Transforming parking lots into new, beautiful destinations

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Every time I see a parking lot, I imagine transforming it into an engaging public space. I have imagined dog parks, a lighting installation, a gathering place to replace these spaces, transforming parking lots into something for the people. It rattles me how much-unused pavement for people resides in Winnipeg.

Every day I walk past many surface parking lots to and from my work downtown. Sizable and built with mainly rocky gravel, these lots disrupt our city’s infrastructure and discourage pedestrian traffic downtown. While I admit parking lots are a necessary evil in Winnipeg, the irony is that many people believe there isn’t enough parking, to begin with, downtown.

Parking lot overview

According to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, Winnipeg has allocated 40 per cent of land downtown for parking, and surface parking lots take up over 20 per cent of that space. Many issues contribute to this number, from the sheer number of vehicles this city has—783,273—to our sorely underfunded public transit system.

In short, there's a lot of work this city has to do to address our overreliance on vehicles and better support public transit initiatives like increasing ridership. Understandably, COVID-19 makes all of this much harder, and it will take time to navigate ourselves back to normalcy.

The Province of Manitoba is under lockdown, and getting outside for many people represents a much-needed dose of serotonin. I know it perks me up. Full disclosure, I do have private outdoor patio space. Still, it's not lost on me that many people who rent don't have that luxury. Parks and other public areas are vital to their mental and physical well-being.

Yet parks and public spaces are luxuries too. This facet is why surface parking lots have a transformative role to play in this pandemic. While no one uses their parking spots because they're working from home, why not adapt them into usable spaces for other people?

COVID-19 sparks parking lot transformations

Eran Ben-Joseph, a landscape architecture and planning professor at MIT and author of Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, wrote about how cities miss opportunities to transform parking lots into spaces where people and vehicles can coexist. “They are public spaces that have major impacts on the design of our cities and suburbs, on the natural environment and the rhythms of daily life,” he wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2012.

Nine and a half years later, that has never felt truer with how COVID-19 has upended our lives. This rare collective feat of having the entire world experience one event so viscerally has been nothing short of an awful adventure. Still, it has illuminated many inequalities related to our cultural, environmental and physical norms in the framework of our city.

I might have overreached with this headline, but I'm trying to manifest this, okay? Public space found new allies during this pandemic. With renewed interest in simply being outside, more people see how critical beautiful public space is in our communities.

Solutions for parking lot criticisms

Many criticisms related to surface parking lots concern how they neither add to nor enhance the surrounding area and break up the fabrics of cities' urban spaces. With COVID-19, these criticisms sit as bare as those lots.

The City of Winnipeg has made a concerted effort over the years to decrease the number of surface parking lots downtown. True North Square remains a successful development that took over the surface parking lot located between Hargrave, Carlton and Graham. However, it’s unrealistic and expensive to replace all of the city’s surface parking lots with high-rise buildings. 

Globally, architects and designers have rethought their approach to transforming parking lots and other similar spaces. Nadi Group's landscape architect Meaghan Hunter has written about tactical urbanism, "an approach to neighbourhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies". Without sounding too much like an endorsement, its effect can have a massive impact on the community at a reduced price tag.

For example, New York City shut down their busiest intersection, Times Square, replacing vehicles with red lawn tables and chairs to become a pedestrian-focused space. This example of tactical urbanism showcases how powerful electric colour and inviting amenities can be to the public.

In Winnipeg, we saw large sofas made of snow and winter sculptures near The Forks and Broadway. My partner and I took advantage of our city's venture with tactical urbanism. Like many of our peers, we took pictures, explored our city when the province was in its second lockdown. It feels dramatic, but it saved our mental health and left us wanting more interventions like it.

Even though pop-up beer gardens are back this summer, the current lockdown restrictions have made their relief short-lived. It doesn't mean that the province won't lift them soon, but it does present a problem with how resilient our city is to change.

Going in and out of lockdowns is stressful for many people. Without consistent access to public spaces, we need to reliably look to other interventions within our cities to correct those disparities.

Setting up several socially distanced patio furniture in an abandoned parking lot can be transformative. It can bring community members together, especially those who live by themselves. Even if we can't see each other up close, at least we are reminded we're not alone.

Transforming parking lots

Many entities such as the provincial government, the City of Winnipeg, and private businesses and individuals—some of whom don't even live in Winnipeg—own the surface parking lots in the city. Unlike parking garages, surface parking lots have minimal investment and are hugely profitable when left undeveloped.

If anything is a surety, it’s that Downtown Winnipeg had experienced a renaissance before the pandemic. It began with the return of the Winnipeg Jets and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, gathered steam with the expansion of the convention centre and True North Square.

While these places remain instrumental in bringing people to work and visit downtown, they won't encourage people to live and explore downtown alone. As more people take to the streets, the pandemic gives us a chance to reimagine how people move through the city.

If this lockdown continues or escalates into a stay-at-home order, exterior spaces with enough room to socially distance remain critical to a healthy city with thriving communities. Underused surface parking lots can have a temporary purpose for design interventions that encourage getting outside and into nature again.

Ben-Joseph asked, “What can a parking lot be?” Anything! All it requires is a little imagination, innovation and creativity for anything to be possible. We have an abundance of that in Winnipeg. Now it’s time we use it for transforming parking lots.

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