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Sustainable Parking Landscape Design

By Buck Abbey, ASLA
and Robert Reich, School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

This "green parking lot" is in Mandeville, Louisiana. "Green Parking means parking areas that do environmental work, parking areas that incorporate energy efficiency, water conservation, waste minimization, pollution prevention and the use and recycling of resource efficient materials and outdoor environmental quality in respect to air, water, soils, wildlife and visual quality."-- Buck Abbey, ASLA
Rain bird
Came America BCI Burke Company

"Designing a landscape more in harmony with the environment requires commitment and careful planning."
-- Louisiana Yards & Neighborhood Program, 2007.

Much has been said and quite a bit written about green building, which is changing the way communities are designed. LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), started by the USGBC less than a decade ago, centers on designing and constructing high performance buildings.

LEED design standards are being adopted into local building codes. A good example is Cal Green (California Code of Regulations, Title 24, Part 11), aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of buildings. Many think the old building technology partially impacts global climate change.

Among the principles that lead to a high-performance building are those that reduce the use of indoor water, reduce the use of outdoor water for irrigation and repurpose or recycle construction waste to keep it from going to landfills.

There are also mandatory reductions in energy use for heating, air conditioning and mechanical equipment. CalGreen even requires the use of low-pollutant emitting interior finish materials in paint, carpeting, flooring and particle board, i.e., materials containing volatile organic compounds (VOC). Even manufactured products used in these buildings must be constructed to meet certain green standards to reduce energy usage and to make healthier environment for people.

Cal Green includes some code changes that will affect the design of parking areas. These changes include car sorting, which gives preference in location to eco-cars. Parking locations will be signed in a manner similar to ADA accessible parking spaces. (Editor's note: Should ordinances be concerned with saving healthy drivers of hybrid cars a few extra steps in the parking lot?)

Parking lots are also to be designed to encourage the use of alternative transportation. Bicycle parking and storage become an element of parking lot design. (CALGreen Section:

These minor actions have been used in local jurisdictions, but for the first time have been included in state law. These small steps can be seen as changing the way parking lots are designed, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s.

Chicago is quite interested in green building. This is most evident in the Chicago Climate Plan that is making changes to urban design, waste, stormwater, transportation and public landscapes and the urban forest canopy of the city. From this plan a Green Urban Design Plan has emerged which is aimed at making the city more sustainable.

The Chicago policy rests upon several principles. Chicago's environmental agenda includes three main goals: conserving and protecting natural resources, promoting environmentally-friendly lifestyles and leading by example by incorporating healthy environmental practices into the everyday work of government. Much is being done to promote the development of green roof technology for a variety of building types.

Parking lots are one of the most dominate urban land uses, yet ecologically sterile, with very low levels of productivity. They merely store cars for part of the day. This one also "stores" water.

What was not mentioned, and is seldom mentioned in green building strategy is green parking.

I have not found policy that leads to the design of green parking lots. In fact, one of the little secrets of the green movement is very few people, including many landscape architects, do not know exactly what green parking is, or can be. Even when your search for definition, little information is available. No one seems to be working to define green parking as anything more than porous paving, which is a definition created and used by the EPA several years ago.

Green Parking Lots
Several months ago I crafted a story about the LSU AgCenter Sustainable Landscaping initiative, often referred to as Louisiana Yards & Neighborhood Program. In that story I challenged the reader to assess their Sustainability I.Q. I wanted to know if the green industry in Louisiana is embracing the green movement that is spreading across the United States. You won't have much luck in identifying green parking lot design strategy in the South.

Since we are teaching sustainable landscape design at LSU, I wanted to take the time to write about one of my favorite subjects, or should I say one of my pet peeves: parking lots. Parking lots are one of the most dominate urban land uses, yet they are ecologically sterile with a very low level of productivity. They merely store cars for part of the day. At lectures around the country I note that parking lots and teenagers have one thing in common: They both lay around without doing any work. The comment is usually received with a chuckle, except when I make the comment at a university. The students are silent. I guess they don't see the humor in being compared to a parking lot. But the raw fact remains, parking lots in cities seldom do anything but store cars.

Parking lots don't get much more non-green (and ugly) than this one in Wheaton, Md., a city with plans for redevelopment.

A Definition of Green Parking
Green parking is a concept not well understood in the United States at this time, even though great ideas to form the concept are available. Few people write about green parking. The literature is scant. Few green parking lots have been constructed. But what do we know about this idea? We do have several definitions of what green parking is thought to be.

EPA definition: "Green parking lot is a term increasingly used to describe parking lots that may incorporate a variety of environmentally preferable features, including a minimized footprint and/or impervious surfaces, stormwater best management practices (BMPs) and alternative parking surface materials." This definition just a few years ago only mentioned porous paving. We are making progress. "Green parking refers to several techniques applied together to reduce the contribution of parking lots to the total impervious cover in a lot."

City of Seattle: "Green parking lots reduce runoff that is discharged into local water bodies by using permeable paving and natural drainage landscapes such as bio-swales, rain gardens and bioengineered planting strips."
San Mateo County: "There is a lot of variability in how a 'green street' or 'green parking lot' is defined. They include streets and parking lots designed with a landscape and or paving system that capture, slows, filters, and potentially infiltrates stormwater runoff. Green streets and parking lots provide stormwater reduction and water quality benefits to runoff before discharging to local creeks."

Green building, as defined by King County, Washington means: "Designing, constructing and operating buildings and landscapes to incorporate energy efficiency, water conservation, waste minimization, pollution prevention, resource-efficient materials and indoor environmental quality in all phases of a building's life." This definition starts to give us a clue what a green parking lot ought to be. However, other than recommending alternative transportation means, the King County, Washington Landscape Code does not define green parking in their landscape code Title 24, Sec 21A-16.070.

LSU Definition of Green Parking
The definition I use in the class I teach about green parking somewhat combines King County and ASLA's Sustainable Sites Initiative: "Green Parking means parking areas that do environmental work, parking areas that incorporates energy efficiency, water conservation, waste minimization, pollution prevention and the use and recycling of resource efficient materials and outdoor environmental quality in respect to air, water, soils, wildlife and visual quality."

A working concept for green parking is "high-performance parking that provides environmental services."
The key to this kind of parking is to put parking lots to work. Parking lots should not be allowed to be unecological ferociously hot slabs of concrete or asphalt that just lie there vacant most of the time not performing any environmental service.

In the next several columns I will explore some ideas about green parking lot design. You can email me,, to get some class handout material and a copy of my paper on Green Parking. If you have parking lots in your area that meet my definition, please send a .jpeg with a description, name location and designer. Perhaps I can feature them in my stories.

D.G. "Buck" Abbey, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, is LASN's Associate Editor for Ordinances.

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November 18, 2019, 10:59 am PDT

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