A little less black(top), please

Bass Pro Outdoor World opens onto a blacktop desert,trees and grass replaced by pavement.First printed in the Gettysburg Times, 7/19/2013)

The TV reporter stands in Manhattan, NYC, telling us the temperature where she is standing is 97F. A couple blocks away, in Central Park, it’s only 92, she says.

What she does not mention is Central Park is an island of trees and grass. She is standing, sweating, amid pavement, buildings and motor vehicles together pouring rivers of heat into their already oven-like ambiance.

I do not live in New York City, but Gettysburg, Pa., my home, and Farmington, Maine, where I rode a motorcycle to college and work, have offered me excellent opportunities to get a “feel” for the effects of buildings and blacktop on ambient air temperatures.

Leaving the halls of academe for home, for instance, involved rounding a curve by the dentist’s office, which on that route defined the northern edge of town. There are multitudes of such settlements across the national landscape, where years ago weary travelers pulled up their wagons near to the water supply and circled them against the dangers of the surrounding wilderness – and created multitudes of heat islands with their campfires and, later, household fireplaces and shopping center parking lots.

And so as I would pass Dr. Swallow’s home-slash-office, the temperature would drop significantly. In a car, with the window rolled up and the machinery blowing a comfy 70-something from the dashboard, one would not notice. On a motorcycle, in late fall, it’s difficult to miss. No windows to roll up, for one thing.

I experienced a similar effect while living in Norfolk, Va., where a common ride out of town, often to the mall, was along Interstate 64, with some portions blacktopped and some surfaced with much lighter-colored concrete. The concrete was definitely cooler.

It was no surprise, then, when my college Environmental Geo-Science professor decried shopping center parking lots and acres of two-lane widened to federal specifications. A 32-foot-wide road became 40 feet – still a two-lane on which passing a slow-moving tourist was difficult, if not impossible, but every mile was another acre of heat-absorbing pavement – where the added blacktop gave up its calories longer into the night than did the surrounding dirt and gravel.

Thus I find myself objecting strongly to new shopping centers at the edge of town. It is not the the shopping center per se which I bemoan, but the replacement of trees and cornfields with 20-acre parcels of treeless deserts broken only by buildings and white painted lines defining parking spaces mandated by township zoning regulations – this many square feet of store must have that many parking spaces outside its door.

And when I go to the Walmart or Lowes, Grady the Golden stays home, not understanding when I tell him there’s room in the Jeep, but no shade in which to park it while I’m spending money within.

A couple years ago, the local McDonald’s owner wanted to expand. The township said the new building size needed more parking spaces. The proprietor explained one goal of the new building was to encourage people to use the drive-through. Besides, he had a small grassy area on which the occasional extra vehicle could park.

No matter, said the municipal leaders. Either make the building smaller or the paved parking area bigger.

It would be good to find a way to replace the blacktop with something a little cooler. Maybe slightly smaller spaces and a liberal sprinkling of raised beds between the parking rows wherein trees might trade a place to root for some shade.

And maybe we could use a little more white paint on the buildings.

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