Parking Lots are Places, Too!

October 12, 2015

Parking Lots

By: Shelley Franklin

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawai‘i. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise.”

– Joni Mitchell[1]

You may have noticed pop-up parking parks in Honolulu and across the world on this recent Park(ing) Day.  Temporarily reclaiming this typically bleak real estate shows the potential for land re-use and a creativity that can find joy in a 9’ x 18’ swath of asphalt.  According to MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph, author of “Re Thinking a Lot: Design and Culture of Parking,” brings to light the blight of parking lots that have consumed more than a third of the metropolitan footprint in some U.S. cities.  (See  the Grist article “500 Million Reasons to Rethink the Parking Lot” by Jared Green) The true cost of parking is often overlooked.

It’s time for designers and planners to change the view of the common parking lot to a “parking park,” evoking  the idea of landscapes where people and wildlife can coexist with the machines we drive – a place that has a life beyond storage for cars and one that can be used for events, farmers markets, food trucks, and gathering. A place for cars, people, and trees. Here are a few of the overarching impacts of the mundane parking space:

  • Health (air and water quality)
  • Energy Use and Generation
  • Land Use and Availability


Water Quality

According to the EPA, runoff from parking lots is considered a non-point source pollutant that can contribute to contamination of natural resources with pathogens, excess nutrients, toxins, eroded sediment, and debris.[2] Urban stormwater run-off is a leading source of contamination to coastal oceans and correlations have been found between water quality and the amount of impervious surface area feeding into waterways.[3]

Strategies to improve water quality by preventing storm water runoff from parking lots include implementation of green infrastructure such as bioswales. Water runoff quantity and flow rate can be controlled with the use of permeable or porous surfaces that can even allow for water storage underground. Implementation of green infrastructure strategies are no longer in the realm of alternative design, but have been recognized and incorporated into city design  by major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Air Quality

As heat islands, parking lots contribute to the creation of ground level ozone (vehicle use is also a contributor).  What is ground level ozone? Reduction of this gas improves health for all.


Which brings us to the topic of heat islands.  Heat islands contribute to temperature increases, energy use, and decreased air quality. According to the EPA, “On a hot, sunny summer day, the sun can heat dry, exposed urban surfaces, such as roofs and pavement, to temperatures 50-90oF hotter than the air, while shaded or moist surfaces – often in more rural surroundings – remain close to air temperatures.”[4]  As a result, surrounding buildings are hotter and increase the energy demand to improve the thermal comfort levels with air conditioning.  The increased energy demand, if the energy source is from fossil fuels or non-renewable sources, ultimately contributes to increased green house  gas generation.  The EPA has also noted that increased temperature of storm water run-off water can create stress in aquatic ecosystems.

Strategies to reduce heat islands in parking lots include tree planting, use of high SRI value pavements, use of vegetated overhead structures.  Heat islands can become energy generators rather than energy users through the installation of solar panel canopies.  Using shade trees in parking parks provide shade, absorb carbon dioxide, and actively cool the surrounding area through evapotranspiration.


Lastly, the typical sprawling parking lot chews up land that could be reserved for better use or preservation. Parking garages, parking elevator towers, shared parking lots between businesses, and efficient parking lot design are all strategies to reduce the impermeable surface parking lot footprint.

Businesses and services can act as a community and share parking. For example, a church may have different hours of peak parking requirements than the grocery store next door. Excess parking spaces in box store lots have been used for RV parking or creative business ventures such as food vendors and mobile coffee shop trucks.  Better yet, reduction of the parking requirement to match the typical use of an area encourages transit use, biking, and pedestrian activity. This also means the parking parks need to be designed to facilitate the safety of these alternative uses.

What does the perfect parking lot look like? While the utopian city may be one without cars – where people rely on clean fueled and accessible-to-all mass transit, there is a tangible vision of the future where parking lot sizes are minimized, are shaded with trees, are paved with non-toxic materials, help scrub water run-off or collect it for cleaning, provide ample charging stations for alternative fuel vehicles fed by renewable resources, and serve as multifunctional areas. Parking parks are more than a spot to park a car, they are one more opportunity to ultimately improve community health by design.


[1] Hilburn, Robert.  “Both Sides, Later,” Los Angeles Times., 8 Dec 1996. (





Check out HHF’s recent Downtown Honolulu parklet (on Bishop Street) for international PARK(ing) Day.

Shelley Franklin comes from a design background in the field of architecture.  She is interested in how the built environment can positively influence communities by improving social equity and sustainability. She wants to design better places for the greater good with buildings that function as net-positive energy producers, provide places for natural resources to thrive, prepare communities for natural disasters and hazards, and provide people equal access to social and economic resources. Her design role models are William McDonough and Sergio Palleroni.

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