May 12, 2012
Self Parking

Several years ago, reports surfaced of luxury vehicles abandoned at the Dubai airport’s long term parking lot. This was interpreted as a harbinger of the pending recession. From a February 2009 New York Times story:

With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport, left by fleeing, debt-ridden foreigners (who could in fact be imprisoned if they failed to pay their bills). Some are said to have maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield.

I thought this was a memorable incident, a highly evocative scene. Consider the parking lot, or perhaps parking more broadly. I recently read a fascinating book review for Eran Ben-Joseph’s new book Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking (2012).

Moving from Dubai to the United States, apparently no one has taken an exact census of how many parking spaces exist in the country. The United States has over 250 million registered passenger cars. Estimates suggest that an average of three non-residential parking spaces exist for every car, which would add up to almost 800 million parking spaces. Ben-Joseph tells us that this total space would cover an area larger than Puerto Rico.

95 percent of the time, our cars are immobile.

“Parking lots are a central part of our social and cultural life…a modern common,” according to Eran Ben-Joseph.

But Dan Neil, reviewing Ben-Joseph’s book in the Wall Street Journal, challenges this statement.

I find parking lots to be intensely anti-social. I do not engage with strangers on my way to or from the car, and because these tracts are typically shelterless, there is no architectural cue as to where to congregate even if you wanted to.

The parking lot seems to represent pure functionality. Conversation about parking quickly turns towards specific numbers and places: How many cars? How many places? How far? How easy? The parking lot has an almost magical quality in the way it moves us towards shared frustration.

We have become entrenched in expectations of what parking should look and feel like. Ben-Joseph’s recommendations for new surface parking designs disrupt those expectations (surface lots are much less expensive than garages or underground parking, costing 60% less per space than a parking garage and costing 80% less per space than underground parking—so again, Ben-Joseph’s solutions are focused on functionality). More trees spread throughout our parking lots would create shade, making our lots more environmentally friendly. But then, how would we find our cars? Allowing overflow spaces, those areas of a lot only used when unexpected numbers of people arrive, to be green lawns. But then, do shopping malls want to create a state fair experience?

In 1972, Robert Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour published the folio, A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas. This short piece was later revised in 1977, becoming the seminal book Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Even here, the parking lot was forgotten, razed over to make room for design critique.

The parking lot is everyday life, pure banality, and like most other infrastructure elements, completely forgotten unless it’s gone horribly wrong.

This, from Ed Ruscha’s 1967 project, Thirtyfour Parking Lots:

Parking is merely functional. It also represents commodified space, a “lot.”

And parking, on the street or in a lot, is always assumed to be temporarily occupied, at best. No one should take up permanent residence here.

In Dubai, foreigners, not locals, are the people who abandon their vehicles at the airport. These are people who were not from Dubai, they lived there temporarily to make big salaries and send wages back home.

The transformation of a parking lot space, from a temporary occupation to a permanent one, only occurs alongside other social or economic transformations. What is this flipside relationship? When purposefully temporary occasions or moments become permanent ossifications, some part of society has evidently been turned upside-down.

People living in cars.

What is a trailer park, but a series of temporary homes made permanent in a parking lot.

There are stories, too, of foul play in parking lots. There is something about long-term airport parking that is particularly troublesome, I think. Mafia hitmen leaving bodies in trunks to rot, or serial killers. This is the last stop, before departure, almost like a graveyard: long-term parking.

This, from a 1996 Chicago Tribune story:

Just a few days after being alerted to look for the van of a missing northern Illinois woman, Chicago police Monday afternoon reported finding it—and a body inside—in a remote parking lot at O’Hare International Airport.

And because no permanent residents live here in these massive parking lots, there is no one around to take notice of suspicious vehicles, eccentric activities or something amiss. These are potentially perfect locations for deviant or abnormal behaviors, exactly because there are no social norms here. Operators paint roadway lines on the pavement to give form to this space, referencing the officialdom of the public street. But if a driver runs a stop sign in a parking lot, is this truly illegal? In any case, if lingering norms seep in from the outside, few eyes or presences could take account.

I have often found myself privately ranting about SUV owners parking in clearly marked “compact” spaces around Los Angeles. Surely they know what they’re doing.

But how to communicate, or apply persuasion?

What about the infamous note, left on the windshield?

One snowy winter night in Chicago back in 2000, Davy Rothbart was hanging out a friend’s place late into the night. After watching a film, he went out to his car parked on the street. There he found a note under his windshield wiper, a note intended for someone else, a guy named Mario:

This was the curious object that spawned Davy’s Found Magazine project, a vast collection of discovered notes and accidental ephemera. Among these objects, messages to fellow parkers are common—and they are most often unkind.

Bad parking, it seems, brings out the worst in us. Ever get complimented for parking? Me neither.

  1. culturalanalysis posted this
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