Garages in Our Cities: Problematic but Perhaps Occasionally the Right Move



Everyone who has read this blog knows I have a certain anti-car bent. It’s not that I am adamantly against the automobile itself. In fact, I actually enjoy driving. One of my favorite jobs I ever had was delivering pizzas. However, I do believe that far too much of our infrastructure is designed for and around the car. I dislike the way that our heavy subsidizing of the automobile has hamstrung our public transit and high speed rail development. I despise the divided highway, strip mall landscapes it has created. I am even inclined to blame some of our degraded sense of community and neighborhood interaction on the car, but for now I want to keep the conversation simpler (if that’s possible). I want to talk specifically about urban garages and their place (if they have one) in our growing cities.

Reducing the Wall O’ Stuff – Minimalist Series

As many of you already know, we are just beginning the development of four homes in Fishtown that will feature garages. The main driving factor behind this was that the existing zoning for the lots already had the garages built in. Rather than reenter the zoning process from scratch, we decided to take these garages on as a design challenge and incorporate them into our homes. This has led to an ongoing and occasionally contentious discussion about urban garages both here in the office and over on the Postgreen Homes Blog. I thought it might be useful to move the discussion here in a way that wasn’t specifically attached to that particular project.

Garages in the city are problematic, and for the most part I would argue that they are unnecessary in a Philadelphia row home. In general I am frustrated with any accommodation for cars. I believe we should be actively trying to discourage individual car ownership in the city. Garages, on-site parking and free street parking all fall into this category for me. While I realize that eliminating all car ownership among city dwellers is impractical, I think we should be doing a bit more to discourage it. As a policy matter I think that fewer privately owned cars would lead to a better urban fabric, happier commuters, cleaner forms of transportation and economic stimulation of urban neighborhoods. But that might just be me . . .


American House Shrinkage

Not a great street for a stroll

On a more practical level urban garages are a problem because:

  • The curb cuts in the sidewalk eliminate at least one parking spot per garage. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many of those garages are used for storage rather than cars. This means that a new home might add a car to the street parking burden while eliminating one of those parking spots. Again, I am less concerned with this issue myself, but it seems to be a major worry in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
  • Garages destroy the interior layout of a first floor. Adding a garage to a narrow row home often creates odd, difficult to use rooms on the first floor. In the interest of square footage, most developers will squeeze some rooms in around the garage, but the result always feels a bit awkward.
  • Garages create an unpleasant street condition for pedestrians. The blank walls created by closed garage doors, particularly in long, continuous rows of homes makes for a cold, uncomfortable walking situation. Most garage bearing row homes have nothing but a garage door and an entry door on the entire first floor. There are no windows and thus no interaction with the street. The curb cuts also create a slanted walking condition which can be irritating for those with strollers, walkers or wheelchairs.
  • I mentioned this above already, but garages limit interaction with one’s neighbors. They can, if used as intended, eliminate the need to go outside via the front door. In an extreme case all one might see of a garage using neighbor is their car as they pull in and out each day.
  • Garages also cause some air quality issues in homes with a door leading directly from the conditioned home space into the garage. Exhaust and other garage related pollutants get into the home each time the door is opened. These can be very unhealthy, particularly in homes without adequate ventilation.

That said, I can see some situations and conditions where a garage might be appropriate. Philadelphia has many narrow streets where no street parking is allowed. This doesn’t mean that people don’t just pull up on the sidewalk and park anyway, but it is not technically legal. These streets offer a situation where the addition of a garage has a much smaller impact on the overall parking situation and might even be considered a positive. Streets like this also tend to be less of a pedestrian thoroughfare, so there is less potential effect on the comfort of those using the sidewalks.

So Many Square Feet, So Few People | 100K House Blog

I also believe that a city needs a variety of housing types to accommodate a range of people. Even in a situation where one might think that including car storage with a home is a bad strategy, I believe that there can be justification for a garage as a work/play space (almost like our original WORK model). Garage-like space could be used by artists, musicians and the mechanically inclined as a space to pursue their work and hobbies. The garage door itself could be a huge asset to artists who work on a large scale. The space could also be used by people who enjoy entertaining. The garage could become a covered continuation of their yard. All of this involves a slightly different sort of garage, but it seems appropriate in the right conditions.


Or maybe wooden go-carts . . .

Well, I have already gone on a bit. This is what happens when I don’t post for a while. Now let’s hear something from all of you. What problems did I miss when discussing urban garages? What other possible upsides might there be to providing garages? Are there other better strategies for providing a garage-like space without causing the related problems?

Let’s talk it out in the comments.