The Living Architecture of Parking,
Part 1


By Kevin Falkerson, GRP & Kerrie Lee Cole, GRP
The Symbiotic Report


Parking structures were born out of a pressing obligation to alleviate the problems associated with the exploding automobile population.  Vertical, aboveground garages are frequently realized with a cold-engineered rationalism that has produced forbidding structures that impose themselves upon our urban landscape.

An inner city multi-story parking garage anywhere America.
Source: Google images by Melanie Killinger.

Banal, uninviting, bleak and at worst, brutal appearances of these structures have the functional design sensibility of war bunkers or prison architecture.  The simple frame, homogeneous elevation and visually rudimentary construction of the multi-story parking garage tend to produce an expression of a raw seemingly incomplete building.  A building typology so unforgiving in its prime directive - to efficiently pack away as many cars as possible - its aesthetic impact on human culture had to literally ‘take a back seat.’

It may seem counterintuitive to look towards these monuments to the automobile, which inherently symbolize a destructive force upon life, and consider how they could be reformed into an environmentally responsive and humanistic entity.  Yet, could the integration of vegetative building systems onto their roofs and walls transform these structures in positive ways?  Could the adaptation of living architecture make these ‘ugly ducklings’ blossom into ‘beautiful swans?’

Kaiser Center Garage

Reflection pond atop of Kaiser Center Garage.  Source: Google images.

One epic historical example of a renowned rooftop garden is at the Kaiser Center in Oakland California, which was designed in 1959 by landscape architect Theodore Osmundson.  It has a 3.5-acre park-like garden sprawling over the top floor of a 5-story parking garage.

Pathway and grounds, Kaiser Center Garage.  Photo by Kevin Falkerson.

Now at over 55 years, it is still an astonishing urban landscape with mature 30 ft. high trees, ornamental gardens, undulating meadows and a 1/5 acre biomorphic shaded reflection pool. Visitors can stroll, relax on benches or even lie down on the lawns.  This beautifully landscaped oasis is in the midst of the city and on almost every weekend of the year there are scheduled wedding celebrations.

A wedding ceremony. Photo Source:

Osmundson defined and organized the garden around flowing meandering walkways; mounded soil for trees (42 species) were planted over structural support columns of the garage below.  The mounding provides a sense of a natural topography atop of the hidden concrete slab.  He also massed vegetation along the perimeter to de-emphasize the garage’s rectilinear nature while helping to focus the visitor’s attention inwards to the garden attractions.  It is a stunning example of a well-designed park, elevated five stories in the air.

Yet 5 1/2 decades later, it remains a relatively undiscovered prototype awaiting the day when this mixed-use program of housing cars and creating a landscape park will be emulated and dispersed throughout our world.

Street view of Kaiser Center Garage.  Photo by Kevin Falkerson.

Grey to Green - Benefits Gained

Sustainability and parking garages may seem like an unlikely marriage, but in actuality there are a number of compelling and complementary benefits once the ‘union’ has been made.  Foremost, aboveground car parks with their robust structures, necessary to support the weight of vehicles, inherently have a built-in propensity to support a living roof and/or living wall system.

Aerial view of Punggol Breeze Garage – Sky Park.  Photo Source:

The sheer scale of urban parking garages provides ample space to develop landscape parks that are not only diverse in plants, but also roomy enough to allow for place making where different human activities may occur.  Sky parks can provide substantial habitat within the densely built-environment of our urban centers.

The typical concrete moonscape of garage roofs once transformed will no longer be a stormwater liability to the city.  Millions of gallons of stormwater can be retained within the living matrix of the vegetative and soil systems.

The rooftop of a typical multi-story parking garage.  Source: Google images.

The thousands of cubic yards of concrete that compose most parking structures can change from massive thermal sink adding to the urban heat island effect into sunlight harvesting landscapes processing polluted air and turning it into clean oxygen for the taking.

Parking structures inherently do reduce the requirement of surface parking; stacking cars in multiple levels above the earth require less land.  More cars, smaller footprint, and that translates into less non-porous, non-breathing pavement covering the earth.

Concrete moonscape of a parking garage upper deck.  Photo by Kevin Falkerson.

In America, if you compiled all of the surface parking spaces (2.6 million acres) into one large parking lot, it would entirely blanket the entire states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Singapore Housing Development Board

Singapore is one city that clearly understands the synergistic benefits of integrating sky parks with parking structures.  There are a number of landscaped roof gardens built over parking garages that function as pockets of oases in the urban heartland.

Housing residence enjoy the benefits of a sky park while storing the vehicles below.  Photo Source:

For example, Punggol Breeze is an 87,834 sq. ft. (8,160 m2) roof garden positioned at the heart of a public housing development.  This is a great design demonstration of integrating greenery onto a multi-story parking garage that can be done seamlessly to the benefit and enjoyment of the residents.

