If there’s one thing America definitely doesn’t need any more of, it’s parking lots — and during COVID-19, communities across the U.S. are seizing that under-utilized asphalt for pandemic-safe and equitable ways.
As many urbanists debate the implications of re-allocating curb and lane space from drivers to other road users without a robust public process, there’s been virtually no conversation about the other vast swaths of asphalt our cities routinely dedicate to strong private cars: off-street lots, which comprise a sizable chunk of the roughly two billion parking spots the U.S. maintains for the storage just 250 million cars.
That’s a bizarre omission, as many private and publicly owned parking lots have stood even more empty than usual since March — and have stayed that way even as traffic volumes have begun to rebound up to 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Many of the mega-businesses that routinely create horrific parking craters in our communities — think shopping malls, sports stadiums, and large entertainment venues — still largely remain closed or on tightly restricted capacity limits today, even as smaller businesses have eased up on quarantine measures.
And countless smaller lots astride neighborhood institutions — such as paved school yards during summer break, empty asphalt outside worship spaces, underutilized lots astride transit stops — are famous for sitting empty most of the time, never mind during a pandemic when there simply is no such thing as education, worship or transit as we previously knew it.
Here are just five examples of how parking lots can be activated for better purposes.
1. COVID-safe farmer’s markets
With some simple spacing and capacity restrictions, the outdoor market may be the safest way to get groceries during COVID-19 — and done right, it can even be a crucial source of support for Black- and Latinx-owned businesses whose food has historically been underrepresented in the diet of the average locavore.
Portland’s new Come Thru market is using parking lots to safely spread out customers and connect BIPOC farmers and vendors with predominantly BIPOC consumers in their neighborhoods. Organizer Allinee “Shiny” Flanary told PDX Monthly that the most recent event attracted “the most Black folks at a farmers market that you have ever had at Portland.” And it likely kept them safer than more familiar farmer’s park-based markets that tend to be crowded — and because they are often located in a predominantly White neighborhoods, can be less accessible to BIPOC residents.
2. No-contact play zones
Kids need physical activity even when they’re in quarantine — and just because crowded, high-touch playgrounds are a no-go doesn’t mean we have to keep the fun indoors.
When their district shifted to remote learning, teachers and staff at Battleground Elementary in Lincolntown, N.C. painted an interactive, no-contact play course on the school’s vacant parking lot. Simple paint on the ground guides students through a range of socially distant games, including a “follow me” track, giant Tic-Tac-Toe, “Dot and Boxes,” hopscotch, and an obstacle course — all of which help students who struggle to get the physical activity and play time they need when school isn’t in session. That may be a particularly important resource for a school that serves predominantly low-income, non-White students who are less likely to have access to private place spaces like personal backyards: 96 percent of students at Battleground are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs, and the school ranks in the top 20 percent for racial diversity statewide.
Friend of Streetsblog Sam Balto, a physical education teacher in a predominantly non-White school district in Portland, Ore., had a similarly brilliant idea to help his students by activating a vacant school lot. He built a no-contact “traffic garden” in a vacant school parking lot to give families a car-free space to practice street safety skills during the summer — and the idea was so popular, he’s now built four gardens and counting across the region.
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