Good ideas: Three ways to rethink parking

Like it or not, cars have, are and will be an integral part of our urban experience for years yet. Making them more energy efficient and moving them more sustainably are important issues in urban design. At the same time, this is only half the story. Well, actually, only 5% of the story. UCLA professor Donald Shoup has calculated that our cars are in motion only 5% of the day, meaning they are parked 95% of the time.

Here are three ways in which parking is being transformed from the concrete wasteland of yesterday to functional, sustainable and more user-friendly spaces.

The multistory garage

Let’s be honest: being in a parking building is an unpleasant experience. These are the cold and abandoned sites of cinematic  ambushes, where everything echos eerily as we wander trying to remember where we parked. Not to mention those ever-present signs warning us that simply being there may compromise our ability to reproduce and/or live.


Walking through a parking structure is like walking into a bad neighborhood: this space belongs to the cars–to steel, plastic, and fuel fumes. You don’t don’t fit in, and you know it.

Can the parking structure reclaim the human element?

Since an important aspect of building ecocities is working with the infrastructure we already have, this Miami garage is a good example of what “green wrapping” can do for a building. Firm Arquitectonica added planting to the roof and sides of this standard concrete box, and as the plants have grown the effect is quite pleasing. More plants in the area will help filter air pollution, provide temperature control and runoff management, and soften the hard urban edges of the street.

In terms of new buildings, the Parkhaus Engelenschanze in Stuttgart, Germany, addresses the oppressiveness of the garage with a light, airy mixture of glass and concrete. An inner courtyard contains a waterfall, creek and recycled-glass curtains.

The city of Santa Monica takes the garage one step more user friendly with the first LEED qualified parking structure in the U.S.

The building’s roof features a solar photovoltaic array which provides shade and on-site renewable energy. All construction materials are recycled and the structure is finished with low-VOC paints. The building is skinned with various temperature controlling and energy reducing features, and, most impressively, a storm-drain water-treatment system helps process tainted runoff while grey water harvesting provides water for landscaping and on-site facilities.

Of course, the idea of a LEED parking garage seems somewhat of an oxymoron. Indeed, the whole project has fueled fiery debate about the meaning of LEED and sustainable building. At the same time, if you gotta build a parking structure, might as well build it like this! Plus, it’s easy on the eyes.


A power source

Solar charging for electric vehicles has been around since the 1990s. The fact that very few people know that attests to the challenges this technology has experienced. We finally started paying attention to solar charging stations around 2009 when British solar panel manufacturer Romag installed electric vehicle power canopies at their headquarters. The photovoltaic parking generated 1.5kW of peak power in optimal conditions and even in the overcast British weather could generate 1100kWh of power over the course of a year. Once the car parked under it has been charged, the unit pumped extra energy back to the National Grid. 2009 also ushered in New York City’s first solar charging station.

Now that EVs are becoming more popular, groves of solar charging canopies are cropping up all over the place, from college campuses to malls. This conceptual design by Neville Mars takes first prize for creativity and artistic impression. Let’s hope it gets built one day.


Restored ground

One of the major problems with current parking surfaces is runoff. Several alternatives to the standard asphalt blanket help alleviate runoff while adding valuable green space.

The Green Corridor project is an initiative to reinvent the international bridge linking the U.S. to Canada at the city of Windsor. Part of the design includes an Eco Parking Lot for Canadian Customs and University of Windsor students, featuring Native planting, green walls, permeable concrete, and stormwater remediation holding tanks. The runoff is cycled into nearby restored wetlands–a bioretention area–to remove contaminants.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 2.03.56 PM

The EPA did some cool experiments with permeable concrete in 2009, and you can watch a video of it here.

Another simple option is to use mats and grass cover, or pebbles, as a parking surface instead of concrete. You could do this with your own driveway. Suddenly parking on your lawn doesn’t seem so trashy…


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