Parking Lot that Joni Mitchell would be proud of

New York Times

N.Y. / Region
Real Estate

Op-Ed Contributor
When a Parking Lot Is So Much More
Published: March 25, 2012

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¶ Cambridge, Mass.
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Sophia Martineck

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¶ NO ONE loves a parking lot. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell laments, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The parking lot is the antithesis of nature’s fields and forests, an ugly reminder of the costs of our automobile-oriented society. But as long as we prefer to get around by car (whether powered by fossil fuel, solar energy or hydrogen), the parking lot is here to stay. It’s hard to imagine an alternative.

¶ Or is it? I believe that the modern surface parking lot is ripe for transformation. Few of us spend much time thinking about parking beyond availability and convenience. But parking lots are, in fact, much more than spots to temporarily store cars: 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. We need to redefine what we mean by “parking lot” to include something that not only allows a driver to park his car, but also offers a variety of other public uses, mitigates its effect on the environment and gives greater consideration to aesthetics and architectural context.

¶ It’s estimated that there are three nonresidential parking spaces for every car in the United States. That adds up to almost 800 million parking spaces, covering about 4,360 square miles — an area larger than Puerto Rico. In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.

¶ Such coverage comes with environmental costs. The large, impervious surfaces of parking lots increase storm-water runoff, which damages watersheds. The exposed pavement increases the heat-island effect, by which urban regions are made warmer than surrounding rural areas. Since cars are immobile 95 percent of the time, you could plausibly argue that a Prius and a Hummer have much the same environmental impact: both occupy the same 9-by-18-foot rectangle of paved space.

¶ A better parking lot might be covered with solar canopies so that it could produce energy while lowering heat. Or perhaps it would be surfaced with a permeable material like porous asphalt and planted with trees in rows like an apple orchard, so that it could sequester carbon and clean contaminated runoff.

¶ The ubiquity of parking lots has also led to an overlooked social dimension: In the United States, parking lots may be the most regularly used outdoor space. They are public places that people interact with and use on a daily basis, whether working, shopping, running errands, eating, even walking — parking lots are one of the few places where cars and pedestrians coexist.

¶ Better parking lots would embrace and expand this role. Already, many lots provide space for farmers’ markets, spontaneous games of street hockey, tailgating, even teenagers’ illicit nighttime parties. This range of activities suggests that parking lots are a “found” place: they satisfy needs that are not yet met by our designed surroundings. Planned with greater intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks or plazas. For instance, the Italian architect Renzo Piano, when redesigning the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, eliminated the parking lot’s islands and curbs and planted rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.

¶ The parking lot also has an underutilized architectural function. A parking lot is the first part of a space you visit or live next to. It is typically the gateway through which dwellers, customers, visitors or employees pass before they enter a building. Architects and designers often discuss the importance of “the approach” as establishing the tone for a place, as the setting for the architecture itself. Developers talk about the importance of “first impressions” to the overall atmosphere conveyed to the user.

¶ Yet parking lots are rarely designed with this function in mind. When they are, the effect is stunning. For instance, the parking lot at the Dia art museum in Beacon, N.Y., created by the artist Robert Irwin and the architecture firm OpenOffice, was planned as an integral element of the visitor’s arrival experience, with an aesthetically deft progression from the entry road to the parking lot to an allée that leads to the museum’s lobby.

¶ For something that occupies such a vast amount of land and is used on a daily basis by so many people, the parking lot should receive more attention than it has. We need to ask: what can a parking lot be?

¶ Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 26, 2012, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: When a Parking Lot Is So Much More.


The Dangers of TCE and PCE

TCE & PCE are problems that are occurring in Canada & US and it is being discovered in soil and groundwater in epidemic proportions.  Good reading to go along with this article is “A Civil Action” written by Jonathan Harr.  It was also released as a movie of the same name starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall.  I would suggest reading the book prior to viewing the movie.  It is a true story of TCE & PCE and how it impacted the City of Woburn, Massachusetts.

Updated: February 6, 2008, 4:55 pm
Lead Author: Emily Monosson


This article has been reviewed by the following Topic Editor: Lawrence Duffy

<!–Add this page: Trichloroethylene–>Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a man-made chlorinated solvent, used primarily to remove grease from metal parts and textiles. In addition to TCE, related <!–Add this page: chlorinated solvents–>chlorinated solvents, or <!–Add this page: volatile organics compounds–>volatile organics compounds (VOCs), include <!–Add this page: Perchloroethylene–>Perchloroethylene (PCE), mainly used as a dry cleaning agent with some industrial applications including degreasing, and <!–Add this page: Dichloroethane–>Dichloroethane (DCE), a breakdown product of both PCE and TCE.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 1,428 hazardous waste sites as the most serious in the nation, and these sites make up the National Priorities List (NPL, or Superfund) targeted for long-term federal clean-up. Trichloroethylene has been found in at least 861, or 60%, of the NPL sites, and there are tens of thousands of other cleanup sites across the country. The full extent of TCE contamination nationwide is unclear. The <!– Create this article: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry –>Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports that trichloroethylene is the most frequently reported organic contaminant in groundwater, and estimates that between 9 and 34 percent of drinking water supply sources have some trichloroethylene contamination.

