Featured image by Kelly Lacy from Pexels

Mostly negative spaces in the urban landscape, vacant except for a few cars, urban parking lots stretch the distance you have to walk between your home and the city’s essentials. For many city-dwellers, parking lots were just a fact of life.

Then COVID hit. People dutifully self-isolated, sticking to their communities and immediate surroundings. And all of a sudden, these “facts of life,” these sprawling urban dead spaces, looked peculiar.

In this article, let’s explore the historically overlooked impact of the urban parking lot. How did they come about? Why are they throttling urban life in so many cities? And finally, what are a few innovators doing to tackle the issue?

The Rise of the Urban Parking Lot

To understand the outsized role parking lots play in urban life, you have to go back to the 1920s. According to US census studies, the 1920s marked a major shift toward urbanization. Whereas a century earlier, 1 in 20 Americans lived in a city, by 1920, that figure grew to 1 in 2 people.

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Concurrently, the 1920s were a boom period of the automobile industry. Soldiers returning from WWI, enamored of new advancements in automobiles like the Ford Model T, rushed to buy cars.

These two historical phenomena—growing urbanization and the rise of the automobile—combined to create, in large part, the cities we see today. As urban infrastructure expanded, planners scrambled to accommodate cars. And one significant way they did so was to create sprawling inner-city parking lots.

As Vox reports, the US alone is home to a billion parking spots: four spots for every car on the planet. And many urban areas devote more than half their real estate to parking. 

Dead Spaces

People have cooled on cars since the mid-1900s, at least in inner cities. Access to robust public transit options, taxis, and (more recently) rideshare apps has convinced many city-dwellers that they don’t really need a personal vehicle.

But parking lots remain, the relics of an era obsessed with cars. At best, they are an inconvenience. At worst, urban parking lots geographically isolate communities from necessities, small businesses, and each other. 

Photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels

Paving the Way Forward

Thankfully, some innovators are rethinking the parking lot. REEF saw the untapped potential of parking lots and is working to transform them into community hubs. They currently operate an ecosystem of 5,000 locations, using parking lots to host delivery kitchens, micro-healthcare clinics, grocery stores, open-air markets, vertical farms, and other community-focused resources.

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By rethinking these large swaths of unused real estate, companies like REEF hope to connect communities with small businesses. Rather than drive your car four blocks to shop at a box store, you can pop over to the lot next door—now a thriving neighborhood hub—and shop locally. You can give your money back to the community, and hopefully enrich everyone’s urban experience.

To summarize, North American cities were built with cars in mind. But often now, urban parking lots sit unused, dividing people from their immediate communities. The way forward will involve rethinking parking lots, viewing them not as empty “facts of life” but as potential focal points of social and commercial activity.

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