How to make (slightly) better parking lots

During a recent  trip to Portland I was impressed, surprisingly, by the parking lots.

While parking lots are an unfortunate use of space almost anywhere, they aren’t all created equal. In Portland, some of the best ones were surrounded by design and structural elements that made them interesting, even pleasant, to walk by. Here’s an example:

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When I walked by the space in the picture above, I didn’t actually realize it was a parking lot. Instead, I thought it was a ruined old build with trees growing inside. I took the picture thinking I might write a blog post someday about preservation and history.

Then I walked around the corner and saw this:

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So as it turns out, this wasn’t an old ruin, it was a preserved facade, along with cultivated plants, used to obscure a parking lot.

This combination of historic preservation and parking worked so well in the pictures above that this parking lot was one of the most interesting things on the street. The area remained walkable, pleasant and engaging — despite abundant surface parking. Most parking lots, on the other hand, are none of those things.

Here’s another example from downtown Portland, not far from Voodoo Doughnut:

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In the picture above, the old facade isn’t big enough to hide the entire lot, but it still makes the space more interesting. The street wall is preserved to some extent, there isn’t an empty expanse, and there’s an old building to look at.

I don’t know why there aren’t similar parking lots in Utah; most downtown parking in both Salt Lake and Provo, for example, replaced buildings that could have been partially saved. The only explanation I can think of is laziness and a lack of imagination on the part of Utah’s parking lot builders.

In any case, these examples offer an important lesson: parking lots can be as interesting as most other things on streets, rather than the psychological voids they are in many cities. (This idea doesn’t prevent them from being economic or environmental voids, on the other hand.) That offers hope for the future because it means we can have better spaces without much cost or effort. It also offers an indictment of the past when we failed to take even the most basic steps to create livable places.

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