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Often necessitated by a lack of infrastructure related to transit systems or urban planning, cities that are not walkable require car parks wherever personal transportation is necessary.

Although they vary in size, function, and overall design, the defining feature of parking structures is their massive size and scale. While these spaces ensure that we can fit automobiles as needed, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with developments in travel systems and heightened environmental awareness, has reduced the need for parking. But what becomes of the underutilized, abandoned, or outdated car parks we see around us?

New life for car parks

Today, many car parks sit vacant in cities dominated by work/life/play mixed-use structures and walkable components. Consequently, architects and urban developers have posited an exciting and perhaps more economical address to this emerging issue—we reuse them. These structures, particularly non-residential, multi-story car parks with abundant natural light and lowlight spaces, have repurposing potential. We now see opportunities to convert previously underutilized car parks into homes, retail stores, offices, food and beverage venues, fitness centers, and logistical hubs—allowing for far more practical space utilization.

The assessment

Before we consider the conversion of these structures, assessing their architectural elements and how they influence their adaptive reuse or retrofitting potential is essential. Key characteristics of a classic multi-story parking garage are its regular grid layout, typically 8-9.5 meters by 8-16 meters, and its sloping floors. Coupled with flat roofs, bulky structures, and deep floor plates, the transformation of these structures is made simple thanks to their prefabricated, easily manipulable components.

Benefits of repurposing

The conversion of car parks provides tangible, environmentally conscious, and cost-effective benefits. Repurposing car parks minimizes waste production by eliminating the need for new materials otherwise used for a new structure. Converting an existing car park also keeps costs down, as the price of an adaptive reuse project is never more significant than new construction. Even when a garage is in disrepair, the renovation cost would be equal to or less than the demolition and replacement cost of an entirely new space.

Because of their access to the outdoors, converted parking lots also serve as a natural choice for the “regreening” of spaces by implementing trees and other flora. This simple solution improves the Heat Island Effect, or the phenomenon that structures often absorb and reemit the sun’s heat at greater rates than natural materials. They offer shade and lower temperatures while adding value to the real estate. Another unexpected benefit of converting car parks is the freedom it gives designers. A renovation may potentially exempt developers and architects from local building regulations.

Overcoming the challenges

Despite the benefits, it can be difficult to imagine these car parks as useful beyond their intended function. Further, understandable concerns arise regarding ceiling heights, access to light, and structural considerations. Many innovative solutions allow for the successful conversion of these spaces. To solve for low ceiling clearances, introduce uses that require lower floor-to-ceiling heights and use thinner flooring finishes and exposed ceiling structure solutions within areas. Beyond maximizing size, design considerations can also address issues of light. Utilizing white or translucent materials throughout interiors, in addition to open layouts and facades that allow unobstructed daylight to fill the space, offers solutions to questions of exposure. Regarding structural inquiries, removing ramps and reinforcement of slabs is the first step in ensuring building integrity. Beyond this, adding vertical cores and leveling floors offers the stability and infrastructure needed for updated use. The techniques exist to successfully convert these spaces, introducing new functionality and breathing life into previously empty spaces.

Key principles of design

With the case for these renovations made, it’s necessary to consider design sensibilities when taking on projects of this type. Put simply, key design principles to consider in these spaces are flexibility, innovation, and connection. Offering changeable systems, structures, and models allows for flexible space utilization, with the ability to adapt to our ever-changing climate. Innovative layouts within these conversions should blur the distinctions between programs, offering guests the full breadth of inter-connected amenities, services, or businesses. Further, a unique opportunity exists to foster greater connection by implementing innovative social spaces due to our new post-pandemic lifestyles. With these principles in mind, car parks become functional spaces that exceed the experiential needs of visitors and ensure that they will eventually return.

As urban centers reinvent themselves to stay in touch with the public’s updated needs, it’s evident that car parks often take up more space than the benefit they provide is worth. One study from the UK estimates that repurposing the nation’s 20,000 non-residential car parks could provide nearly 1.2 million homes. This statistic is staggering and puts into perspective the egregious misuse of space that often coincides with the existence of car parks. Recalibrating spaces to offer purposeful necessities within reasonable distances factors into the urban landscape’s overall future, especially of “15-minute neighborhoods.” Arcadis sees the future of development with this approach, and the exciting first step is the conversion of existing car parks.

Looking forward

In a constantly evolving society, it remains crucial to consider what to do with outdated or unused infrastructure. While demand for parking continues to decrease over the long term, the land value used for parking will only increase through development. Eventually, the higher land value will exceed the cost of structured parking. These lots can then be integrated into new developments or connected to existing ones. As urban planning increasingly aims to reduce vehicular traffic and prioritize pedestrians, architects and urban land developers must provide solutions to reimagine car parks’ use effectively. As we move forward, there are two choices: leave these spaces to deteriorate in the short term or convert them into something engaging for the communities they exist within for the long term. Ultimately, the benefits (social, environmental, financial) of bringing these new spaces to urban centers through repurposing have the potential to impact cities for years to come positively.