At the beginning of the 20th century, the wide boulevards of American cities often included a planted verge between the pavement and the roadway where trees grew. These strips were called ‘parking’. After the First World War, people in these cities began to grapple with a problem that would grow in size and urgency over the coming decades: where to put all the automobiles? Down came the trees, and ‘parking’ became car parking. An American obsession was born.
The Romans and Sumerians had rules about where you could leave your carts or your chariots, but it’s the private car that made what we now call parking a vital issue. Nowhere is it more vital than in the United States. The subtitle of Henry Grabar’s Paved Paradise is ‘How Parking Explains the World’, but the author rarely glances outside the USA. Fortunately for the international reader, what he reveals there is gruesome and fascinating.
The private car promises – and occasionally delivers – a near-utopian dream of mobility and convenience. But there is a price: ‘Without a place to park, you can never get out of the car.’ This makes a parking space ‘nothing less than the link between driving and life itself’, the portal through which you must pass in order to achieve whatever it was you got into the car to do. Americans, who expect parking to be available, convenient and free, have in the past seventy years or so reorganised their whole country around this portal. In doing so, they have wrecked the place. That might sound blunt, but Grabar doesn’t mince his words. American parking policy, he says, is a ‘clusterfuck’. As he makes plain, everyone pays for parking, even when it’s free.
Emotions around parking run high, often because it serves as a proxy for other issues. It might look tasteless to argue against building new affordable housing, but it’s fine to complain about the pressures that new-builds place on parking. People are murdered in parking disputes. ‘Parking-driven psychosis is