There are many industrial processes that use or used TCE, including food processing, textiles, wood products, furniture and fixtures, <!–Add this page: paper–>paper, printing and publishing, <!–Add this page: chemicals–>chemicals, <!–Add this page: petroleum–>petroleum, <!–Add this page: rubber–>rubber, <!–Add this page: leather–>leather, <!–Add this page: stone–>stone and clay, primary <!–Add this page: metals–>metals, fabricated metals, industrial machinery, <!–Add this page: electronics–>electronics, and <!–Add this page: transportation–>transportation equipment. TCE and related compounds are primarily used as solvents, carriers, or extractants; in dry cleaning of textiles; in metal cleaning and degreasing; in textile manufacturing; as insulating fluids/coolants; and as chemical intermediates. Industrial sources of TCE include dry cleaners, metal shops, auto junkyards, circuit board manufacturers, and engine manufacturers. Military bases also use TCE in vehicle and jet maintenance.

The residence time of TCE in groundwater is much longer than in <!–Add this page: surface waters–>surface waters. Additionally, TCE does not break down very readily in the soil, and it can pass through the soil into groundwater. While a small amount of TCE may dissolve in groundwater – possibly contaminating drinking water – it may also form pools of <!–Add this page: dense nonaqueous phase liquid–>dense nonaqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) as a “plume,” or it may volatilize, possibly resulting in emission as a soil vapor gas. As a gas, TCE can accumulate in buildings at dangerous levels through the process of vapor intrusion. For example, the former Microwave Development Labs (MDL) site in Needham, Massachusetts generated TCE plumes in the groundwater, which moved down-gradient to the Hillside Elementary School. Testing demonstrated that soil vapor gas from the plumes was infiltrating the school and several residences nearby. <!–Add this page: North Adams, Massachusetts–>North Adams, Massachusetts is another case of groundwater contamination leading to vapor intrusion. In that case 17 homes on two streets were bought out by Sprague Electric Company and razed (Figure 1). There are numerous examples and ongoing cases of vapor intrusion by TCE throughout the <!–Add this page: United States–>United States.

<googlemap height=”400″ width=”300″ lat=”42.699083″ lon=”-73.1345″ zoom=”17″ type=”hybrid” controls=”small” selector=”yes” scale=”yes”> 42.699083, -73.1345, ”’Avon and Alton Streets”’ </googlemap>
Figure 1. Avon and Alton Streets, North Adams,
Massachusetts after removal of 17 homes.

Because of the potential for vapor intrusion, the assessment of TCE in the groundwater must consider both potential <!–Add this page: volatilization–>volatilization and exposure through inhalation (either through volatilization from groundwater through soil, or from water used in the home for washing), and any oral exposures from drinking water or dermal exposures (from washing or other uses of water) (Figure 2). There are locations in the country where TCE concentrations are in the 1000’s of parts per billion (ppb) or higher. How such contaminated water is treated may vary by state. For example the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection classifies groundwater as GW-1, GW-2 or GW-3 based on its use or potential use, proximity to buildings, or potential to contribute to surface water. Currently the EPA has set an enforceable <!–Add this page: Maximum Contaminant Level–>Maximum Contaminant Level or MCL of 5 parts per billion (ppb) or 0.005 ppm for drinking water, and uses this standard for water classified as GW-1. [Note that derivation of the MCL includes consideration of present technology and resources, and, according to the EPA, the MCL represents the lowest level to which water systems can reasonably be required to remove this contaminant should it occur in drinking water, as noted by the EPA, the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal – (MCLG) – a nonenforceable health goal is zero for TCE.]

Figure 2. Potential sources of TCE and metabolites, DCA and TCA. Figure 2. Potential sources of TCE and metabolites, DCA and TCA.

However, for groundwater that is classified as GW-2, groundwater with the potential to contribute to indoor vapor, Massachusetts sets a standard of 30 ppb (recently down from 300 ppb); and for GW-3, groundwater with the potential to contribute to surface water, Massachusetts set a standard of 5,000 ppb for TCE.

