the view from stockton house

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Nov 2002 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

Beyond the Seas of Asphalt
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

-Joni Mitchell

According to a 1995 study by the Department of Transportation, there were roughly .52 automobiles in America per citizen. Naturally, this figure is merely statistical minutiae, as it does not consider the many Americans who daily walk, ride public transportation, or bicycle to get where they are going. Despite this self-reliant minority, our romantic affair with the automobile has effectively changed the nature of life in this country. Introduced initially as a plaything for the wealthy and later evolving into a tool for use by the middle class, the automobile has created such a major cultural shift that, for most people, life without the automobile would seem to be unimaginable. And yet, as our politicians celebrate the creation of jobs to build highways to nowhere, as we choke from our own automobile exhaust, and as we prepare once again to go to war so that we will not have to worry for ten more years about how to fuel these automobiles, our mass transit lines shrink, our cities decay, our people increasingly lack education and starve, and the elderly succumb to illness because they cannot pay for adequate health care. Tax revenue, which should provide for our common welfare, instead subsidizes sprawl and imperialist actions. The great advance of the modern era, the mechanism marketed to us as the great simplifier has in no uncertain terms deteriorated the quality of life, and has in turn created new and greater complications. Many of these would best be addressed by sociologists, economists, or representatives of the Sierra Club; however, issues remain. Where do we park all of these vehicles, and how do we maintain the roads they use to get there while simultaneously trying to improve the quality of our living environment? However daunting, these issues and the many potential solutions must be explored by architects, planners, and all citizens if we are to retain any richness, beauty, freedom, or truth in the environment in which we live.

Stockton House (photo by David Laslie) Here at Stockton House in the Grand Center arts district of Midtown Saint Louis City, the aromatic smell of the unusually black and fertile soil of the gardens melds with the odors of fragrant plants. The air is rich and pure, and from dawn through dusk, whether sitting on the terraces or walking through the gardens, one hears the chirping of a multitude of birds. The perpetual signs of wildlife are evident everywhere as they have been for nearly 120 years. This description may read as simple and mundane to many, but what makes it so unique is that Stockton House is situated in the midst of a vast sea of asphalt parking lots, illustrating a colorful dichotomy: an environment which is healthy, inspiring, and life giving, within one which is sterile, stale, and depressing. Walk but a few yards in any direction beyond this luxuriant oasis of fragrant smells and cooling shade, and a whole different world awaits you. The weighty smell of asphalt lingers in air that is heavy and difficult to breathe, and all sounds of life cease to exist. No butterflies dance about in the air, no crickets sing their song, no fireflies shine their lights, yet astoundingly, Stockton House and its luxuriant little world are seen by many as a dated anachronism of urban life — a landscape that is "unproductive" and "unprofitable." It is here that the parking lot is considered profitable and stimulating for the economy. The mentality behind this belief seems to be, "if we cannot profit from creating new reasons for the people to enjoy this place, let's at least profit from charging the few who do show up for parking on our land."

The factors that created and perpetuate this dichotomy are numerous. Among them are municipal parking codes, real estate and development interests and liabilities, and a degraded sense of responsibility among many whose jobs it has been to create a great cultural center. Fortunately, this may someday change, as there is a modicum of interest in the planning of future parking structures and the creation of housing where today, asphalt stretches to the perimeter of the district.

Alas, this problem is not isolated to Midtown, as numerous buildings over the past few decades, throughout our city and many others, many of which were/are of historic value, have been or are planned to be replaced for profit by parking lots and structures. Unfortunately, this pattern persists as the interest-holding parties concern themselves more with profit than with the effects of their actions on the quality of life. Many of these effects may not be as obvious as the loss of historic structures, yet science has shown that at least one of these, the "heat island," overtly threatens to turn our cities into playgrounds for tumbleweeds. This can be added to the pollution from the automobiles that on average require an hour to arrive at these lots and leak oil and other toxic substances into our storm drains, and eventually into our streams and rivers.

As with most issues, certain psychological components, specifically elements of separation and segregation, are less obvious. We park our automobiles at one mercantile institution, and then after we have made our purchase, drive a half block to enter the parking lot of another institution. Pity the pedestrian who must dodge oncoming automobiles every time he or she traipses across a curb cut. This "franchise" or "big box" approach to isolating mercantile uses in a sea of asphalt has evolved from specific real estate liabilities and other financial concerns; however, the statement it makes is rather disturbing. Beyond making life very difficult for the pedestrian, this approach creates a major disconnect and lack of cohesiveness in our living environment. Certainly we see the same branding and imagery across the United States, but there is nothing in this that speaks of the independent identity of place, much as there is nothing that welcomes any pedestrian traffic. This is the nature of sprawl: a world of sameness, closely spaced stoplights, and automobile accidents. It is a world that is inherently inhumane and unhealthy.

