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Paved With Imagination

Julius Caesar created the first off-street parking laws to deal with congestion in Rome, and parking solutions have been paved with unintended consequences ever since. It’s about time architects and developers were reminded that parking lots are not just for cars, they are for people, and worthy of more respect and design effort. Ubiquitous in our postwar landscape as ugly swaths of asphalt, surface parking lots in America today serve social and civic functions, too. Here you will find farmers markets, basketball games, teen parties, and even church services.

So believes Eran Ben-Joseph, professor of landscape archi-tecture and planning at MIT, in Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, with a certain urgency. There are, after all, an estimated 500 million surface parking spaces in the US —  twice the number of vehicles —  and we keep building more of them, mostly of the uninspired variety. The hope is that with encouragement and raised awareness, more project proponents will push for lots that are integrated into a greater design scheme from the start and enhance the landscape as well as our lives.

Ben-Joseph presents many different ways to build lots. Many of the more progressive methods, with shade trees and grass pavers, are in Europe. He also offers a great deal of parking and zoning history to digest, which puts our current predicament in new light. Modern rules of thumb for determining parking ratios lead to parking oversupply by a factor of almost two, one study says. At root, the best lots require us to overcome ourselves and our split personality: at once mild-mannered pedestrians and power-obsessed drivers. Though still rare, peaceful coexistence is possible.