Research into the health impacts of TCE is ongoing. In 2001 EPA issued a draft risk assessement “Trichloroethylene Health Risk Assessment: Synthesis and Characterization,” with the intention of revising and updating health risk assessment for TCE based on the most current information. In the draft, EPA notes that TCE has the potential to induce neurotoxicity, <!– Create this article: immunotoxicity –>immunotoxicity, <!– Create this article: developmental toxicity –>developmental toxicity, <!– Create this article: liver toxicity –>liver toxicity, <!– Create this article: kidney toxicity –>kidney toxicity, endocrine effects, and that it is considered “highly likely to produce cancer in humans,” based on data from both animal and epidemiological studies. Exposure to low levels of TCE can cause skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness, irregular heart beat, and memory loss. Exposure to TCE has been linked to reproductive problems among women occupationally exposed, and community drinking water exposures have been linked to cardiac birth defects. There is also evidence from <!–Add this page: Woburn, Massachusetts–>Woburn, Massachusetts that children born to mothers who ingested TCE-contaminated well water during pregnancy were at higher risk for developing childhood leukemia.

Some of the more recent studies suggest that TCE may be much more toxic than it has been assumed to be previously. Of particular concern is the finding that TCE may affect children differently than adults, as a result of differences in exposure, metabolism, and clearance. For example, children have the potential for greater exposures because they may drink more water relative to adults or have a higher respiratory rate. Once exposed, children may metabolize TCE differently than adults as well.

In addition to these new developments in health assessment of TCE, the EPA, in a departure from traditional methods of contaminant risk assessment, considered the potential for cumulative exposure to not only TCE, but also to its metabolites DCA and/or TCA, regardless of their source and/or other VOCs such as <!–Add this page: PERC–>PERC that may break down into TCE, and eventually DCA and TCA. Although EPA has advocated considering chemical mixtures when conducting risk assessments pertaining to Superfund or hazardous waste sites since 1987, and regulation of pesticide residues may also consider combined exposure to similar-acting pesticides, the practice of addressing chemical mixtures for the regulation of hazardous chemicals is new.

Considering the combined importance of TCE <!–Add this page: metabolites–>metabolites, the pervasiveness of DCA and TCA in some environments, interspecies differences, and the potentially greater susceptibility of the fetus, the EPA in their 2001 Draft Risk Assessment for TCE has proposed a new <!–Add this page: reference dose–>reference dose (RfD) of 0.0003 <!–Add this page: milligram–>milligram per kilogram per day (mg/kg/d) for noncancer endpoints, compared with the RfD of 0.007 mg/kg/d set forth in the 1980’s, and <!–Add this page: cancer slope factors–>cancer slope factors which range between 0.02-0.4 per mg/kg-d. Should such changes be adopted, they would likely result in reducing standards derived form the RfD and cancer slopes, including drinking water standards.

The risk assessment underwent review by a <!–Add this page: Scientific Advisory Board–>Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) convened by the EPA. While the board commended the risk assessment for its “groundbreaking” approaches, which included consideration of risk to children and other susceptible populations and its cumulative approach, the SAB also suggested that because the risk assessment presented several new approaches to risk assessment, that they need to “strengthen the rigor of the discussion in the revised assessment so that the basis for all derived values is transparent and clearly supported by the available data.”

Further Reading

  • Doherty, Richard, E. 2000. A History of the Production and Use of Carbon Tetrachloride, Tetrachloroethylene, Trichloroethylene, and 1,1,1-Trichloroethane in the United States: Part 2 – Trichloroethylene and 1,1,1-Trichloroethane.
  • Jackson, Richard, 2004. Recognizing Emerging Environmental Problems – The Case of Chlorinated Solvents in Ground Water. Technology and Culture, 45(1):55-79.
  • The TCE Blog Collects information on TCE contaminated communities, and news articles from around the country.

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Emily Monosson (Lead Author);Lawrence Duffy (Topic Editor) “TCE contamination of groundwater”. In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth February 6, 2008; Last revised Date February 6, 2008; Retrieved March 10, 2012 <>


The Author

Emily Monosson Associate Editor The Encyclopedia of Earth   Dr. Emily Monosson’s interest is the interface between toxic chemicals and life, and how living things respond to chemicals of either natural or anthropogenic origin. She has extensive experience reviewing and synthesizing literature pertaining to toxicology and environmental toxicology and has researched and reported on a range of chemicals from legacies like PCBs to emergent chemical toxicants including na … (Full Bio)

Importance of Frogs to the Environment

Scientists are struggling to understand why frogs are dying all over the world.  And not just frogs – but also other amphibians, like toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians.  Herpetologists are scientists who study amphibians and reptiles.  The better they understand what’s going on, the more likely they’ll be able to suggest how to help the frogs. But everyone can be a part of the solution.  Here are some ways you can help:

Educate Yourself

Learn more about frogs at your local aquarium or zoo.  Natural history museums are also a good place to explore.  In New York City, for example, the American Museum of Natural History has an upcoming exhibit (opening May 2009) all about frogs.

