CHANGE | Car parks as community common?

Posted on 08/01/2012

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In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman muses about opportunities for carparks. Apparently, there could be as many as two billion parking spaces in the USA. He notes a forthcoming study on parking, Rethinking a Lot, in which Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at MIT, points out that “in some U.S. cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area, becoming the single most salient landscape feature of our built environment.” In my local area, parking is indeed a dominant feature of the suburban landscape, just another manifestation of sprawl. These austeer asphalt expanses bake in the summer heat, impossible to walk across as the heat rises throughout the day. Laid over the top of a swampy area, the asphalt cracks regularly.

Kimmelman says that we need to take these parking lots seriously and recognise that they are a kind of public space. He cites a number of examples of parking lots having been used for farmers markets, street hockey and teen parties. He also cites John Brinckerhoff Jackson, a landscape writer who pleaded that the parking lot be treated like the city common, with its own community values. For the privately owned parking spaces of shopping centres, their diverse communities may have something to offer. For example, as I have noted many times, the car park at Aspley’s Hypermarket is ordinarily no more than two thirds full. It’s an opportunity and is already used as a community resource e.g. mobile community services such as the blood bank and library. Prior to the anti-hoon campaigns, young people would gather and socialise in that car park, showing off their cars and attitude. However, as noted previously, the largest shopping centre developer now charges parking fees, a move that clearly disowns and alienates the community by manipulating the intent of regulations for parking provision.

Landscape design and materiality is vital. Plantings, stormwater management, renewable energy, water senstivity, footpaths. Kimmelman describes various projects as examples of both “green design … [and] also of treating parking lots the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.” Aspley’s local area plan calls for better pedestrian and cycle pathways as well as community infrastructure in the Hypermarket’s parking lot, built over the top of a creek. The plan makes a small and pointless overture to better integration of the centre with the surrounding area. There is negligible landscaping on this site – trees and grass perished and were never replaced, while a harshly kept hedge, rather than shade trees, bounds it. I agree with Kimmelman’s proposition that parking lots don’t have to be dead zones. However, in most instances planning, centre management practices and regulations keep them that way.

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