How to transform surface lots into new, beautiful destinations

Communications and Marketing Associate

Every day I walk past a multitude of surface parking lots on my way to work downtown. Sizable, and built with mainly rocky gravel, these lots disrupt our city’s infrastructure and discourage pedestrian traffic downtown.

I admit parking lots are a necessary evil in Winnipeg because the irony is many people believe there isn’t enough parking downtown to begin with.

In Winnipeg, the city has allocated 40 per cent of land downtown for parking, and over 20 per cent of that is made up of surface parking lots, according to Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. However, parking lots are a product of our city’s reliance on vehicles. We have approximately 783,273 vehicles registered in Manitoba (that’s almost one vehicle for every person in Winnipeg) and a troubled public transit system that is continually strained by urban sprawl and not enough riders to sustain a more reliable service.

So, if parking lots are here to stay (at least for now), what can be done to integrate them into Winnipeg’s downtown environment? 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 on the rhythms of daily life,” he wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2012.

Many criticisms related to surface parking lots relate to how they neither add to nor enhance the surrounding area. Many lots are often left empty—especially in Downtown Winnipeg—where it can feel like a ghost town on the weekends. It’s safe to say surface parking lots are overabundant and underutilized in our city. 

While the City of Winnipeg has made a concerted effort to get rid of many of the downtown surface parking lots—like True North Square, a new mixed-use development that took over the surface parking lot located between Hargrave, Carlton and Graham—it’s unrealistic and expensive to replace all of the city’s surface parking lots with high-rises. 

Architects, engineers and designers all over the world are rethinking their approach to parking lots. In Miami, a parking garage on South Beach has historical Art Deco frontages, while a vertical-gardened garage sits on top. Even Nadi’s urban designer Malvin Soh wrote about how Winnipeg’s parking lots have the potential to be transformed into sports facilities for soccer, basketball or volleyball, giving them a purpose beyond simply housing vehicles. 

Finding multipurpose uses for parking lots is not a new concept, although they do mainly focus on parking garages, which aren’t always helpful to the politics behind surface parking lots. A variety of different 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.

I feel we can transform surface parking lots into land art that enhances the surrounding infrastructure and increases pedestrian traffic downtown without having to develop the spaces. At Nadi, we typically work in one of our four practice areas: complete communities, campus and institutional, mixed-use environments, and public space and land art. The ideology behind public space and land art is it has the power to bring communities together, influencing where people want to live, work or play. It’s not your typical high school parking lot mural either—land art is the process of creating public space where the landscape and artwork are inextricably linked, merging aesthetic responses with sustainable technologies, and challenging our ideas and creativity to create something that’s innovative and interesting to look at or engage with physically. What’s more, it also gives local artists and agencies a platform to showcase their work.

Land art is an inexpensive endorsement for the beautification of surface parking lots compared to developing the space for buildings. For example, our firm is working with local artist Takashi Iwasaki to finish a pond lighting installation titled Bokeh for Kildonan Park pond. Bokeh has three sculptural light fixtures strategically placed around the pond to create an immersive lighting experience for ice-skaters in the wintertime. The project’s budget is $150,000, which is a much smaller investment than a $400 million high-rise, i.e. True North Square. Land art also won’t negatively affect the returns from a surface parking lot because it isn’t meant to interfere with space. It’s intended to integrate within it.

If anything is a surety, it’s that Downtown Winnipeg has been experiencing a renaissance over the last few years. 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 will continue to grow with True North Square. While these places are instrumental in bringing people to work and visit downtown, they haven’t encouraged people to live and explore downtown the way we need them to do. A vibrant city is one that’s walkable and boasts a cohesive and beautiful infrastructure. Winnipeg was, at one time, considered to be the Chicago of the North, and while we haven’t followed the same trajectory as our southern neighbour, it’s not impossible that we might one day do so again.

Like any project, it will require time, collaboration and investment from design agencies, local artists, the City of Winnipeg, the provincial government, the public, and organizations like Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. But the return on land art initiatives outweighs the initial costs. Together, we are creating destinations for residents and visitors, which is conducive to downtown’s revitalization: enhancing the space, increasing pedestrian traffic—especially in the evening and on weekends—and helping local businesses succeed and thrive, thereby further stimulating development.

We can become something bigger that celebrates our strengths and mitigates our weaknesses. 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.

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