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Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:34 pm

Made in the shade

Turning car parks into real parks

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Wouldn’t it be nice if White Oaks Mall had some white oaks?
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

I think that I shall never see a car park lovely as a tree. Not in Springfield anyway. You’d have to travel to the Gobi to see expanses of treeless terrain to match the city’s larger parking lots. At White Oaks Mall, for instance, the mall’s southwest lot boasts 13 smallish trees on the perimeter of a space that accommodates a few more than 700 cars, each of which is baked to a turn on a bright day. There are not enough trees to house even one family of starlings along the entire length of Wabash. The developer’s name notwithstanding, no sap flows on the lots built to serve Leonard Sapp properties along Chatham Road. Downtown, at the Horace Mann lot north of the headquarters, falling limbs pose no casualty risk to parkers, there being not one tree on that whole city block. There are many, many other examples.

Like the Gobi, these manmade deserts get hot in summers. Very hot. They absorb heat from the sun the way pensioned old-timers absorb public money. Accident victims have been known to suffer third-degree burns after lying on hot asphalt for as few as 10 minutes after having been hit by a car. Because the heat they absorb during the day is released at night, the air doesn’t cool off even after sundown. Unpleasant environments themselves, parking lots thus make the whole city less pleasant.

Sun roofs equipped with solar cells that would offset costs through the sale of electricity will probably become standard in the U.S. in 20 years, and in Springfield 20 years after that. In the meantime, we could do the same job by turning car parks into real parks by planting nature’s own shading solar panels – trees.     

The municipal landscaping ordinance adopted in 2001 as a result of the Hasara administration’s Springfield SCENIC project rules imposes tougher rules on new or expanding lots. As I read the rules, owners seeking City Hall okay must install plantings according to how many spaces are in it; each plant is worth so many points, with one point needed for every stall in the lot. A shade tree earns the most points (18) and a deciduous shrub the least (2).

Such requirements might make lots slightly less ugly (“Asphalt somethingness,” Nov. 17, 2011) but by themselves will do very little to make large lots more clement micro-climates. The needed points may be achieved on smaller lots by planting any combination of trees and/or shrubs, including, presumably, no large trees at all. Developers of lots smaller than 100 spaces can stick all the required plants in a median along the edge of their lots. On lots of 100 stalls or more, one half of the required points must be earned by shade trees planted in curbed islands in the interior of the parking lot, but a developer would need to plant only six of them (worth 108 points) to get the 100 points needed for approval for every 100 spaces. That’s one shade tree for every 20 spaces. Hardly a bosky dell.

 To learn how it might be done, we need to look west – no, really west, past the AT&T building, past even St. Louis through the mists obscuring the edge of the civilized world toward California. The state that gave us the car-and-mall culture was one of the first to come to terms with its unwelcome aesthetic and climate effects. Here the newer parking lots boast sizeable trees planted in wells 10 feet square installed every three to five parking spaces.

Rather than leave it to the developer to decide the arrangement and size of trees, many cities in California (including the state capital, Sacramento) have adopted performance standards. The most stringent demands that 50 percent of the lot be shaded when the trees are mature, which is usually reckoned to be within 15 years of planting.

To which many readers might reply, That’s nuts. A parking lot is no place for a tree. Such a tree must be watered and planted in specially prepared soil, and even then it is likely to survive for only a fraction of its normal life span. The same can be said of a progressive in the General Assembly, but as was once observed by that wise Texan, Lyle Lovett, “What would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try.”

I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if White Oaks had some white oaks on it again? If even one fair oak, or even a couple of middling oaks, still graced Fair Oaks? If driving out on Ash Grove Drive took you to an ash grove? Developers often name their projects after what they destroyed to build them; happily, when what is destroyed is trees, they can be put back.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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