Recently there has been some hub-bub around the development of an area in down town called the Iron Quarter and sometimes called Whiskey Row. This got me to thinking about how truly important the built environment is in terms of how we behave, the ways we move and interact and the general feel of a city and how important that is to the brand of a city. With those thoughts rolling around my head I was driving past a school (unfortunately I can't recall where) on an elevated highway. I looked down and realized the entire thing was surrounded by a parking lot. Seriously, the whole thing. I tried to picture kids getting excited about going to school in what looked like an institution. Did recess feel like they were going into the prison yard?
I was then suddenly struck by how insidious parking lots can be. Every flat lot seems like an enormous waste of real estate in terms of efficiency, design, emotional resonance, and environmental sustainability. They're like sun-soaking, life-sucking voids in the streetscape. I started to wonder where my city, Louisville, stood in terms of these purposefully built blights. Here's a snapshot:
It's a little crude, I know, but the red blocks are surface parking lots in the area running between 1st to 9th (East to West) streets and from Main St to Broadway (North to South). That's a lot of red. Compared to other cities our size and density I'm not sure it's enormously out of whack. But the picture it paints is still a little depressing.
What is disturbing is not the amount of lots, but their size and placement. There are entire city blocks that are surface lots! Good god! That means tourists and residents walk down a street not lined with trees, or shops, or restaurants or any sign of life other than empty cars on an empty concrete slab. These are the sorts of things that will make me use up my quota of exclamation points.
As much as the residents of any city like to complain about limited parking (it's like an American birthright or something) they are almost always stretching the bounds of reality (see very interesting reading on parking here, here and here). What if some of these were greenscapes, or if these lots were in the center of the block surrounded by actual buildings? I don't care what brand the city is trying to reflect, the vibrancy and volume of the brand is totally muted by vast expanses of blacktop.
It's important for communities to remember that the physical aspects of their city speak as loudly or louder than any ad campaign. The best strategy in the world can't overcome that. As a city that proposes to be a city of parks, you can't look like a city of parking lots.