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Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

Eran Ben-Joseph

(MIT Press; US: Mar 2012)

You’ve just arrived and you cannot find a parking space. There are several cars driving in the parking lot, all seeking that one spot. You and the others on the lot drive with purpose, methodically looking for the reverse lights of those who would be vacating a spot. 


After 20 minutes, you finally find a space and you’re free to meet with friends. This leads to a discussion about more parking being needed, which leads to a discussion of recent building developments in the area, real estate, lifestyle preferences and personal philosophies on how the city should grow… all because you couldn’t find a parking space.  f you’ve ever been involved in any part of this scenario, then, according to Eran Ben-Joseph, a parking lot can have a lot more significance in our lives than we commonly perceive.


When discovering important histories of American architecture and planning, most often, one finds several elaborate narratives involving buildings, people of varied professions, and public policies at the forefront. While several texts have managed to thoroughly point to the invention of automobile as one the driving forces behind where and how Americans, particularly post WWII Americans live, the narrative that often gets omitted is that of the parking lot. 


At a glance, one would think that there’s no story of interest about parking lots; you build buildings, and then you have parking for cars that will park near said buildings. Beyond the obvious use of parking lots, tailgaters, skateboarders, vendors, fairs, organizers, and recreational athletes all inhabit these spaces to gather, meet, and socialize. Ben-Joseph attempts to shed light on the fact that in the past and present, we use and value parking lots more than we think.


Considered an afterthought, the parking lot is often not more than an architectural accessory in the minds of most. We forget, however, that the parking lot is where organic social interactions occur. The parking lot is where teens meet. It’s the site of business handshakes. Generally speaking, the parking lot is the site where the beginning and/or end of many relationships occur.


The cynic in us could reject Ben-Joseph’s optimistic tone as bright-eyed utopianism. We could point to the parking lot as the breeding ground for crime and other suspicious behavior. We could say that parking is dangerous or unpredictable. Reading further, those positive experiences that exist in or adjacent to parking spaces daily become more apparent. The author doesn’t rush to this conclusion. He walks through the practical history of the parking lot, and naturally, the automobile. Methodically, perhaps too methodically, it begins by building an understanding of how the invention of the automobile altered American life; our activities, our way of thinking, our concept of time. 


While this is one in a line of books that discusses the history and social evolution of parking lots in America, it provides more examples of how people are creatively using parking spaces today, including ReBar, the collective of architects, artists and planners out of San Francisco who have an annual protest called Parking Day, where parking spaces are purchased, replaced with green space, and inhabited. Ben-Joseph highlights these recent developments well, but not enough.


Nearly all that can be covered about American parking is in this short book, which is a plus. It seems, however that more of an investigation is needed regarding the opportunities for the future uses of parking lots both new and old. In lieu of the already thoroughly romanticized American past relationship with the automobile, there could have been a shift toward the future, toward more solutions. Ben-Joseph seems content with the simple addition of more trees to pacify both the developer, who needs a selling point, and environmentalists. 


The question that remains is how new uses of this ubiquitous public space affect social interactions in the future. How can we pro-actively use completely abandoned parking lots as sites of positive social interaction instead of as dumping grounds? What effect has the economy had on present and future activity in some parking lots? What can we ultimately learn to propel forward in our use of one of America’s largest open public spaces? These questions are approached, but not thoroughly investigated. 


That approach to define possible future activity can be informative for those in various design communities who pick up this book. Designers will be given a lot of new cultural insight that can be useful the next time they catch themselves mindlessly plugging parking into their designs without any acknowledgement of the potential. There’s plenty here to remind the designer that they should design the entire site, not just the building. 


Ben Joseph also reminds us all that our use of public space leads to the kind of organic formulation of life experiences and social interaction that no electronic appliance can provide. While we are driving, seeking a parking space, before we meet with friends, we aren’t aware of the fact that we are driving in a playing field, a rehearsal studio, a stage, a restaurant, a market, or a gallery.  Rethinking a Lot tells us that maybe we should. It tells us that perhaps cars are among the least important things that we put in some parking lots.

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