Parking is Hell (But Designers Can Help)

Most parking is free - but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a high cost. A recent podcast from Freakonomics Radio examined parking in US cities, investigating the “cost of parking not paid for by drivers” - a cost paid not just by the government, but by the environment - due to congestion and pollution caused by people searching for kerbside parking. For example, in a 15 block area of Los Angeles the distance traveled by drivers looking for parking is equivalent to one trip across the USA per day.

One potential solution which they discuss is a San Francisco project called SF Park, which makes use of sensor technology to measure the demand for parking in certain areas of the city and adjust price according to demand. In theory, this would create a small number of empty spaces on each block and dramatically reduce the time that many drivers spend cruising for parking spaces.

Though the idea is certainly an intelligent approach to the problem of kerbside parking, unsurprisingly all this talk of supply, demand and pricing sounds very much like an economist's answer to a problem. But what can designers do to help the situation?

Perhaps, from the designer’s point of view, the real problem with kerbside parking and surface lots is that they are always seen as a provision “coupled with” a building or area of the city. There have been a number of attempts by architects – some successful and some tragically flawed – to make parking spaces less of a rupture in a city's fabric and more of a destination in themselves. Could these point to another way?

Read about 3 examples of parking’s past, and one of its potential future, after the break...

The view from 1111 Lincoln Road. Image © Nelson Garrido/1111Lincoln Road Shot Reprinted with permission from MBeach1, LLLP

In Miami international architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron have attempted just this sort of parking revolution with 1111 Lincoln Road, a parking garage that incorporates artwork, shops, event spaces and housing. Writing for The Observer, critic Rowan Moore explained the idea behind the building:

If the joy of streets is that they do several things at once, that they are thoroughfares, gathering places, extensions of the home or whatever, the vice of modern traffic engineering is that it separates this multiplicity into its component parts.

“A road is for transport and nothing else. A shopping precinct is for shopping. A car park is for parking cars. It's like making a souffle back into eggs, butter and flour. 1111 Lincoln Road tries to cook them together again.”

This parking garage is not just designed to buck the usual trend of parking garages being low-ceilinged, dimly lit, grim and utilitarian, but to be a space where people can actively engage with the city. As Moore reveals, there are even people who ask their taxis to drive to the top and straight back down again just to enjoy the experience.

Trinity Square in Gateshead Image © Rodge500 via Wikimedia Commons

Much is often made of how new and innovative 1111 Lincoln Road is, but in my opinion it is more like a reinvigoration of a typology that has been around for decades, and will be much more familiar to British readers: the 1960s saw a number of infamous and often hated car park designs which sought to integrate parking with other urban hotspots.

Trinity Square in Gateshead, better known as the 'Get Carter Car Park' due to its part in the 1971 film, featured shopping units around its base and a restaurant at the top. Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre incorporated a shopping center and restaurant (later converted to a nightclub). Both were designed by Owen Luder Partnership, and both have been demolished in the past ten years. In Preston the bus station, parking and shopping complex designed by BDP is only faring fractionally better, currently fighting for its life against a council plan to have it demolished.

When viewed as a descendent of these designs, it would seem that 1111 Lincoln Road is already doomed. But how much does it really have in common with these unfortunate British landmarks?

A comparison of Gateshead with its neighbor Newcastle shows how the area surrounding Trinity Square was never made pedestrian-friendly. © Rory Stott

Aside from their programs, one thing that these buildings all had in common was their brutalist designs. A style much reviled by most non-architects, this may go some way to explaining their lack of success and the public and governmental opinions against them. Another way of explaining their lack of success is the cost cutting that went into their initial construction, and the lack of maintenance thereafter, often resulting in leaky roofs, stained concrete and a general impression of dilapidation.

A further, even better way to explain their lack of success is the mistakes in government and urban design that followed their construction: whilst 1111 Lincoln Road owes its early success to how it meshes with the fabric of Miami's most walkable area, in the case of Trinity Square the road system of Gateshead is so catastrophic that it destroyed the walkability the car park should have offered.

A comparison of the road network and car park provision in Gateshead and its more successful neighbor Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (above) shows two distinct approaches to creating urban space; as a result, Newcastle is thriving whilst Gateshead struggles. Trinity Square should have been the centerpiece of a scheme that made Gateshead more pedestrian friendly, however this scheme never materialized.

The Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth. Image © dejahthoris via flickr. Used under Creative Commons

The Tricorn Centre occupied a site on the edge of Portsmouth city center and so as a shopping center it never took off. At the time it was built, the area between it and Commercial Road was known as Moores Square and was explicitly intended to be developed to complement the Tricorn. This development was needed to integrate the brutalist building into the fabric of the city center; however, an official history of the site released by Portsmouth City Council describes how the government at the time thought that the site “should not be developed until the Tricorn had established itself”.

This obvious 'Catch-22' situation ultimately doomed the commercial units in the building. Over two decades later, in 1989, Moores Square was finally developed – but the development actually cut off the Tricorn from the Commercial Road rather than linking them, putting the final nail in the Tricorn's urban design coffin. In a cruel irony, after it was demolished in 2004 the site was converted to a surface car park as a temporary measure – almost nine years later this car park remains.

The final building in this trio is fortunately still standing, and to my mind Preston Bus Station is by far the most easy to salvage of the three. For starters, as a bus station it is still well used, unlike Trinity Square and the Tricorn Centre. Architecturally, BDP's design is much more forgiving, with graceful curves rather than the brooding power of Luder's two designs. This is reflected in public opinion: whilst there was overwhelming support for demolition in Portsmouth and Gateshead, in a recent Telegraph poll 75% of people voted to save Preston Bus Station.

Preston Bus Station. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lancashire County Council argues that the building is in the wrong place and is no longer financially viable, but according to Owen Hatherley, author of 'A New Kind of Bleak' and 'A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain', “it seems pretty obvious that a fix is in”. He cites the dubious financial figures provided by the council and argues that the idea that it is in the wrong place is false.

However even those wishing to save it usually admit that Preston Bus Station needs action of some sort, with RIBA North West planning a “forgotten spaces” competition and Hugh Pearman proposing in the RIBA Journal that the council hold an architecture competition to try to find viable alternatives to demolition. Hopefully the surrounding urban fabric can be adapted to bring out the strengths of the bus station's design, rather than negating them as in Portsmouth and Gateshead.

The new car park in Miami is off to a good start, as it is definitively not brutalist, and has been designed and built to higher standards than its 1960s predecessors. It incorporates itself into an already walkable area, making it a success from the start. For this building and indeed any other mixed-use car parks which might be developed in cities worldwide, the lesson to take from the history of this peculiar building typology is that their success is very much dependent on the surrounding urban landscape being suited to accommodate them; much more than other building types, they are sensitive to poor planning.

Increasingly, poor parking arrangements are causing damage to our cities by occupying valuable space and contributing to congestion and pollution. The application of economics that we see in SF Park can mitigate these problems, without substantially changing anything – but wouldn't it be better to fundamentally change our attitudes to parking, and design better spaces? We have surely learned enough from design's history to make this a possible, and preferable, path to action.

About this author
Cite: Rory Stott. "Parking is Hell (But Designers Can Help)" 25 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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