The internet makes it easy to find frog news, ranging from action-oriented to more technical.  Many people have started their own frog-related websites.  Some scientists have frog blogs, like this one by Dr. Roland Knapp, a research biologist at the University of California’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.

Knapp studies the mountain yellow-legged frog.  When scientists showed that trout introduced into Sierra Nevada mountain lakes decimated the native frogs, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game joined together to remove non-native trout.

Just as the frog was recovering from trout overstocking, it was hit with the amphibian chytrid fungus.   The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to add the yellow-legged frog to the endangered species list to protect them by law, but it remains only a candidate for now.

Keep informed about legislation that affects your local frog populations.  You can help frogs face threats like habitat destruction, global climate change and disease.

Protect the Environment

One of the most important ways to help frogs also helps humans -– taking care of the environment.

Frogs are particularly susceptible to changes in the environment.  Their usually moist skin helps their weak lungs by exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with their environment – both in water and out of it.   In fact, last year scientists found a frog without lungs -– it breathes only through its skin.

Over 6,300 different species of amphibians are known – and new species are still being found.  Nearly half of the species are in decline, mostly from threats to their habitat.   Frogs lose their homes to development, but they are also harmed by garbage, non-native plants and animals, and discarded chemicals.

Watch what you throw away—and where you throw it away—to keep frog habitats trash-free.  The water that ends up in storm drains, for example, often travels through forests and grasslands and dumps into wetlands – all prime frog habitat.

On the other hand, shorelines should stay naturally cluttered with the leaf litter, rocks and logs that frogs use for cover.   Frogs evolved over millions of years to fit into specific ecological niches defined by factors like temperature and water levels.   They need clean water to survive,  but they also eat—and feed—other species.

Don’t introduce non-native plants and animals. The tadpoles that hatch from frog eggs depend on finding their favorite plants to eat and hide under.   As with the stocked trout and the mountain yellow-legged frog, sometimes even one out-of-place species can disrupt an entire habitat.

The invasive species can sometimes be another frog – like African clawed frogs and American bullfrogs that were moved outside their original habitats.  The worldwide export of some frogs may even have contributed to spreading the amphibian chytrid fungus around the world.   African clawed frogs were once exported for medical uses and are now popular as pets. Bullfrog legs are exported all over the world as food, especially from Indonesia.

If you’d like to keep a frog as a pet, look for a pet dealer who propagates his or her own animals and don’t release the frog into the wild without consulting an expert to see if it will be an invasive species.

Reduce chemical use. The water table on which we depend collects a lot of the chemicals we flush down our drains or add to our lawns (PDF), despite our best efforts to treat the water.

Chemical pesticides used in industrial agriculture harm frogs.   But declines in frog populations also show us that something is wrong with the water we drink.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes is a developmental endocrinologist at the University of California, Berkeley.  He studies how pesticides both affect amphibian development and also promote reproductive cancer in humans.

The pesticide atrazine, which is found in almost every American’s drinking water, causes hormone disruptions in both frogs and humans.

“[It] doesn’t matter if you’re a frog, a dog, a cat, a hog, or a farmer,” says Hayes.  “The hormones that are disrupted—testosterone, estrogen, thyroid hormones—those are all the same hormones.”

Hayes’ laboratory plays host to several egg-producing male frogs – frogs that were exposed to doses of atrazine a third of what’s allowed in drinking water.  Hayes says the same dosage promotes human cancers.

Don’t flush medicines down the toilet. Pesticides degrade water quality, but so do drugs flushed into our environment (PDF).  The treatment plants that process our wastewater don’t always remove pharmaceutical chemicals.  Most medicines should be thrown in the trash – sometimes mixed with kitty litter or gravel.

Conserve water. The less water you use, the less has to be treated.  And the more water stays with frogs in natural environments.

Support Conservation

Give the frogs some time. If you want to be hands-on, find a local habitat preservation or citizen science monitoring program.  Or you can take part in a 24-hour BioBlitz near you.

Put your money where it counts. Many environmental organizations (such as Amphibian Ark and Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation), zoos and aquariums, scientific consortiums, and countless community groups are already tackling the global frog crisis.  But there’s still a lot to do.  Donate or raise money for your favorite.

Article Courtesy of PBS