Singapore has several auto parks with rooftop parks.
Photo Source:

The lush green landscape also features pockets of contemplative and activity space for residents to gather and bond.  In a way it can be likened to a new ‘ground level,’ which seamlessly connects the surrounding high-rise residential complex with a natural world rarely found in such dense urban environments.  The sprawling park offers a variety of outdoor communal facilities such as seating corners, fitness stations, playgrounds, pavilions, pergolas and lush, native landscaping; it makes the roof garden a welcoming and tranquil “green lung” for all.

A car park roof with palm trees.
Photo Source:

Greenbriar Houston Medical Center

Another project that transformed the top of an underutilized parking garage into a tranquil, meditative and healing garden is the Greenbriar Houston Medical Center.  Patients of the hospital, their families and visitors can all relax on the rooftop garden and step away from whatever ails them inside the hospital.  Handicapped accessible ramps and walkways allow anyone to make their way through the garden with ease.

Patients of the Greenbriar Houston Medical Center; their families and visitors can all relax on the rooftop garden.  Photo Source:

The 6,000 sq. ft. rooftop garden, designed by Intexure architects, is divided into distinctive textural zones providing spatial episodes of open or enclosed space to explore.  A white tensile structure in the center gives way to seating underneath.

A Zen-like rock & pebble garden with lounge seating on the roof deck of the parking garage.  Photo Source:

Nearby, lounge chairs set in a Zen-like pebble garden offer up individual seating for those seeking solitude.  Bamboo planted in a circle makes for an outdoor room, while a drought tolerant turf lawn can become an impromptu yoga field or a place to bask in the sun.

Pomona College

Let’s say you are a growing college that is quickly running out of available land for expansion.  Well, Pomona College in California countered this very issue with a creative solution by designing a 318,000-sq-ft parking garage that supports a recreation playing field.  Students gained a soccer and lacrosse field, while the college logistically packed away 600 cars on just three levels.

Pomona College Garage auto entry, solar panels at perimeter, and recreation.

  View of sport field and areas for spectators along both sides of the structure.  Photos Source:

At the same time, through the adaptive use of the structure’s rooftop, the college created a greener and more pedestrian-friendly campus.  The sustainable approach is more than ‘skin deep’ and permeated the entire architectural program, sporting (no pun intended) a long list of green building features ranging from: ultra-efficient lighting fixtures, solar PV arrays for energy production, high efficiency plumbing and irrigation fixtures, dedicated bike storage, priority for carpool parking, as well as electrical charging stations.

A Diamond in the Rough

Multi-story parking garages have numerous built-in attributes that inherently lend themselves for conversion to ‘living’ buildings.  In analyzing these structures, one finds a redeeming list of features ready-made, almost calling out to be transformed into sky-high parks and gardens.

  • Pedestrian Accessibility - via elevators & stairwells connecting roof to street
  • ADA accessible - via elevators, level or low sloping pathways
  • Vehicle accessibly to roof deck - delivery of materials, servicing
  • Enhanced views - surrounding urban context & distance view-sheds
  • Improved Air Quality - cleaner air less pollution at elevated heights
  • Lower noise/activity levels - than street level parks
  • High weight loads - inherent structurally capabilities
  • Built-in drainage – designed to carry large volumes of stormwater
  • Perimeter guarding systems - existing parapet walls typically at or above safety regulation height. Easy to adapt/extend if sub-adequate
  • Simple geometry - allows great flexibility for landscape designs
  • Building form - typically wide, providing good sense of spaciousness
  • Open space - uncompressed space compared to the urban street-level enclosed, walled-in by towering buildings
  • Solar exposure - improved access to sunlit, natural lighting and sky views – both day & night

A Concrete Moonscape

Upon ascending to the top level of parking structures, more often than not one encounters an eerie, deserted, almost endless plane of concrete punctuated only by the white lines defining parking spaces.  Research documenting usage levels with aboveground parking garages have consistently shown that the top floor of an open-air roof deck remains abandoned by cars on most occasions.

A modern multi-story parking garage showing off its naked concrete roof deck on the Moffett towers garage, CA.  Photo Source:

Some reasons why the top level of auto garages is under-utilized are:

  1. Too difficult to access with vehicle; maneuver & navigate numerous ramps; confined spaces, etc.

  2. Takes too much time to ascend to the top level

  3. Once parked, it takes longer to get back down to street level (stairs, elevators)

  4. Vehicle unprotected, exposed to elements, rain, snow, sun, etc.

  5. Walking to and from car in inclement weather provides no protection for people and their belongings

UPGarden at Mercer Garage

 Raised planting beds surrounding an Airstream trailer act as the community garden's hub.  Photo Source:

Projects that look to re-purpose the ‘blank slate’ resource of the rooftop parking decks are starting to gain momentum.  One successful venture is the UPGarden P-Patch in Seattle, Washington.  Placed on top of Mercer Garage, the project holds the title for the first publicly accessible, large-scale community rooftop garden in the U.S.

