Empty parking lots. These must be among the most pleasing aspects of Christmas Day in Madison. Nothing against commerce, mind you: My credit card balance is gung-ho for retail and restaurants. But there's something about all that unused asphalt that lends a sense of wonder to the landscape when Dec. 25 falls on a weekday.
I was oblivious to this phenomenon until a few years ago. Riding shotgun en route to holiday festivities on the far west side, I happened to glance to my right as we passed Gammon Road. The view did not register until my attention turned back to the road ahead. On second glance, I gasped.
But for one isolated sedan, the massive parking lots surrounding West Towne and nearby big boxes were empty. Thousands of unused parking spaces. Vast herringbones of painted stalls exposed for one full day between the parking frenzies of Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
If you are preoccupied with navigation, an empty parking lot is the sort of thing you might not notice. But from the front passenger seat, it is a marvel.
Empty parking lots represent a shared pause. A communal break in the unrelenting holiday shopping momentum. Fewer cars on the street and more people on foot or at home.
The quiet affords an opportunity to hear questions such as "What if empty parking lots could be the norm instead of one isolated exception out of 365 days?"
What if large and small centers of commerce were served by faster, cheaper, more convenient and efficient customer infrastructures so they could thrive without all that paved acreage?
What if most or even all of this asphalt could be restored greenspace, such as a farmstead or an arboretum?
The stock responses to these questions contend that such ideas are impossible to realize, impractical to achieve or flat-out too expensive to bear further consideration.
But what if they're not? What if there are reasonable alternatives to parking lots of all sizes that stand empty one day each year? What if every day could be Christmas?