Too frequently historic preservationists have failed to appreciate the entire urban landscape … Parking, as part of urban history, should not be rejected out of hand by any history aficionado — John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture
The National Council on Public History has published a new article on History@Work titled Blacktop History: The case for preserving parking lots. It examines the suburban parking lot as an unloveable yet important historic resource type.
In historic preservation’s infancy, parking lots were the enemy. Parking lots, urban renewal, and highways galvanized the modern preservation movement and they were among the developments that led to passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Old buildings were demolished in urban cores to provide space for new parking garages and surface parking lots. Sometimes the new lots were intentional; other times, they were a byproduct of failed business ventures or shortsighted planning.
By the mid-1960s, old and historic buildings were disappearing at an alarming rate. In 1965, the U.S. Conference on Mayors created a Special Committee on Historic Preservation. The committee’s report, published in early 1966 as With Heritage So Rich, provided Congress with the impetus to pass the NHPA later that year. The report’s authors wrote about urban parking lots:
There are still millions of Americans who believe as a matter of principle that anything new is better by the sole virtue of novelty … Such people are not easily persuaded that any existing structure is better than a new parking lot, although they may be persuaded that a new structure is better than an old parking lot …
In most cities, local laws favoring parking lot operations make it more profitable to maintain property as a black-topped open space than in use for human purposes.
At the same time urbanists (e.g. Jane Jacobs) and historic preservationists were marshaling their forces to preserve cities and make them more livable, the people who had abandoned the urban core were living, working, and shopping in new suburban sprawl — an artifact of automobile culture.
Subdivisions, strip malls, and freeways defined much of suburban America. It took less than a generation for postwar suburbia to lose its luster. In the years leading up to the publication of With Heritage So Rich, urban sprawl critics were writing about how suburban shopping centers were blighting landscapes. Peter Blake wrote in his 1964 landmark book, God’s Own Junkyard: “Suburbia’s other ‘symbolic’ buildings are those of the shopping center, which is certainly symbolic of something — though perhaps not of anything we would particularly want to symbolize.”
In recent years, the architecture and history of parking have been rehabilitated somewhat by historians, geographers, and architectural historians. Jakle and Sculle’s volumes on car culture and its architecture and cultural landscapes are among the most accessible literature arguing for more reflection by historians. The pair observed in Lots of Parking that some historic preservationists have embraced parking. “They seek to comprehend parking as one of the automobile’s truly significant landscape consequences,” Jakle and Sculle wrote.
Some examples: Parking lots have been included as contributing elements in National Register of Historic Places properties; parking architecture was the focus of a 2009 National Building Museum exhibition titled House of Cars: Innovations and the Parking Garage; and, former Miracle Miles have been documented as potentially vibrant sites for creative adaptive use among new immigrant populations inhabiting salad-bowl suburbs or melting pot suburbs [PDF].
Yet, as With Heritage So Rich‘s authors aptly predicted in 1966, many people — especially those who subscribe to New Urbanism’s call to retrofit suburbia — are easily persuaded that anything new is better than an old parking lot. Even historic preservationists with the best intentions find themselves overlooking and minimizing the historical significance of suburban commercial landscapes, i.e., parking lots.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein