It is not without a tinge of irony that parking structures, the enablers of all the excessive car traffic I so despise in urban life, are often some of the best places to get beautiful views of the city. Tourists flock to the hotels along Ocean Avenue and the bluffs of Palisades Park, to catch the stunning Pacific sunsets, but if you want to look at our own work as a human civilization, your better off catching the elevator to the top deck of Parking Structure #5. For better or worse, our parking structures are our grandest works of civic architecture, towering far above any other public buildings in Santa Monica.
I recently made my way around to the tops of the parking decks downtown with camera in hand to just spend some time watching the city tick. While there is no replacement for the need to have a Jane Jacobs street level perspective of urbanism, I find there are some valuable insights to be observed from up a few levels. Not so high as to feel removed from Earth, like in colossal skyscrapers, but enough to get a broader perspective while still seeing the subtleties of people and traffic moving around below.
From this view, you start to recognize patterns and trajectories of people navigating the city by various modes, as well as notice the pockets where few or many gather and why. But perhaps the biggest thing you notice from this view, is the true scale of land use in our street design. At the ground, the sense of depth can obscure the relative scale of things, but once you get up above four stories, things start to flatten out a little. You start to see more clearly how accommodating automobiles is consuming far more valuable real-estate than other modes of travel to move often far fewer people. You also notice drivers violating various rules of the road  in just about about every possible way. The sentiment among many drivers that it is disproportionately those darn bicyclists that are the ones disregarding the traffic laws is quickly dispelled if you actually watch the street traffic objectively for any length of time.
The photo essay starts, after the jump.
From this elevated vantage point, I could also watch the way various bike riders choose their line through the street. The little wiggles riders make to squeeze through an environment of often stuck vehicles, or the dodging of cars that flow in and out of the big garages. Second Street through the downtown is developing into a bike route as part of the Bike Action Plan, but the intensity of traffic at the street facing parking structure entrances presents a serious obstacle for bicyclists traveling northbound.
The current project of redeveloping parking structure #6 on 2nd St., to include hundreds of additional car spaces, will only make this situation worse. This was one of the reasons I strongly advocated against the project last year . The planning commission agreed and voted the project down, but the city council, which often approves planning commission recommendations, was not persuaded .
Perhaps the most beautiful images of humanity in motion are those I snapped watching a Third Street Promenade intersection. With no car traffic on the promenade, each crossing functions as a scramble crossing, with many people flowing across and at various angles. When you get into the jargon of urban planning and transportation engineering, it can be easy to lose sight of the people themselves in all the abstraction. Are alleyways for hauling cargo and garbage, or are they also refuges where young couples make out and hold hands?
If you want to really understand how and why cities work the way they do, and how they might work better, there is a whole shelf of books and dozens of blogs I could recommend reading. But reading about the cities, and contemplating theories about them, can only go so far. You have to be learning from observation, and you might be surprised at what a good observation point many of our public parking structures are. Although that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t really want to see any more of them built.
The complete set of images can be found on flickr here , or below in the imbedded slideshow.