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Why are Parking Lots Bad for the Environment?

Parking lots contribute to urban heat islands, exacerbate stormwater runoff, and replace green spaces that absorb carbon dioxide. Their vast impervious surfaces prevent natural water filtration, leading to polluted waterways. By occupying land that could support ecosystems, they diminish biodiversity. Consider the impact of where you park—how might we reimagine these spaces for a healthier planet?
O. Wallace
O. Wallace

There are many environmentally unfriendly aspects to the modern world, including gas-guzzling cars, pollution-spewing industry, and apathetic consumers. Looking beyond the usual suspects, many people would be surprised to find out that something as mundane as a parking lot could also be bad for the environment. Most people know that the cars they drive and park on them can be detrimental to the environment, but few know that the need of some people to sprawl out and “pave paradise” may be contributing to the problem as well.

It turns out that Americans are paving more space than ever, as was shown by a 2005 study by researchers from Purdue University that counted parking spaces in Tippecanoe County in Indiana. In a county of 155,000 residents, there were 355,000 parking spaces, which had paved an area bigger than a thousand football fields. Tippecanoe is reflective of many other counties in the US, where suburban strip malls, schools and businesses are creating the need for more parking lots.

Parking lots create heat islands.
Parking lots create heat islands.

Parking lots can be bad for the environment for many reasons. Increasing need for more parking spaces may indicate that more cars are on the road, which means that more gas is being consumed and more pollutants released into the air. More pavement means less green space, thereby reducing the number of trees and plants that serve as natural “air cleaners” by absorbing carbon dioxide in the air and releasing oxygen. It also means less open soil that can collect rainwater, which helps to replenish natural aquifers. Areas that have less of a natural groundwater supply suffer even more from an overabundance of paved areas.

Car emissions contribute to air pollution.
Car emissions contribute to air pollution.

Cars are dirty pieces of machinery and leak all sorts of toxic liquids. Oil, grease, coolant, and other fluids can collect on the asphalt and sit until rain washes it into storm drains, which may drain to lakes and streams. The runoff is often highly polluted.

Another negative effect of parking lots is called the urban heat island. The asphalt or concrete more readily absorbs and retains the heat from the sun’s rays than the surrounding ground. This in turn raises surrounding temperatures a few degrees, affecting what is called the “urban growing season.”

For those looking for less paving and more open green space, Keweenaw County in Michigan was found to have the most space between paved roads and parking lots. Washington D.C. has the most pavement with the least amount of open green space.

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Discussion Comments


There are options for concrete that are more environmentally friendly: some decorative concrete colors have higher SRI (solar reflectivity indexes) than plain gray concrete so they reflect more infrared light which results in lower temperatures. They can actually be used to help achieve LEED certification in building projects.

Also, there is pervious concrete which has many voids in the mix which allows water to percolate down into the ground instead of running off into storm drains!

Concrete is an environmentally friendly building material in all stages of its life span, from raw material production to demolition, making it a natural choice for sustainable construction.

Some reasons:

Resource efficiency - The predominant raw material for the cement in concrete is limestone, the most abundant mineral on earth. Concrete can also be made with fly ash, slag cement, and silica fume, all waste byproducts from power plants, steel mills, and other manufacturing facilities.

Durability - Concrete builds durable, long-lasting structures that will not rust, rot, or burn. Life spans for concrete building products can be double or triple those of other common building materials.

Thermal mass - Structures built with concrete walls, foundations, and floors are highly energy efficient because they take advantage of concrete’s inherent thermal mass or ability to absorb and retain heat. This means significantly lowered heating and cooling bills with smaller-capacity HVAC equipment.

Reflectivity - Concrete minimizes the effects that produce urban heat islands. Light-colored concrete pavements and roofs absorb less heat and reflect more solar radiation than dark-colored materials, such as asphalt, reducing air conditioning demands in the summer.

Minimal waste - Concrete can be produced in the quantities needed for each project, reducing waste. After a concrete structure has served its original purpose, the concrete can be crushed and recycled into aggregate for use in new concrete pavements or as backfill or road base.

I admire your sense of environmental stewardship! But if you dig a little deeper you'll find that your statements are only scratching the surface on this issue.



those were good suggestions to put empty and underutilized parking lots to use to serve the community better. unfortunately, the impact of so much pavement on the environment remains. i would never call myself a tree hugger (although i think what a lot of environmentalists do is terrific), but i think there are so many ways we can reduce the negative impact our modern society can have on the environment. now that i have kids, i live in the suburbs (which is something i said i'd never do!) and try to use businesses and services within 5 minutes of my home. i wish i could walk more places, but kids and logistics often makes that impossible.

i love being American, but i think, no, i KNOW, that we can look to other countries for ideas on how to be more environmentally friendly. those suggestions such as underground parking, cobble stone, etc. are all really great ideas!


I forgot to mention water-runoff. We use stone "cobble" locally. Stone set in sand has a natural runoff so storm drains are redundant.

Factory/school roofs are seen a bigger problem (where the water isn't used for toilets or irrigation). In Germany now there's a special tax if a building needs storm drains. Grass roofs and other innovative ideas are granted financial help (provided by the tax) so the local drainage system is not put under extra pressure.



I cannot agree that car-parks/parking lots are bad for the environment. It's the PLANNING of such that's bad.

Well designed carparks that use underground water-filled piping to heat the the office/houses/school etc are being used in Ireland. Avenues of trees breaks up the visual image and gives shelter from sun and wind AND provides living space for wildlife.

Well regulated parking can even be used at quiet times to allow children (Of ALL ages !!) space to play football/tennis/basket ball. A couple of signs asking drivers to respect the space and only use designated areas if ALL else is full. Parking areas such as sports grounds are ideal for this arrangement. Empty areas can be used to teach (motor)cyclists, learner-drivers, fly-fishing, kite-flying and lots of other activities including occasional (fresh-food) markets and marching band practice. It just takes a little forward planning and the greatest art of all; common sense.

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    • Parking lots create heat islands.
      By: Gerhard Seybert
      Parking lots create heat islands.
    • Car emissions contribute to air pollution.
      By: rob245
      Car emissions contribute to air pollution.
    • Large parking lots are considered environmentally unfriendly.
      By: Lee Barnwell
      Large parking lots are considered environmentally unfriendly.
    • Washington D.C. was found to have the most pavement with the least amount of green space.
      By: rabbit75_fot
      Washington D.C. was found to have the most pavement with the least amount of green space.
    • Oil that leaks from cars can be rinsed off a parking lot during a rainstorm, polluting nearby water.
      By: Focusedone
      Oil that leaks from cars can be rinsed off a parking lot during a rainstorm, polluting nearby water.
    • Storm drains collect large amounts of oil, grease, and coolant waste from parking lots and pass them on to the environment.
      By: eugenesergeev
      Storm drains collect large amounts of oil, grease, and coolant waste from parking lots and pass them on to the environment.