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Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

by Eran Ben-Joseph
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
184 pp., illus. 77 col., 37 b&w.  Trade, $24.95/£17.95
ISBN:10: 0-262-01733-4.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

A former city planner and urban designer in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the United States and currently professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT, Eran Ben-Joseph has written an inspiring and thought-provoking book on what can be defined of one of the most strange places (or non-places) of modern life and culture: the parking lot, both overwhelmingly present in our daily life (in certain cities parking lots cover more than one-third of the space!) and bizarrely invisible (for being so self-evident, so 'empty', so deprived of any other than merely functional occupations).

The aim of the book is twofold: first of all to describe, more particularly the parking lot, as opposed to the parking garage (which is not taken into account in this study), with all its facts and figures on the one hand and its still recent but already very rich history on the other hand; second, to make room for innovative thinking, for the parking lot is there to stay, despite (or perhaps due to) the growing awareness of the problems caused by its mechanical expansion and unimaginative design, which has not really changed since the 1950s, when the rapid suburbanization of modern cities provoked totally new patterns of mobility and immobility inside and outside our towns.

The very first strength of this book is, of course, that it opens our eyes. All of sudden, it confronts us with a wealth of material, ideas, and questions on something that we always wanted to know but were too distracted or not smart enough to ask: what is a parking lot, where does it come from, how is it used, who plans and designs and manages it, what difference does it make, how does it change our environment, etc.? The answers to all these questions are often breathtaking, and Ben-Joseph is a marvelous guide into the unknown world of the parking lot. The extremely well-thought out design of the book, not only lavishly illustrated (yes, pictures of parking lots can be beautiful and offer a lot of food for thought) but also exceptionally well laid-out (it will be difficult to find another book in which the interaction of text of image is so smooth and natural), increases the pleasure one has in entering a world that may have been presented also as gruesome, depressing, asphyxiating, ecologically disastrous, and, above all, revoltingly ugly. For the author, who is not blind for the many deficiencies of the parking lot, does not approach his subject as a modern Cassandra.  He relies instead on the past and present problems of the parking lot to start making a blueprint for new forms of making, using, and transforming it.

This is, indeed, the second major quality of the book: not just its belief in more pleasing and responsible parking lots but also its concrete suggestions and proposals, well illustrated by the discussion of some (alas still quite rare) real life examples of how that new future can be imagined. Ben-Joseph's thought-experiments go into two directions: He proposes all kind of remediation of current aesthetic, architectural, ecological flaws and, moreover, he discusses also alternative (for instance social and cultural) non-parking uses of the parking lot.

The enthusiasm and the drive that characterize this book are contagious. On a subject that epitomizes one of the many hidden negative side effects of modernization, Ben-Joseph has written an inspiring and even feel-good book, which will prove very useful for a wide range of readers. The interdisciplinary approach of the author, who brings together urban studies, cultural studies, history, ecology, and aesthetics, is a good example of what social design can and should be.


Last Updated 3 June, 2012

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