GE charging Chevy Volts

GE charging Chevy Volts (Jim Motavalli photo / April 4, 2012)

I learned to drive in the vast, empty parking lot of Korvette's in Trumbull. Back then, malls were closed on Sundays — how quaint. I'm a suburban guy, so my life is basically moving from one parking lot to the next. Nothing is more fundamental to my life than asphalt and concrete.

It's time to rethink the parking lot. These days, we have three non-residential spaces for every car in the U.S., 800 million in all, covering 4,360 square miles — an area larger than Puerto Rico. Lots cover a third of Los Angeles, a third of Orlando. Our cars sit idle 95 percent of the time, so they get to occupy all that space; it's lost for human needs. We're wasting an opportunity, says Eran Ben-Joseph, an MIT professor whose new book is called "Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking."

Parking lots don't have to be barren wastelands. I like the idea of putting solar panels, wind turbines and gardens on the roofs of parking garages, and, remarkably, that's beginning to happen, including in Connecticut — where two major parking chains are based.

Those solar panels can be connected to electric car charging — making a closed loop — and that's happening, too. Fairfield-based General Electric has partnered with solar makers, and has a giant demonstration project in Plainville, capable of charging 13 Chevy Volts a day, or up to 20 homes per year. Says GE, "By installing these integrated solutions in parking lots found at universities, municipal buildings, sports arenas and shopping malls, facility managers can provide access to EV charging while reducing their overall energy costs by transferring excess solar-generated energy back to the grid….This is just one way we can reinvent something as simple as the parking lot to address the energy challenges of tomorrow."

Sounds good to me. Parking garage roofs can also be repurposed to host rock concerts, movie screenings and more. In Ann Arbor, Mich., I visited the Fletcher Street garage, which holds an annual "Top of the Park" program of live music and movies as part of the three-week Ann Arbor Summer Festival. You could groove with a great view, and sample the fare from the food trucks. Why don't more garages do this? How about as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven? I used to park in a downtown garage there when I was editing these papers, and it seemed like a good space to me.

Ordinary parking lots can be transformed with shady green plantings, and porous pavement. As it is, all those spaces repel rainwater, which leads to increased stormwater runoff. And acres of uncovered pavement turns cities into "heat islands."

And I love the green roof idea. The 12-story parking garage at 900 North Michigan in Chicago has 16,866 square feet of cultivation. And get this: The new Yankee Stadium has a unique garage rooftop park that covers a full city block. Now that's thinking outside the box!

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