Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Calculus of Trees and Parking Lots

I selected my favorite grocery store based on its produce section, particularly its apples.  Even though it was built in 1995, the parking lot there seems nearly devoid of trees.

Shoppers vie for the 6 tree-shaded parking spots that aren’t reserved for customers who are disabled.  There are five other trees toward the back of the lot where no one parks.  Making this amenity even more precious is that these are small trees that don’t provide much shade. Parking Lot - Durham, NC

For several months of the year, it gets very hot in Durham, North Carolina where I live.  Studies dating back nearly to when that facility was built have shown that trees reduce asphalt temperatures by 36 degrees and interior vehicle cabin temperatures by 47 degrees.

Parking lot trees also reduce emissions from fuel tanks, hosing, belts and vinyl car parts while vehicles sit in hot parking lots. They also capture and cleanse storm run off that otherwise passes pollutants on to unsuspecting taxpayers who may never park there.

Parking lots across the country have nearly 700 million parking spaces alone.  That’s about three for every car, SUV, pickup and motorcycle in the United States. This doesn’t count the 1.3 billion parking spaces that are not in parking lots.

Good developers understand the economic value of trees, e.g. they preserve parking lot surfaces by 40-60% longer.  Unfortunately, there are far too few good developers and even fewer who understand and use “full-cost” accounting.

Communities are left to defend themselves with ordinances which, judging by where I live, are still very inadequate.

Durham doesn’t keep track of parking lots, but it should.  Since 1976, the increase in impervious surface in Durham, which includes parking lots, has outpaced population growth by 8-to-1.

So Durham most likely has far more than the national average of eight parking spaces for every registered vehicle, a number far too high even when allowances are made for visitors and commuters who work but do not live here.

Developers who scrimp on parking lot amenities such as trees fail to grasp that barren lots stamp a brand not only on their developments but on the brands of their tenants.

There are now numerous “best practices” when it comes to creating tree canopy over parking lots.  One I saw recently near downtown Salt Lake City has a large specimen tree for every two or three parking spaces vs. one for every 14 spaces in the lot where I buy apples.

A portion of a road trip last year took a friend and I down the Hudson River.  On a bluff overlooking a park across the river from where we stopped for the night is an old Nabisco box printing factory that has been adaptively reused as Dia:Beacon.

It is a museum featuring contemporary, including minimalist, artworks. It opened only eight years after my grocery story in Durham did.  But there is nothing minimalist about the trees in its parking lot, where there is one tree for each space.

On a related subject, I am a fan of Formula 1 racing and Ferrari in particular.  On my one visit to Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, I didn’t have time to continue down the Alps into northern Italy.

If I ever make it that way again, I want to visit three places. First, the Museo Ferrari in Maranello and then the bridge at Susegna where my first cousin once removed died in 1944 when his B-26 was was shot down during WWII.

The third place I want to visit is a historic Fiat factory in the Lingotto district of Turin.  When the Ferrari-red, Pininfarina-designed Fiat 124 Spider I owned in the early 1970s rolled off the assembly line there, it was on the fifth floor of the massive 1920s facility.

It was possibly one of the last to be rolled out onto a test track atop the factory including high banked curves at each end and 500-yard straightaways.  The old factory has been transformed into a complex of concert halls, shopping arcades, a convention center and a hotel.

The roof-top test track is still there but that isn’t why I want to see it.

Renzo Piano, the architect of the transformation not only put plenty of trees in the parking lot but added forested entrances to the huge facility.  He not only believes in green roof tops such as this one at the California Academy of Sciences but nature-sculpted entrances and parking areas.

Development is driven by developers, individuals and families who want their private property to be made more valuable, but the free market has yet to require them to cover the full cost.  Much of it is pushed off on tax-payer funded governments.

If all costs were accounted, those who seek to develop property would factor in the costs resulting from “churn,” when supply outpaces demand, the costs of cleaning storm water polluted by impervious surface, the costs of reforestation, the costs of other infrastructure to name just a few.

In the mid-1800s, towns would often develop, be deserted, be re-populated, be deserted again and again be re-populated, sometimes repeating this cycle many times before becoming stabilized and permanent.

The churn back then was generated by unrealistic promises by private land and water companies and/or corporations exploiting resources until eventually, by populist demand, federal, state and local governments stepped in to create a basic level of stability.

But the costs were never shouldered by those who caused them, nor are they today.  If they were, we would all suffer “sticker-shock,” so we shoulder the cost in taxes instead.

Regulation and public resource management are blunt instruments at best, but because the free market hasn’t evolved to hold developers fully accountable nor fully rewarded “best practice” standards of stewardship, despite the best efforts of associations to “raise the bar,” government has stepped up as the only viable alternative.

Often, what is expressed as anti-government and anti-tax sentiments are really an even more deeply felt strain of populist angst among working and middle class Americans, including the 30% who are conservatives, at having to shoulder the costs of unsustainable business practices.

Government is a more convenient scapegoat, I guess.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first thing besides ugly hot parking lots and my effort to find trees for some shade over the years was the first time that I saw Cameron Village around 1972 in Raleigh. Look at the longevity of Cameron Village compared to other shopping centers that you have seen. Cameron Village celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2009. I haven't seen it in about eight months but assume that it is still going strong. Trees galore, wonderful design, check it out!