 Planting plan for the rooftop at the Mercer Garage by KistlerHigbeeCahoot.
Photo Source:

The UPGarden covers 30,000 sq. ft. and has 100 plots of raised planting beds that are available to the community for gardening.  The garden also contains communal space, room for ornamental and pollinator plantings, an Airstream trailer used as a tool shed, and a Ford Galaxie that has been converted into a planter.

 The concrete ramp where cars once parked is transformed into a thriving community garden.  Photo Source:

While Kistler Higbee Cahoot designed the garden layout, community members have added a lot of input and volunteered to build it.  The landscape design also features small seating areas, a planted trellis, and an educational kiosk at the garden’s entrance.  Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending; the parking structure that houses this rooftop community farm is slated to be demolished in several years.  I can only hope that its replacement will include a permanent ‘Sky Garden’ space.

Pavement to Paradise

The proliferation of cars and the overcrowding conditions they impose on our city centers will undoubtedly necessitate the efficiency land-use practice of building multi-story parking garages.  The latent potential of these structures to be adapted into inspiring monuments of living architecture is tremendous.  Reforming a building type known for its one-dimensional, homogenized and bleak functionalism into a multi-functional, environmentally responsive and inviting place for humans and wildlife may, in actuality, be a rather easy task to achieve.

A ‘new skin’ of a living ecology, whether living roofs or walls (preferably both), integrated onto aboveground parking garages can redefine what a parking structure should look and literally feel like.  Wrapping the exterior surfaces of the ordinary parking structure with vegetation could turn it into something unexpected.

So, instead of paving paradise to put up a parking lot, we simply need to reframe this convention into a new paradigm.  Rather, let’s put up a parking lot and make a newfound ‘living’ paradise.

Envisioned parking structure with living walls and a public rooftop park.  Sustainability Award CORE Project competition entry by SYMBIOS eco-tecture, 2013.
Graphic by Kevin Falkerson

In the next Symbiotic Report, we will examine how Building Integrated Vegetation can transform the facades of walls on aboveground Parking Garages around the world in Part 2 of Park Here - The Living Architecture of Parking.


Kevin Falkerson & Kerrie Lee Cole, The Symbiotic Report

Each issue explores topics specific to the technology and performance of Building Integrated Vegetation (BIV).  There are in-depth reviews of completed projects with a focus on innovated applications, architectural integration and ‘lessons from the field’ regarding rooftop system performance.

Kevin Falkerson is founder, designer, and principle of SYMBIOS ecotecture: A design/build company focusing on integrating the ‘built’ with the ‘biological,’ with the overall aim of developing a positive symbiosis between human culture, enterprise and the natural environment.  Located in Sonoma County, California, our integrated approach offers design, installation and maintenance services for both residential and commercial vegetative roof projects, specializing in architectural detailing, green roof technologies and landscaping.  The design of buildings interacts with the world by transforming the natural patterns, energies and life of a place.  Designing with this in mind, our buildings mimic the biodynamic quality of natural systems instead of the typical expression of static opposition.  Natural structures are biodynamic forms.  The natural forces interacting upon a physical body have in part shaped its expression.  Eco-tecture looks to express its form as an adaptation to its locale (site) and its associated environmental forces.  At SYMBIOS, the natural features of the bioregion and local site ecology become a source of inspiration for our designs.

SYMBIOS received two Awards of Excellence from Green Roofs for Healthy Cities (GRHC) in 2013.  The GRHC Design Award stands as recognition and appreciation for extraordinary examples of Living Roof Architecture and Green Roof initiatives across North America.

Kevin earned a degree in Ecology from Hampshire College and a Master’s of Architecture degree from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI).  He  also holds a GRP (Green Roof Professional) accreditation from GRHC.  He writes an online newsletter entitled ‘News from the Eco-frontier’ and lectures on multiple topics related to living architecture.

Kerrie Lee Cole leads the vegetative building division of SYMBIOS and has gained the accreditation of a GRP - Green Roof Professional.  Her path has always been one associated with living plants.  Initially trained in herbalism followed by horticultural studies and employment in the landscape industry, she naturally gravitated towards working with living vegetative building systems.

Kevin and Kerrie Lee joined the editorial team in June, 2014 and present The Symbiotic Report.

Contact Kevin Falkerson and/or Kerrie Lee Cole:

symbiotic (at)

Past Symbiotic Reports

The opinions expressed by our Guest Feature writers and editors may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of, and are offered to our readers to simply present individual views and experiences and open a dialogue of further discussion, debate and research.  Enjoy, and if you have a particular comment, please contact the author or send us an email to:


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