A kinder, gentler parking lot


overhead“Where are you going?”
“I’m driving to Hamburg to look at a parking lot.”
“Is it OK if I don’t go with you?”

This marital exchange took place on a beautiful Saturday morning a couple weeks ago, before I set off for a suburban village about twenty miles south of Buffalo. My friend Dave Majewski had been urging me via email to take a look at his latest project, and I knew that, as prosaic as it sounded, I was probably in for a surprise.

IMG_2599It was worth the trip. Dave is creating a parking lot for a dentist, Barbara Moore of MooreKidsSmile, whose business has increased to the point that she’s giving up most of her back yard to accommodate her patients’ vehicles. However, she has conditions. She refuses to give up several mature trees, including a huge old maple right in the middle. There can be no storm water runoff directed toward the street. The lot has to support the wildlife that had already been thriving in the yard, and, of course, it needs to be surrounded by gardens with native plants.

IMG_2611When I arrived, Dave and his crew were installing the bioretention system (above) that would sustain the gardens and keep water from flowing into an already overtaxed storm sewer system. The concrete of the lot had made detours around the trees, which were treated with compost tea and other natural amendments. The surrounding gardens were ready to be planted with viburnum, chokeberry, dogwood, spicebush, Joe Pye weed, switchgrass, coneflower, vernonia and other selections chosen for their ability to provide root mass, support insects and other animals, accommodate pollinators, and look good. Micro clover will be used in any area where turfgrass might ordinarily be planted.

Dave likes concrete for the lot because it doesn’t contain petroleum byproducts, requires less light, is less of a heat island, requires no sealing, and will last longer with the help of a recycled synthetic fiber mesh he’s using rather than steel mesh.

IMG_2602What strikes me about the project is that already, even before plants, it looks as much like a landscape as a parking lot can ever look. It’s dominated by the trees and I can only imagine what it will look like when all the shrubs and perennials are in. The lot is being registered as Pollinator Conservation Site, Urban Wildlife Habitat, Certified Rain Garden/Bioretention Project, and Monarch Butterfly Waystation—for starters.

If you have to pave paradise, this is the way to go.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Do you know if your friend considered and rejected permeable paving? I can several reasons why it might not be the ticket for your area — intense snowfall (and correspondingly epic melt), cost, less controllable seepage into storm sewers, maybe doesn’t stand up to snowplows and/or weather cycles as well as concrete…

    • I am going to send this link to Dave so he can answer (and comment on everything I left out or got wrong). But it seems to me that with everything he’s done to address water runoff of any kind, the job of permeable paving has been taken care of, without the cost of it. I’ve seen this paving used for walkways–not so much for parking lots.

    • I was wondering what maple that is. I have a massive, old silver maple on my side yard. I wouldn’t want that anywhere near cement. The roots would push right up through it. I’ve also lost some limbs when storms roar through even though I have it thinned out.

      • Acer Saccharum. About 125-150 yrs old. There are two of them on site. I spent CONSIDERABLE resources, time, materials, consulting, etc… on the preservation and conservation of these two key site assets since May. We estimate t hey were planted back when the original church next door was constructed in around 1870 or so…. There are several in the area. The Hamburg Village possesses some signs and evidence – if you look closely though – like the city of Buffalo does, of planned and designed plantings of native trees from generations ago that are not evident until you put the current standing structures out of mind and envision what the large wealthy est ate owners did 100-150 yrs ago. Then you can get an idea of what was going on and why…
        We custom designed the parking lot and paved areas around these trees to keep all water/runoff from inundating their root systems. Sugar Maples do not like excess water. We also treated and core drilled/vermicomposted these trees back in the summer – with about 250 holes @ 2″ and 18″ depth to get below the standard paving prep excavation depths of 1 foot. More to it that this. Long story. But this is a good start to convey.

        Again – this parking lot was built around these two massive native specimen trees. That was one of the charges by the unselfish and environmentally sensitive client. Dr. Barbara Moore Pediatric Dentistry. None of this seminal project could have been possible without Dr Moore’s vision and devotion to ecology and the environment. All credit needs to go to her. Not me. I just implemented her vision.

