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Parking lots cover a lot of land in Hampton Roads.

By replacing soil and greenery that once served natural purposes, the expanses of pavement can take a toll on the local environment.

But regional officials say they’re starting to see parking lots as an opportunity for resilience – a way to repurpose developed land to simultaneously benefit the environment. 

Many existing lots were built decades ago, before the region started experiencing the high amounts of rainfall and sea level rise that now often overwhelm local stormwater systems, said Ben McFarlane, chief resilience officer with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. 

“We probably wouldn't build those parking lots the same way now if we were building them from scratch today,” he said.

The commission has been looking into what today’s best practices should be for parking lots to manage flooding, stem pollution and improve the overall look and feel of urban spaces.

McFarlane said they wanted to get a grasp of the issue after seeing a lot of local redevelopment.

The commission recently analyzed 33 major parking lots in Hampton Roads, including how much is currently underutilized and what is required by local zoning rules.

Take Military Circle Mall in Norfolk for example: It’s surrounded by more than 4,000 parking spaces. That’s 1,000 more than the minimum required by zoning rules, according to the HRPDC’s analysis.

To rethink what those kinds of lots look like, local officials could get rid of minimum parking requirements or incentivize developers to retrofit lots, McFarlane said.

Officials have long discussed the negative impacts of too much impervious – or paved – surfaces, McFarlane said.

“It’s a huge issue when we’re talking about managing our land, managing our coastal resources here.”

When it rains, water runs off an asphalt parking lot into storm drains, which can get clogged during heavy rain events. That’s compounded by rising sea levels. 

The topic is gaining traction beyond Hampton Roads. Paris, France is working to remove about 72% of its on-street parking spaces in order to establish more green spaces.

“Parking infrastructure matters for climate change and sustainability,” the Yale Environmental Review wrote, calling parking lots “unlikely spaces for climate resilience.”

“Fortunately, parking-heavy policies and mindsets are beginning to shift,” according to the review.

The Parking Reform Network advocates for better public transportation, citing research that shows the percentage of land taken by parking decreases as more people use public transit, walking or biking as their primary commute method.  

According to the network’s analysis, about 36% of Virginia Beach’s resort area and about 24% of downtown Norfolk is currently devoted to parking lots. The nationwide average for large cities is about 22%.

Photo by Katherine Hafner 

The asphalt of the parking lot will be replaced at the center with a porous concrete and bioretention basin that absorb stormwater runoff.

A local model

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Cities are tackling the issue in many different forms, from fully converting lots to green spaces, to slowly incorporating green elements into spaces still used for parking.

A project in Hampton Roads is focused on the latter.

The local planning commission is now working to transform its own parking lot in Chesapeake. It’s currently a standard, asphalt-covered parking lot with about 50 spaces and shrubbery on medians that are surrounded by curbs.

“Our parking lot is designed like most where in the past, where the idea is to really just get that stormwater runoff out of the way instead of retaining it as a resource,” said Jill Sunderland, a commission senior water resources planner.

She said the commission’s uniquely positioned to serve as an example in the region.

“We have locally elected officials, local government staff, state agencies, nonprofits, all types of folks who come here. So it's a great location to really demonstrate how we can incorporate some of these sustainable, green, resilient practices.”

The new parking lot design will focus on absorbing water. Asphalt will be largely replaced with porous concrete or permeable pavers that allow water to seep underground instead of running off into storm drains. 

“If we can reduce the amount of rainwater that's getting into those pipes to begin with, that lessens the strain on the system,” McFarlane said.

The water will be directed to a new bioretention basin in the center of the parking lot, full of native plants that help absorb and filter water.

Sunderland said they also hope to include some electric vehicle chargers.

Getting rid of asphalt doesn’t just benefit the environment, she said. Materials like concrete absorb more sunlight, which keeps areas cooler on hot days.

Sunderland emphasized making lots resilient doesn’t have to mean making them smaller. In fact, the commission’s new design will likely yield an extra space.