home Public Space Effective use of frequently evaded urban space

Effective use of frequently evaded urban space

It is a prevailing opinion that the ancient rule of cookie-cutter mall development is dying and developers are starting to think of new design concepts. While redeveloping the extinct malls is a whole different chapter and daunting challenge, what do we do with the existing widespread surface parking lots of the perishing malls? For years parking had ordained the development forms. ‘Ten Principles for Rethinking the Mall’ published by Urban Land Institute in 2006, implicates that, conventional shopping centers use three times of the land for street and surface parking for shopping. Surface stalls cost about $2,000 to $3,000 per space and structured spaces cost about $15,000 to $25, 000 or even more.

The expensive and huge surface lots emerged in the 1920s. Regional shopping centers are much larger than the neighborhood ones. The recommended parking requirement for neighborhood centers is 2:1, two square feet of parking area to one square foot of net floor selling space (American Society of Planning Officials, 1954). “In the 1950s, this was the brave new world of shopping; in the 2000s, it is an anachronism, an artifact of a world that no longer exists (Urban Land Institute, 2006)”. Ben Joseph in ‘Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking’ argues that, the zoning formula developed by cities which is between 6 to 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor space just created excessive supply of parking. Research reveals that cities like Orlando and Los Angeles parking lots comprises nearly one-third of the land area.

The exposed huge lots not only affect the landscape of the city but also have environmental impact. They increase the heat island effect and storm water run-off. These existing underutilized spaces should embrace an alternative, effective use and function to create vibrant public spaces. Creative and potential activities should be introduced in parking spaces to engage the community, create a lively space and boost the market value. The New York City Department of Transportation has been joining hands with local restaurants for almost two years now to install pop-up cafes in parking spaces, creating spirited public spaces for the community (Project for Public Spaces, 2011). Though the Owings Mills mall, Baltimore has no bright future and revitalization of mall is still in design phase, the surrounded empty parking lots are at least used for temporary events like circus and carnival to engage the neighborhood during the summer.  Many cities are now using the parking lots for community farmers markets and temporary events like concerts and craft shows during weekends (Newcombe, Tod, 2012).

Circus in Owings Mills Parking Lot, Baltimore

Source: Picture by Josephine Selvakumar

 Schenley Plaza in underutilized parking space, Pittsburgh

Source: Pittsburgh Park Conservatory, 2012

 Pop up Cafe in Parking Spaces, New York City

Source: Project for Public Space, 2011

PlaNYC calls for open space throughout the city and indicates that in each of city’s 59 community boards, there should be an opportunity to transfigure underutilized street space in to a successful plaza (City Room, 2012). In 2006, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and its community partners transformed and restored the underutilized five-acres parking lot in to an effective Schenley plaza. More commuters now prefer to bike and use public transit. The parking demand should eventually decline (The Washington Post). But it is too early to predict if all the parking spaces and lots of the cities will slowly disappear. Ben Joseph estimates that there are 500 million surface-lot parking spaces in the U.S., covering an area that is larger than Puerto Rico. What will happen to existing massive parking lot is the biggest challenge to planners, architects and developers. “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places” (Project for Public Space). Declining mall is of course a serious problem but before a solution is comprehended, the frequently evaded parking lot spaces surrounding the mall could be used effectively for diverse activities.


  • American Planning Association (1954).Planning Advisory Services, ‘Site Design, Parking and Zoning for Shopping Centers’.
  • Chan, Sewell (2007), ‘Parking Lot in Dumbo Becomes a Public Plaza’, City Room. The New York Times.
  • Joseph, Eran (2012) ‘When a Parking Lot is So Much More’, The New York Times Opinion Pages.
  • Joseph, Eran (2012) ‘Rethinking A Lot: The Design And Culture of Parking’, Primary Resources.
  • Kimmelman, Michael (2012), ‘Paved but Still Alive’, The New York Times.
  • Neil, Dan (2012) ‘Book Review : I Know It’s Here Somewhere’, The Wall Street Journal.
  • Newcombe, Tod (2012), ‘With American Driving Less, What Will Happen to the Parking Lot?’, Governing The States and the Localities.
  • Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy webpage (Accessed 2012).
  • Project for Public Spaces (2011), ‘A Day in the Life of a Pop- Up Cafe’.
  • ‘Ten Principles of Rethinking the Mall’, Urban Land Institute.
  • ‘101 Uses for a Deserted Mall’, The New York Times Opinion Pages.


8 thoughts on “Effective use of frequently evaded urban space

  1. Yes, but that’s the way of all things. I like it that there are land owners that are seeing potential in reworking unused or underused space into someplace people like to be. I’m wary, however, of idealogical statements that present fale dichotomies like “If you plan for cars, you get cars; if you plan for people, you get people.” It sounds good unless you think about it.

    The best designers take a more comprehensive and wholistic approach. The goal is to get the highest and best (in every sense of the phrase) use of the area. Context is everything.

  2. I like the uses shown but unfortunately most of the reconfigurations of existing Malls will end up being cookie-cutter types themselves. Someone is successful and then every other mall reconfiguration will look the same.

  3. I don’t know if this has been tried anywhere else; but it emerged in the course of a discussion covering several different urban topics. The suggestion was to contract with mall owners to allow the use of part of their parking lots (that are oversized to accommodate the few holiday sales crowds and remain largely empty at other times) to be used for park-and-ride parking for downtown commuters from nearby suburban residential developments. People would drive there to park at low rates; and then take fast and efficient bus service downtown, that picks up commuters at all such malls along the main arteries (maybe also form large church parking lots, equally dimensioned for sunday and holiday attendance). This will alleviate traffic congestion and pollution downtown. Mall owners and big box stores should welcome this — they will in fact have a kind of ‘captive’ audience in these commuters who could shop in their stores before continuing home after work. This was combined with a proposal for the big box stores to support vendors in vans to form small-grain markets in empty lots or sidewalks downtown, to support office workers there as well as the residents many cities wish to attract back to downtown but don’t find grocery stores there and would have to drive to the big box stores on the periphery, creating traffic… An example of solutions that try to tackle several related problems instead of developing separate, expensive and ultimately inefficient solutions for each individual problem. More details about these ideas available on request.

  4. In a fast developing country like India, we are in a hurry to commit the mistake of developing malls, replacing the traditional people-centric shopping practices, and planning for automobiles and parking spaces. Good to know the positive changes happening in the American urban landscape.

  5. Just thought I’d drop you a line to tell you your urbanshapers.info really rocks! I have been looking for this sort of information for a long time.. I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case. WoW terrific great.

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