Suburban Parking

November 25, 2011 at 8:21 pm

This weekend I went back to my hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to visit my family for Thanksgiving. The town I’m from is of about 8,000 people near the southeastern border of Wisconsin and Illinois. Its by some means a typical suburb, but in between Lake Geneva and neighboring towns is mainly farmland and rural landscape. It lacks the ambiguity of most suburban borders and has a sort of identity of its own.

For the first time, I went shopping when stores opened on Black Friday. Something I’ve always been amazed by is the amount of parking large stores such as Target, Wal Mart, and the Home Depot consume. The only time I’ve actually seen these parking lots full was yesterday.


For the longest time I believed that it was these large chain stores that requested and built such large parking lots. I find it incredible that it is actually suburban communities that require such large parking lots of the stores. The Zoning Regulations of Lake Geneva require one parking space per 300 square feet of retail space. The average parking space (including the circulation area and landscaping that compose parking lots) is about 250-300 square feet, meaning the store practically doubles its size to accomodate these parking regulations.

Would stores normally provide less parking if they weren’t required to provide a minimum? Paving an entire parking lot can be an enormous cost, especially if it is only filled to capacity for a few days per year (most likely Black Friday and the weekend before Christmas). The cost is most likely not recuperated in sales for many years, at which time the store may have to repair the parking lot again.

I can’t offer a better suggestion to large suburban parking lots, which are effectively wastelands for most of the year. The only effective way to get to these stores is to drive, and these cars need somewhere to park. These parking lots are unattractive and a hindrance to anyone that actually dares walk to the store on the provided sidewalks or bike path (which I have never seen in use). Building them smaller or underground/above the store would be a better (albeit more expensive) option, but the best solution would be for the local planning commission to relinquish these parking minimums and instead set maximums.

Suburban communities should think before they make their citizens happy by providing parking for the two biggest retail shopping days of the year. These parking lots are not sustainable, and most likely pose a stormwater runoff risk if not properly drained. They also require massive snow-removal efforts in the winter, powered by large gas-consuming trucks. In the future I hope to see these concrete wastelands turned in to sustainable community development, as described in “Sprawl Repair Manual,” seen below.