Certainly, not all development is "evil." Development can be very life- (and land-) enhancing. Naturally, if we are to live on this planet, we need to develop large portions of the landscape in order to build our homes and workplaces, and we need roads to get there. But, as stated in the previous article "What is Architecture?", this development must be accomplished respectfully, recognizing the natural processes at work in the environment. Endeavoring to not only look at but to truly see and understand the nature of the world around us, we will discover the many potential common-sense solutions to the issues involved in the creation of the seas of asphalt. There is a role for each of us in executing change, for not only can we do small things in our immediate environment, but we can also pressure those who represent us to enact major shifts in policy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out in his poem "Success" that success is often measured in the smallest of efforts. There is no such thing as a completely sustainable solution to the problems of our world; however, throughout time, we will all discover methods and practices that make it just a little more livable. Here are a few:

No Parking First, try to get where you are going without your car. This reduces the pollutants in the air, reduces your dependence on foreign oil, sets an example for your friends and neighbors, and demonstrates to a government in submission to the auto and oil industries that we can survive quite nicely without the newest in gas-guzzling sport cars or SUVs. Walk to the store. Patronize the strapped-for-cash public transit system to get to work. Pedal your bicycle to church or to your friend's dinner party. Not only will you notice details of the world around you more clearly since they are not whizzing by in a frenzy, you may notice that your pants fit better and that climbing the stairs in your home requires less effort. If you own an automobile and simply cannot get anywhere without it, perform regular, routine maintenance on it to prevent oil leaks and unnecessary emissions. Where applicable, runoff from automobiles that have not been maintained should be isolated and bio-filtered to irrigate the landscape.

Second, when considering paving options such as for a new driveway, instead of choosing asphalt or concrete, opt instead for gravel. Certainly, it is not as flashy as freshly spread asphalt, but it prevents massive amounts of oil-tainted runoff from draining into our streams and rivers. Builders and developers are presented with the opportunity to reduce in scale the heat islands over our cities by specifying alternative paving materials. Parking lots should be developed as "park"-ing lots, with more pervious paving materials such as open paving blocks to allow water to reach the roots of trees. In most standard parking lots, stunted lollypop trees produce little oxygen because the trees cannot "breathe" or receive enough water to realize their full potential. Pervious paving and the arrangement of trees into groves do much to solve these problems. Generously landscaped areas around pedestrian walks through large parking lots can be developed into shaded spaces able to be actively occupied. Benches and rest stations can be placed to provide areas for informal gathering and welcoming the elderly or disabled who could not find parking spaces closer to the building. These alternative materials and approaches should not only be limited to parking areas, but can be extended to our streets as well. For example, here in the American Midwest, brick is still a plentiful material and can be used for surfacing sidewalks as well as streets. In the Christian Hill neighborhood of the riverfront city of Alton, Illinois, an effort to replace a number of the formerly asphalt-paved streets with brick has not only improved the aesthetics of the streets, but has developed driving into a more pedestrian-friendly affair due to slower vehicular traffic. When brick streets are lined with brick sidewalks, trees grow unabated to their full size and thus provide shade, scale, and oxygen.

Third, parking configurations as dictated by developers as well as by codes should be restructured to allow for street and rear parking only. Street parking can be angled, not only allowing for a greater number of spaces, but also allowing for a more pedestrian-friendly environment, as traffic would be slowed significantly. As an alternative to the franchise approach, mercantile uses should front sidewalks, thus allowing for the consolidation of parking at the rear of a complex of buildings and the minimization of curb cuts, thereby activating sidewalks into spaces for interaction and creating "mercantile havens." An example of this typology was constructed in the early 1990s in South Saint Louis City at the intersection of South Grand and Arsenal. Despite the rather blasé postmodern treatment of the buildings' facades, coupled with the fact that the buildings do not rise two stories above grade like most others within the vicinity, the complex's parking lot does adjoin the back alley, simplifying the traffic routes. A courtyard space connects the lot to the street and the entrances to the mercantile institutions fronting on them.

To increase density and provide more green space, parking structures should be constructed when available funds allow. Parking structures, despite their utilitarian aesthetic, utilize land more productively than parking lots, and they are in their nature rather sustainable in that, should the parking spaces in a structure no longer be needed and depending on the type of structure, it can actually be adapted for future use as a habitable building. However, this argument in no way supports the destruction of a perfectly usable building for the construction of a parking structure that may later be converted; in simplest terms, this is a waste of resources.

Whether or not we run out of oil, or if automobile operation prices itself into extinction, we must continue to search for more viable alternatives to seas of asphalt. This effort will require massive amounts of creativity as well as the investment of capital in enterprises that some may consider "unproductive" or "unprofitable." No one desires to lose his or her "freedom of mobility," therefore it behooves us to research and develop technology to its fullest potential for the sake of innovation, and we already see this shift happening slowly around us with the advent of fuel cells and photovoltaics. However, the breaking point rapidly approaches. Historically, the nearness of breaking points spurs innovation; therefore the climax of the shift may only be a few years off. This urgency, however, should not stop us from taking the steps prescribed above in order to hasten cultural change, but we must be patient, for if change is to be organic, it may require more time than we imagine.

Beyond technology, a shift toward more organic development strategies requires a change in mindset and a shift in values. When we look at the world around us, strictly in terms of units (dollars, euros, etc.), it becomes very easy to look at all of life, the land, and even fellow human beings as nothing but commodities. Everything becomes reduced to a monetary value and we limit ourselves in our ability to relate to the world around us. Therefore, we must plan our living environment in a way that is sympathetic to human life and to nature. If we balk in our effort, and if we continue to design in a way that is not life supporting, we are destined to live in a world that is more ugly and deadly than the one currently ruled by the automobile.

Urban Design Forum

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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