By Lawrence Scarpa
Without parking structures, cars would sprawl across the landscapes of our cities worldwide. For more than 100 years, such “garages” have provided an engineered solution to the problem of long-term parking, freeing on-street spaces for short-term users.
The first garages appeared much like any other conventionally enclosed building because early cars were not designed to withstand the elements of nature. Garage façades were embellished with intricate detail and other architectural ornamentations and were rarely distinguishable from other normal buildings. Inside, systems of lifts and turntables deposited vehicles in tight parking slots. Typically, garages included fully-staffed service stations.
By mid-century innovations in building materials and vehicle durability led to the open, steel and concrete-decked structures familiar today. Ironically, suburbanization yielded more garages downtown as business owners fretted over losing customers to suburban shopping malls and office parks where parking was easy.
Meanwhile, city-zoning laws mandating that new developments include off-street spaces turned parking into an engineering problem–with little regard to the valuable urban fabric of the city, of which garages are a part.
As a result, with very few exceptions, most parking structures built since the 1950’s have been undistinguished functional monuments to the automobile. Filmmakers, photographers and artists have even used parking garages as symbolic of despair and blight.
More than 700 million cars now populate the world, consequently causing parking structures to occupy some of the most valuable real estate in urban areas. Given the contemporary trend of re-urbanization, the demand for even more long-term parking will escalate. At a time, however, when cities are demanding more pedestrian-friendly, vibrant streets, urban parking structures can create dead zones that suck the very spirit out of street life and an area they occupy.
Today’s parking structures must be more than engineering solutions to house cars. They should seamlessly bond with the urban fabric, contributing a vital thread, as they once did in the earliest days of parking garages where they designed to fit harmoniously within the city or neighborhood. Besides being attractive, they must also integrate alternative forms of transportation, retail and commercial uses, such as restaurants, neighborhood stores and bike storage, while allowing them to seamlessly fit into the street life of the city.
Parking garages are likely never to reach the noble status of a City Hall, Central Library or other important civic structures. Nonetheless, they should enhance the city, the street life and the pedestrian experience, not degrade them. Their facades should be adorned with architectural elements that make them a contributing asset to the neighborhood and street. At worst, parking structures should be barely identifiable by the passersby as a place to store cars.
Today, the use of public transportation is increasing around the world and code requirements for parking are on the decline. However, I doubt that the 21st century will see the end of the need for parking structures. James Castel wrote, “Anyplace worth its salt has a parking problem.” The best parking structures of the future will be models of convenience as well as places contributing to the urban dweller’s experience.