: - riding in the middle of the parking lot with a car coming through. I think that the drivers feel somewhat inferior in this space here, and feel a little bit that they need to behave differently, that it’s not their space.

GELLERMAN: Well, that’s interesting, because parking lots are one of the few places where pedestrians and cars have to commingle, in a way they don’t do ordinarily on the streets.

BEN-JOSEPH: That’s correct. The idea that we share this space and there’s actually not a clear designation between a driver and a pedestrian, I think, again puts people in a different state of mind in terms of how they behave. It seems more unruly, but in a sense the behavior is very different compared to the street. In my opinion, it is much more of an exciting space.

MIT Urban Planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph. (Photo: Ike Sriskandarajah)

GELLERMAN: What about parking lots at shopping malls or Walmart or something like that, you know Best Buy, where they’re just enormous. How would you make those more human?

BEN-JOSEPH: First of all, you could reduce part of the parking that is not used everyday on a regular basis. Often these large parking areas that are associated with department areas are designed to fit parking for the peak shopping day of the year, sometimes you know the after Thanksgiving day where everybody goes shopping.

So, if it is for example a third of the parking spaces, those areas could be designed differently, it could be done with grass, it could be done with gravel, so first of all the material could be much more appropriate than asphalt. Another approach would be to really treat it almost like an orchard where you could plant it heavily with a lot of trees and increase the green area, increase the vegetation. Another simple technique which would be quite appropriate is to deal with areas where the pedestrian can actually walk safely from the car to the entrance to the buildings.

So dealing with a parking lot is a part of the spatial sequence, and as people enter the shopping mall they don’t feel like they have entered a desolated place until they actually enter the store. There are other elements to the parking lot themselves that are very intriguing, how people use parking lots, how people behave in parking lots.

[MUSIC: Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi” from Ladies Of the Canyon (Warner Bros. 1970).]

GELLERMAN: You know, everybody talks about parking lots you talk music. Everybody thinks of the Joni Mitchell song they took down paradise, put up a parking lot.


GELLERMAN: But is there a favorite song that you have about parking lots?

BEN-JOSEPH: I don’t know if I have, I have one song, which is more of a parody on the Whole Food parking lots:

[MUSIC: Dj Dave: Whole Foods Parking Lot (2011).]

Whole Foods Parking Lot

BEN-JOSEPH: I don’t know how Whole Foods will like that.


BEN-JOSEPH: There’s also other songs which are related more, I think to the culture of rap and people partying in the parking lot, there are a few songs that are related to that:

[MUSIC: Sly & Robbie and The Taxi gang: Big Yellow taxi” from La Trenggae (VP Records ).]

BEN-JOSEPH: And then of course there is this whole element of the teenagers, their behavior in parking lots. Parking lots are often these kinds of left over spaces where they can do things that maybe are not as supervised, and that’s also important in terms of our urban environment.

[MUSIC: Ocoee, FL Parking Lot Bluegrass Jam (2011).]

GELLERMAN: You know, this would be a great place to have like a concert, right?

Friday night's Parking Lot Jam at in Ocoee, FL.

BEN-JOSEPH: Especially if you set it at night-time - nobody is here. An interesting with the Parking Lot pickers are bluegrass players that like to hang in parking lots and they actually come to play, they bring their instruments and they come to play and it’s an old tradition, apparently.

GELLERMAN: Where is this?

BEN-JOSEPH: Most of the south and many other places that play bluegrass music.


GELLERMAN: So, professor, what’s the most unusual use of a parking lot that you’ve found besides parking cars?

BEN-JOSEPH: There’s a couple of interesting examples, one that I can think of is a burial ground in the middle of a parking lot -

GELLERMAN: Where’s that?

BEN-JOSEPH: Mary Ellis Graveyard in New Brunswick in New Jersey. Apparently they built a parking lot and a shopping mall around her grave. It was so important for the shopping mall to have a parking lot, yet they couldn’t move her grave, so in the center of this parking lot, she lays to rest.

GELLERMAN: Ultimately parked.

BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, ultimately parked, maybe my next book would be “rethinking the plot.”

[MUSIC: Waka Flocka Flame: Kill The Parkin Lot Feat. Blar & P Smurf (Prod. By Southside)- from Benjamin Flocka (Mixtape 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Well, professor, thank you very much.

BEN-JOSEPH: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Professor Eran Ben-Joseph’s book is “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.”




ReThinking a Lot is available from MIT Press


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