The Fascinating History of Parking

It's the untold chapter of America's love affair with its cars.

There are 735 million cars in the world. As a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., reminds us, those vehicles spend most of their time at rest. "House of Cars" traces the unexpectedly fascinating history of parking garages. It's the untold chapter of the story of America's love affair with its cars. And it's a study in the sorry sacrifices cities have made to adapt themselves to the auto age.

The earliest garages were enclosed buildings--cars back then could not endure rain and cold. Façades were adorned with architectural flourishes. Inside, systems of lifts and turntables deposited vehicles in tight corners. Typically, garages included fully staffed gas-and-service stations.

By mid-century, innovations in ramp design, building materials and vehicle durability led to the open-air, concrete-deck structures familiar today. Ironically, suburbanization only yielded more garages downtown: Businesses fretted over losing out 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 what "House of Cars" describes as "an entitlement."

If Americans love easy parking, however, they're ambivalent about parking garages. Artists, photographers and filmmakers all have used empty garages to convey a sense of urban bleakness. "The parking garage is foremost a building of convenience, not a destination," the exhibit notes. If "House of Cars" has a weakness, it's that it ignores this observation by going on to celebrate the attempts of architects to craft garages that in some ways are nicer to look at.

For example, there's a garage at the Kansas City public library designed to look like books. There's one in New Haven that's been gussied up with wrought-iron railings. And there's a circular garage planned in San Diego that would light up at night and be surrounded by trees. Much attention is paid to the nation's first LEED-certified parking structure, a municipal garage in Santa Monica, California, that has solar panels on the roof and charging stations for electric vehicles. Even attractive or "green" garages, however, can create pedestrian dead zones that suck the life out of a street. At a time when most cities want more walkable development around transit stations, I'd suggest that the very best parking garage is the one that doesn't have to be built at all.

The next-best garage is the one you can't see. That doesn't always mean incurring the expense of putting it underground. Above-ground garages can be wrapped with retail, commercial or residential buildings in such a way that one barely notices the garage from the street. Urban planners call this a "Texas donut." It's been successful not only in Texas but also in Arlington, Virginia; Boulder, Colorado; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

I doubt that the 21st century will see an end to our need for parking. But we can be less conspicuous about how we handle it than we were in the 20th.

Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.