How city planners are using spaces once designed just for cars

A 44-apartment building in downtown Wichita that once housed 500 cars, a 25,000-square-foot community garden in downtown Seattle, and a vibrant social space in downtown Toronto featuring food stalls, a repair station bicycles and a farmer’s market.

Once confined to the confines of uninteresting concrete, city planners and communities around the world are reimagining the ways in which parking lots and spaces could better serve the environment, the city and the needs of the citizens around them.

“Traditional parking lot design shows a very purposeful use of our precious land, especially in cities like Toronto,” said Ryan Lo of Urban Minds, a nonprofit that aims to create meaningful ways for young people. to shape equitable and sustainable cities. .

“The transportation needs of Torontonians are varied and will continue to evolve,” he said. “This means that these spaces, which take up a disproportionate amount of our city’s geography, are unsustainable and could be better used for land, parks and human purposes.”

To raise awareness about this, Urban Minds recently teamed up with students from Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning to transform a selection of parking spots on Bond Street into a mini-park.

“The main ideas that came up for the redesign were related to seating, greening and food,” said Lo of the project, Brake at Bond, which tasked students with reimagining the long-established space. . “We were able to get lawn chairs and wooden crates, we added a small repair station with pumps and equipment for repairing bikes and even included a welcome tree that invited visitors to come and write comments. encouraging messages to share with others.”

Where many city planners see the social benefits sleeping in these spaces – the Jane/Finch Community Center, for example, is nearing its second year of transforming the Jane Finch Mall parking lot into a community center – others are focusing more on the environmental impact of the shared car park.

One such person is Eran Ben-Joseph, an urban planner, urban designer, and professor of architecture and landscape design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose book, “ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” just reached its 10-year anniversary of publication.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to the design and management of open-air car parks, not much has changed since the book was published,” said Ben-Joseph, who has long highlighted the contribution of such spaces to climate change.

“On average, a parking garage requires three to six times the square footage of the actual dimension of a car to accommodate aisles, ramps and standard dimensions of parking spaces,” he said, adding that the traditionally impermeable surfaces of these sprawling structures lead to the heat island effect as well as flooding and drainage problems.

Ben-Joseph points to ways in which urban centers can hope to lessen the environmental impact of parking lots by reusing spacing for purposes such as storm mitigation and solar power generation.

He said that while the design of emergent lots hasn’t changed much over the past ten years, he is heartened to have seen a change in the way existing spaces are transformed.

“In the United States, organizations such as the International Parking Institute and real estate developers are partnering with cities to design and develop garages for more than parking,” he said. “Ground floor use of car parks is increasingly being used for retail and leisure and the upper floors are being used for storage and in some cases even housing.”

Similarly, in Canada, Orit Sarfaty, urban planner and program manager for Evergreen, an urban charity that aims to create spaces with environmental, social and economic benefits – and operates Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto – points to Granville Island as Vancouver as an inspiring example of reimagining the existing parking lot.

“The carbon emissions from a parking lot are far too high considering how limited its use is,” said Sarfaty, whose organization focuses on sustainability in Canadian cities. “Granville Island distributes its parking lot across its site where people and cars meander together around the stores in a natural and organic way.”

Sarfaty cites other examples, including a parking lot in Tennessee that supports a massive climbing wall to give it more meaning and allow climbers to really show off their skills.

“How we design any space plays a major role in whether or not a city or community will adapt to climate change,” she said. “It’s an approach we take when we transform schoolyards through our Climate Ready Schools program and at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works.

“Car parks with semi-permeable surfaces are one of the many design features we have used on site to build climate resilience.”

Sarfaty said that, like it or not, cars in one form or another are here to stay, and so are parking lots. As such, she says, it’s important to ask, “If these structures are here to stay, can we make them work harder for the carbon they’re already emitting?”

“Night markets and temporary basketball courts are great examples of full optimization of existing courts,” she said. “Small business entrepreneurs lack the space to start their business. Can parking lots serve as craft markets during off-peak hours? »

“Car parks don’t have to be the precursor to an attraction; they can be part of it.

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