Sunday, July 11, 2021

On the Road Again


Anyone who has learned how to drive or helped teach someone to drive has experienced the time-worn tradition of driving in parking lots. The emptier they are, the better. They provide a safe environment for the tentative efforts of the nervous beginner: maintaining a smooth, even speed, staying on the right hand side, signaling, turning, parking, and so on. 

Recently I’ve been a part of many parking lot driving sessions. We started with school parking lots, then graduated to Blandair and Centennial parks, which provided more varied topography. Then I began to get creative. I started seeking out entire communities of parking lots. Columbia/HoCo has plenty. Some examples:

  • Off of Broken Land past the Exxon where the Columbia Assocation Headquarters and Humanim are located.
  • Off of Thunder Hill Road behind the Walgreen’s where the DoubleTree Hotel is located.
Each of these areas present different challenges or hazards, if you will. In a park there may be children running out ahead of parents (who are looking at their phones.) In an empty suburban office park you may run into groundskeeping staff with mowers and leaf blowers. In Columbia the will of its founder means that you may be going up and down hills and around curves as you experience the joy of discovery.

We have the best parking lots. Varied. Some almost picturesque. What a convenience it is for students behind the wheel. One might even compose an entire driving challenge course comprised entirely of Columbia/HoCo parking lots. 

And then there’s the flip side. Parking lots bring with them environmental hazards. Run-off of pollutants conducts poisons into our waterways. Areas where parking lots are clustered together produce what is called the “heat island effect”, raising temperatures and thus increasing the demand for non-renewable resources such as air conditioning. The amount of space devoted to parking lots takes away from natural green spaces which contribute to our health and well-being.

Parking lots are rather like the Audrey 2 of our modern society. The more you feed them, the more they want and the bigger they get. 

Some informative (though not recent) pieces on the environmental impact of parking lots:

When a Parking Lot Is So Much More , (op-ed) New York Times

Locally the Robinson Nature Center is an example of combatting runoff with pervious pavement. In case you don’t know, pervious pavement allows rainwater to seep through into the ground rather than wash into storm drains. Would changing every parking lot in Columbia/HoCo to pervious pavement be helpful? Yes. Is it likely? Probably not without government guidance and/or financial incentives. And addressing the run-off issue is just one part of the environmental challenges parking lots present.

Do cars attract parking lots? Do parking lots attract cars? Are communities like ours, built with dependence on automobiles baked in to everything, doomed to continue in they way they began? The New York Times piece includes some creative suggestions for rethinking how we use the parking lots we have:

Better parking lots would embrace and expand this role. Already, many lots provide space for farmers’ markets, spontaneous games of street hockey, tailgating, even teenagers’ illicit nighttime parties. This range of activities suggests that parking lots are a “found” place: they satisfy needs that are not yet met by our designed surroundings. Planned with greater intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks or plazas.

What do you think? Are you ever struck by how many parking lots we have here? Do you have ideas on how we can address this issue locally? I’m all ears.

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