    • Please email me on the response to the permeable paving issue. It is a “tool” in the green infrastructure toolbox – but not a default one. There are some good things about these pavers and several unsustainable factors that must always be considered. On some sites they are preferred and can work; on others they are not part of the solution. There are many construction aspects that have to be factored in. In a sense, permeable paving options are merely another “product” to sell and a gimmick. Not always, but many times. Been there, done that. I have designed them in and used them in the past, but I personally feel they are overrated and used as the knee-jerk reaction crutch immediately as soon as someone mentions “parking” and “storm water.” Yep. Much more to it than this. Not a bad option, but it has to be an “option” and a prudent one that is well thought-out and designed-in. Not a first reaction each time. Remember, permeable paving—aside from the several unsustainable results—provides zero options for creating green spaces and restoring habitats, pollinators, nesting sites, carbon sequestration, and more….

      Look forward to communicating this with you and thank you for the insightful concern.


      • I would love to hear about why pavers would be unsustainable? A very large shopping complex in Peoria completed an entire lot (like mall size) with these pavers. Although it looks impressive and gives me good feeling while visiting, I secretly wonder if they made a huge costly mistake. Thank you, Kristie

        • I will post my reply about permeable pavers (different from paving) on a document as it will be easier than rambling on the blog. Then I will try to attach it to a response. Hope that works. If not – Liz, can you help? Just want to make it easier and more efficient and give the readers a good response.


  2. Great Job! It’s amazing how interesting a parking lot can be. I recently stopped for gas on a rural highway that had the most amazing plantings in the strip of dirt between the road and the station – it was full of pollinator pleasing plantings and ornamental grasses. Instead of the normal barren strip this place was buzzing with bees and seeding eating birds. It just goes to show that the tired old ways of doing things don’t have to be the way we keep doing things.

    • I love when I see things like that. On a vacation somewhere in Florida, I remember that all of the strip malls had landscaping up front, blocking the view of the storefronts. Instead, a large sign identifying what stores were there. How I wished south Jersey would zone that practice in.

  3. Looks like snow plowing might be a real pain. If they are going to hire the guy with a pick-up with a plow. Very tight manuvering. Or are the snow blowing? Or as environmentally conscious as this project is are they going to hand shovel?
    Permeable pavement doesn’t work too well if you have a lot of leaves. It has to be clear of stuff for it to work.

    • That makes sense; now that you mention it, most of the places I’ve seen permeable pavers used are dry enough to be un-leafy.

    • Good question/topic.
      I never leave out the snow plowing plan. That is always a primary factor in the design of these parking lot systems. I work closely with ALL contractors to be engaged and later on contracted for future services. Plowing planning is a key component of the sustainability of these projects.

      PS – on this particular site, I have engaged a service to Snow Blow with a large commercial walk behind. Sand only – no salting. This allows us to place t he snow where it can go and avoid where it cannot go – more easily with a snow blower that has directional options.
      A snow plow here – with the typical (not all) plowing services, would be like a bull int eh china shop. Again, this is something that is on the planning table at the VERY beginning of the process. After about 15 of these, you learn the lessons and try to make each subsequent project smarter, more sustainable, better, cheaper, etc.., IF we dont make these types of project more sustainable: financially, resource wise, operationally, etc… then we wont help to convince others to do the same. Unfortunately, it is ALL about the $. We need to show that not only can these systems work, but they are cost effective and not rocket science to implement.

  4. I work in downtown Camden, NJ, which has had many buildings torn down and turned into parking lots. Some have included a corner garden or other landscaping (not consistent enough for me to conclude it’s a zoning requirement). I love that gardens are included. The city eventually will be beautiful.

  5. Kudos Dave! A passionate advocate for common sense environmental solutions. Municipalities and urban planners should carefully look at his approaches to managing storm water runoff, and restorative habitats as cost-effective ways to address built urban and suburban landscapes. Dave’s Urban Habitat Project at Buffalo’s Central Terminal is an excellent example of turning to nature’s systems of water management and the benefits of restoring natural habitat.

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