Putting parking into “place”

Design and planning strategies to merge human scale design with automobile parking.

The provision of parking and the act of creating places designed for pedestrian activity are often considered to be at odds within the field of planning and urban design. Parking is typically designed to minimize the time spent between vehicle storage and entry into the commercial facility. This means it is typically placed between the street and the storefront in the form of parking lots.

Unfortunately, parking lots in front of commercial storefronts threaten the physical comfort and security of pedestrians. When people walk along sidewalks fronted by parking lots they feel vulnerable. This feeling of vulnerability leads avoidance by pedestrians and eventually to declines in the economic health of the corridor or street. These corridors need residents and visitors to feel safe to encourage their presence and ensure the health of retail operations. To make these corridors safe they need to be activated with nodes of pedestrian scale activity and safety rather than vehicle storage in the form of parking lots.

To activate these places with pedestrian activity we have four broad categories of strategies to mitigate the negative aspects of parking:

  1. Eliminate the parking and build a structure fronting the street
  2. Make the parking lot habitable for pedestrians
  3. Buffer the parking
  4. Develop parking as part of a mixed use structure

The first option is a redevelopment scenario that replaces at least a portion of the parking with a building at or very close to the street right-of-way. This has the effect of enclosing the street in a way that makes pedestrians feel more secure. This approach requires amendments to zoning ordinances and parking codes for sites. The parking that was on site may need to be redirected to on street parking, some other location nearby or eliminated altogether.

Making the parking lot more habitable for pedestrians involves bringing activities designed for people into the parking area. These activities can be related to the structure giving it an outdoor presence or can treat the parking lot as a public plaza. Treating parking lots as plazas is very effective where there are buildings framing three sides of the parking lot, creating an outdoor room that becomes a focal area for the place.

The simplest option is buffering the parking lot and creating a pedestrian-friendly edge between the parking lot and the street. It is not necessarily a best option, but if the street is framed properly and the open expanse of parking is shielded from the pedestrian space it can create a welcoming environment for pedestrians along the street. Typically this is done with a planting strip, decorative wall or a mix of both. This technique is also often used as an intermediary step in the process of placemaking.

The last and most complete option develops the parking lot into a mixed use building with active uses like retail and office while retaining the parking. This is the most capital-intensive approach, but also has the highest impact on creating a pedestrian environment.

There will always be a need for parking in communities, but it does not have to be at the expense of pedestrians. The economic and psychological benefits of creating place at the expense of parking outweigh the burdens of displaced onsite parking. These four options provide communities with starting points for turning parking lots into places.

For more information on placemaking and strategies for dealing with parking issues contact Michigan State University Extension.

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