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Review> Asphalt Jungle Examined
Eran Ben-Joseph's new book, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, helps to raise the discourse on the ubiquitous parking lot.
Courtesy MIT Press

ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking
Eran Ben-Joseph
MIT Press, $25

The opening credits of the short-lived 1980 sitcom Bosom Buddies shifts scenes in a series of rapid fire clips to the theme of Billy Joel’s “My Life.” Although the show was cancelled in 1982, a moment where Peter Scolari’s Henry Desmond feeds a parking meter, grabs a reflective face tanner, and joins Tom Hanks’ Kip Wilson on his own cancer-taunting chaise lounge within a parallel curbside spot, left an indelible mark on my childhood psyche—a psyche pock marked by many a misspent summer vacation watching reruns. As a youth, what was so intriguing, aside from the absurdity of adults getting to play in the street, was why they chose not to just use the adjacent park, clearly within the camera angle, merely the width of a sidewalk away. Several years of architecture school and practice later, the genius of their move to repurpose public space is better appreciated.

This kind of activity has now become a full movement. “PARK(ing) Day” is one featured example of the re-use of parking spaces that author Eran Ben-Joseph celebrates in his sixth book, Rethinking A Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking. Organized in three sections—A Lot in Common, Lots of Time, and Lots of Excellence—this volume features no shortage of puns, but seeks to raise (or begin) the discourse of this omnipresent necessary evil, which in some cities has become “the most salient landscape feature of our built environment.” One can read this book as a manifesto for quality of lot design over quantity of spaces, one that seeks to re-integrate the parking lot into community life and promote its stature to the realm of an asset.

Courtesy MIT Press

Early on, Ben-Joseph acknowledges minimal advancement of the typology since the dawn of zoning. Overcome by maneuvering automobile mechanics, zoning requirements, and a developer’s bottom line, design efforts appear to cease at the shop front threshold, and good design too often yields to maintenance and management interests. Parking lots have become an afterthought, a purgatory between where one is and where their true destination lies. His analysis covers fundamentals, history, and potential, spotlighting adaptations and designs that do work and are reaching for a richer meaning amid utility.

After describing the techniques of curbs and access, the author cruises down memory lane with a perhaps too-soon-to-be nostalgic nod to the once-ubiquitous parking lot follies of Fotomat kiosks. Save for a few examples of well-intentioned lighting and landscaping, most domestic examples of parking lot interventions that occupy any specter of a potential parking space—from SITE’s macabre Ghost Parking Lot to Dustin Schuler’s Spindle, which graces the dust jacket—have all been cannibalized into further parking spaces. One is almost lead to believe nothing is sacred, but then there is the one exception: a pre-existing gravesite within a theater parking lot in New Jersey. Rightly so, the author acknowledges we can do better.

In the spirit of Kevin Lynch, his predecessor at MIT, the text is supported by a generosity of images. The diagrams by Stephen Kennedy would engage Edward Tufte himself, and are among the most successful images. Together, they begin to develop their own language akin to Lynch’s infamous marginalia dialect of doodles. Even more diagrams would alleviate some of the tangle in dense pockets of statistical data that crowd the text in later sections.

Some over-attention is given to certain anecdotal examples. Three paragraphs are devoted to a car magnet that your children should touch. Another is gratuitously given to Marshmallow Fluff. However, in all there are countless conversation starters to engage not just designers, but ideally developers, local chambers of commerce, activists, and regular citizens. Paying attention to the bigger picture—exploiting potential, addressing environmental run-off via permeable paving, and designing to the most regular need, not just the demands of desperate Black Friday consumers—the landscape can begin to transform. Less harmful, and in fact more inviting, lots can provide settings for any number of organized and impromptu civic events.

In discussion of both street parking and mass lots, Ben-Joseph notes that the standard space varies between 144 and 200 square feet. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent AdAPT NYC competition for micro apartments capped out at units of 300 square feet for a primary residence. Parking lots may never become more than tumors of tarmac, awkward pauses from our vehicles to the next Dryvit-clad big box, but perhaps we can all do more with a lesser lot.

Sean Khorsandi

Sean Khorsandi is a New York–based writer and architectural designer.