Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rethinking How We Pave Paradise

The other day while searching for something online I noticed that a paper I wrote 40 years ago this spring was listed in the archives of several universities, including the one from which I graduated.  It hadn't been digitalized so out of curiosity I requested a copy for my own family history archives.

Scientists have learned that our memories are rewoven over time so I found priceless a simple one-page autobiographical sketch at the end of the paper.  It is an unfiltered snapshot of how I perceived my upbringing, the evolution to-that-date of my political ideology and my plans and interests as a then-23-year-old nearing graduation.

I had already been accepted to law school and the sketch reminded me that my interests were antitrust and consumerism.  The paper also brought back a memory of the lyrics of a song that had been written,recorded and made popular a little more than a year earlier by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and probably more familiar to many who are younger as a cover by Counting Crows a decade ago.

The lyrics of the song, Big Yellow Taxi, have much more relevance to my eventual and now-concluded career in community marketing and visitor-centric economic and cultural development.  At the essence my job was to identify, protect and promote the unique sense of place on behalf of the three communities for which I worked the last two decades of which were in Durham, North Carolina where I still make my home today.

Coincidentally, these lyrics are still very relevant to many of my interests in retirement:

“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum *
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em”

If you missed it, there was a fascinating article in the Arts and Leisure section of last Sunday’s New York Times by Michael Kimmelman entitled Paved, But Still Alive.   I'm not sure how many we have in Durham but the author cites an M.I.T. study due out this spring by Professor Eran Ben-Joseph that notes there are conservatively about “500 million parking spaces in this country occupying some 3,590 square miles, or an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined.  Other estimates put the number of parking spaces in the USA at as many as 2 billion, a third of them in parking lots.

Kimmelman, an architecture critic for the New York Times, notes that “either way, it's  a lot of pavement” (he cites one study that we’ve built eight parking spots for every car) and suggests that “for starters we have to take these lots more seriously, architecturally”  and that includes treating them as public spaces, not just making them greener but treating them “the way people actually experience them: as the real entrance to a building.”

He goes on to note:

“The biggest advancements in lot designs have involved porous surfaces, more trees for shade and storm-water collection facilities. In Turin, Italy, Renzo Piano transformed part of the area around Fiat’s Lingotto factory by extending a grid of trees from the parking lot into the building’s formerly barren courtyards, creating a canopy of soft shade and a ready metaphor: nature reclaiming the postindustrial landscape. At Dia:Beacon, the Minimalist museum up the Hudson River, the parking lot designed by the artist Robert Irwin in collaboration with the firm OpenOffice is one with the art inside, trees in rigorous ranks rising subtly toward the front door.”

A friend of mine in Durham recently gave me a link to a 2010 study about turning parking lots that are no longer needed into gardens and urban farms and in his article Kimmelman gives examples of communities that are now restricting parking.

But I can see examples in Durham of what Kimmelman means about parking lots that are being used as public spaces.  Before it had a pavilion of its own, the Durham Farmers’ Market and crafts market were held in parking lots, as many other farmers’ markets here still are. In recent years Durham’s annual street arts fair, Centerfest, was held in a parking lot, sometimes multiple lots.

Other events have been held in parking lots and, in fact, one lot in southwest Durham was temporarily converted for RVs during the Duke-Alabama football game a few years ago.  Another often morphs into space for ad hoc carwashes and Christmas tree lots.

There are plenty of people working very hard to “put our trees in a tree museum” and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” so I agree that we need to rethink the architecture of parking lots more as public spaces, recalibrate how many spots are really needed and strengthen and enforce codes designed to make them as attractive and unobtrusive and inviting as possible.

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