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  • 05.02.17

These Cities Are Replacing The Worst Kind Of Infrastructure With The Best

R.I.P. parking lots.

In car-dependent Dallas, parking lots are ubiquitous downtown. But one lot will soon be de-paved and turned into a park. Nearby, another parking lot is turning into a temporary urban farm before it also becomes a park. Something similar is happening across the U.S. as cities begin to realize that a slab of asphalt for storing cars isn’t the best use of valuable urban space.

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“I can’t imagine a worse use of land in a downtown area than a surface parking lot,” says Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of city park development for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which helped Dallas initially acquire a 3.2-acre lot that will become the new Pacific Plaza Park. “It only serves one function, which is the parking of cars…but they also represent extraordinary opportunities for creating open space parks and other kinds of public spaces that are desperately needed in many downtowns.”

[Image: courtesy SWA]
In Santa Monica, a flat, sprawling 7.4-acre parking lot became a green park with meadows and rolling hills. In Chicago, an unused parking lot next to a former movie theater will become a park. In the nearby suburb of Aurora, overflow parking for a shopping mall may also become a park. In Washington D.C., parking lots next to the unused RFK Stadium may become sports fields and a food market.

In Dallas, the plans for the Pacific Plaza Park began over a decade ago as part of a city master plan for downtown parks. After Trust for Public Land helped the city acquire the land about 10 years ago, a nonprofit called Parks for Downtown Dallas offered to donate $15 million to build the park and another $1 million for an endowment to fund the operation.

As more people begin to move to downtown Dallas–a neighborhood that used to be dead after offices closed–the park gives them access to green space. “I work downtown, I used to live downtown, and we’ve seen the transformation,” says Robert Kent, the North Texas area director at the Trust for Public Land. “We’ve seen families move back downtown and residents move here, and it’s really important for the city to think about how they’re taking care of the parks and open space needs of those residents… Turning a parking lot into a park in one of the most densely populated parts of downtown is a great way to do that.”

[Image: courtesy SWA]
The shift from asphalt to a park has other benefits. As climate change makes heat waves more common and average summer temperatures rise, parks can help offset the urban “heat island” effect that makes neighborhoods around paved surfaces even hotter. In a study of Dallas, Trust for Public Land found that the soon-to-be converted parking lot was one of the worst urban heat islands in the city. As heavy storms also become more common because of climate change, the park can absorb rainwater rather than overload sewers.

The location, which is near a light rail station, will also give pedestrians a safer place to walk as they cross downtown. Within the last five years, hundreds of pedestrians have been hit by cars in downtown Dallas, and dozens have died.

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Like other parks, the plaza is also likely to boost nearby business. “Whatever taxes you might lose by losing a surface parking lot, you more than make up with the increase in the value of the adjacent real estate,” says Benepe. In a study, Trust for Public Land found that buildings next to a park are typically 15% more valuable than the same kind of building a few blocks away.

[Image: courtesy SWA]
In a dense neighborhood, parking lots also are one of the few places left that could easily be converted to a park. “Like many cities, Dallas is built out in many ways,” says Kent. “So you have to start trying to find where can you build parks in creative places. And finding ways to repurpose outdated infrastructure like surface parking lots, which really don’t have much of a role to play in a modern, downtown urban environment–that’s kind of the low-hanging fruit for new park development.”

Parking lots are already underused; a 2011 study found that even at peak hours, more than 7,000 parking spots are vacant in downtown Dallas. But the number of empty spaces will increase in the future–not just as cities prioritize public transit, but as self-driving cars make it possible for fewer people to own cars. One recent study predicts that in 15 years, car ownership will drop 31% in Dallas because of the shift to driverless cars. Some cities, including Boston and Nashville, are already building parking garages that are designed to be converted to other uses when car ownership drops. And the growing sea of empty parking lots will open up new room for parks.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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