Posted October 3rd 2013 at 10:53 am by
in Stories from the Field

Rethinking a Parking Lot: Chicago Interactive Workshop

Post by James Rojas, city planner and founder of Place It.

I was invited by Ryan Griffis from the Temporary Travel Office to facilitate an interactive workshop to redesign the CVS Parking lot on North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.  This activity harnessed the power of the individual and collective community imagination through a series of activities. Residents and visitors had the chance to envision their ideal parking lot together.


A parking lot is the perfect venue to raise the public’s consciousness on how the built environment impacts their state of being. Most parking lots are stripped of human amenities so that the body is not over stimulated by the kind of things you see on most streets and public spaces. Asking people to find comfort in a barren parking lot sets up an ideal experiment because all environmental factors are limited and subtle.

This activity consisted of three parts.

Part One:

Ryan Griffis discussed the history of surface parking lots and lead us on a tour.

Part Two:


Participants had ten minutes to explore the parking lot and choose a location in which they felt comfortable. Then we visited the chosen individual sites, and the participants told the group why they choose those particular locations. No two sites were the same. People choose sites depending on how they emotionally and physically connected to it. Through these narratives the parking lot began to unfold as a potential livable place through people’s experiences.  The preferred locations were as follows:

• A small 18 inch “sink” hole that cut through the asphalt where small plants were growing

• A place to sit at the base of a centrally located lamp post with an old United Farm Worker sticker from the 1980’s stuck on it, which drew lots of speculation that the CVS may have been a market

• Shade/Shelter under an entry sign

• An odd pole with street trees adjacent to the lot and a nice view down an alley

Through this process we learned how people valued the ramshackle nature of the parking lot, including its topography, the entrance to the store, the street trees, lamp post, and hidden histories in the built environment.


This exercise accomplished the following:

• Helped participants understand how their bodies related to the built environment

• Illustrated how it’s human nature to look for comfort in the built environment

• Served as an icebreaker for the group.

Part Three:

The group walked over to the Alternative Press Center where I led the re-envisioning parking lot workshop.

After a brief rundown of the process I asked the participants to build their favorite childhood memories in twenty minutes using an assortment of abstract small objects, which promoted creative thinking and problem solving. This task prompted the participants to revisit a time when the built environment shaped their lives.


The participants quickly examined the hundreds of small objects placed in front of them. Once the participants started to explore the materials they began choosing pieces that they liked, or would help them build their memory. They began to gather pieces and place them on their sheet of colored construction paper. Since there are no-right or wrong answers, all social barriers are broken down, thereby creating a friendly exchange of ideas and putting participants at ease.

The design process began once they laid out a few pieces of material on the paper. Hands moved furiously as their designs became more developed and elaborate. Many participants gathered additional materials. For the next ten minutes the participants were in a meditative state of thinking about their childhood memories.

When the participants became satisfied with their models the flurry of activity slowed down. They began to look around at each others artistic work, and talk. They took pictures with their cell phones. I announced to every one to stop building! It was time for everyone to present their ideas to the group. The participants spoke with conviction and enthusiasm. They used their hands as they lead us through their models.

Below is a recap of those memories:

• A vacant lot in Florida with an open sewer/water pipe where the participant would imagine it was the Grand Canyon

• A third floor window with a view of nature

• Forbidden woods where the participant would play

• A fancy hotel swimming pool where the participant’s father worked

• A bush on the side of the house and sidewalk where a participant would hide inside and spy on the street

After each participant stated his or her memory, I explained what his or her ideas meant in the urban planning context. No matter where people grew up they all shared the similar childhood memories, which involved rich, sensual, and physical activities. Most of the memories took place out doors and highlighted how as children we begin to examine the build environment with our senses and imaginations. As children we use scale as an important tool to help us find comfort and intimacy in the built environment.

Next participants organized into two groups to collectively build their ideal parking lots in fifteen minutes. The two groups took two different approaches where one design solution was generic while the other was site specific.

Group One: Created a general concept whereby the parking lot transformed into a park and the parking was placed below. The park’s amenities included a water feature and car wash. Chicago’s Millennium Park is built over a parking lot and the weight of the Bean sculpture takes two parking spaces below to support the weight!

Group Two: Created an elaborate plan based on their experiences from the site, childhood memories, and how they visualized their ideal world. They examined the way pedestrians entered the drug store through the parking lot and designed an elevated access way. The parking lot area that faced the residential street became a green zone for recycling, gardening, and many other people serving activities.  Public art — a disco ball — was placed in the parking lot. Their parking lot became a community multipurpose zone full of engaging activities.

Overall each team’s solutions focused on a few issues:

1. Access and existing conditions

2. Respecting the community and landscape

3. Providing quality public space

4. Solving urban planning problems

We concluded with a discussion on the possibility of having pop-up art events and other activities on the parking lot that illustrated creative solutions, instead of the typical urban design approaches.

Lessons Learned

Through play we discovered. This exercise helped people learn about themselves, each other, and the parking lot by raising the consciousness on how the built environment impacts our experience of place. We learned that even though we are adults, our connections to built environment have not changed since childhood. The enduring childhood memories brought everyone together by making us realize that the built environment played a major role in shaping our lives regardless of race, income, or place. Play simplified the planning process so that everyone could participate. It made urban planning relevant to people’s lives.

Post by James Rojas.

One response to “Rethinking a Parking Lot: Chicago Interactive Workshop”

  1. Wonderful exercise. I can see how the freedom to express helped everyone.