How an Old Parking Garage Became a Community Garden in Seattle

April 07, 2017
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How an Old Parking Garage Became a Community Garden in Seattle

A group of Seattle designers, neighbors and city officials have upped the community gardening ante with the city's first large-scale community garden on top of a 50-year-old parking garage. Somewhere out there, Joni Mitchell is smiling.

Eating local and preserving green spaces are healthy trends, but connecting with neighbors is what really makes community gardening special. The project, called UpGarden, takes this experience to the rooftop, creating a 30,000 square-foot showcase for how an edible landscape — and new neighbor connections — can emerge from a parking lot.

Designed and built in seven months on a $150,000 budget, the community-run roof garden was created by designer Nicole Kistler, landscape architect Eric Higbee, the community of Queen Anne/Uptown and the P-Patch Program of Seattle.

The location. The urban Uptown/lower Queen Anne neighborhood previously lacked any community gardening space. A voter-passed measure in 2008 prioritized the neighborhood for a community garden.

Affordable open lots aren't the easiest to find, so the project's creators looked up — to a parking structure at the Seattle Center. Working with a structural engineer was key, says Higbee.

The community. Higbee and Kistler held three community design meetings over the course of a few months. The community’s continued enthusiasm and commitment to the project floored the designers. 

These meetings produced a sense of strong ownership of the garden and the neighborhood as a whole.

The design. Not surprisingly, few precedents exist for parking garage community gardens. Together the community decided on everything, from the design and engineering to how the plots were assigned and managed. Things had to be durable and affordable, and also needed to stay on the roof. 

Drainage is a major concern in all landscape architecture projects. This is compounded on rooftop gardens, where load is also a concern — consider soil, which can weigh more than 100 pounds per square foot, on a parking structure designed to hold 40 pounds per square foot. The crowning of the garage and the overall slope of the space dictated the design and program needs. Two wide paths run the length of the garden where the roof can hold the least amount of weight.

Kistler says they turned to traditional agricultural models that used terracing to deal with slope — rice paddies, contour plowing etc. Softly undulating terraces work across the parking garage.

One hundred plots, 100 square feet each, were distributed according to volunteer hours. A community lawn area was designed as well as a communal growing space for food banks. The community proposed converting an Airstream trailer into a toolshed, and one of the members found one.

The construction. The parking garage is slated for demolition as part of Seattle's master plan, but that could be in a few years, even a decade. Kistler notes that because of the uncertain future of the garden, deconstruction was a key consideration. 

No structural changes could be made to the garage. The planters and terraces are made of FSC-certified cedar planks and lined with filter fabric. Everything is firmly fixed but also portable and reusable for the next UpGarden location.

This garden, like most community projects, is primarily volunteer driven — including construction. In addition to the contractors who pressure washed the roof and set posts for the terraces, the community was responsible for the rest of the building. A lot of triple and quadruple checking of tasks happened, says Higbee, but this project goes to show how simple materials, hard work and focused design can go a long way.

A 50-year celebration. The Mercer Street Parking Garage and Seattle Center were built for the World’s Fair in 1962, at a time when the space race and car culture signified innovation. 

Fifty years later, we can still celebrate the innovation taking place here. This garden, built during the Seattle Center’s Next 50 anniversary celebration, can be seen as an exploration of a sustainable future for our cities.

Kistler visits the garden often to see how the community continues to enjoy it. Residents look out for one another and learn with one another, she says. While many had some urban gardening experience, rooftop farming is a whole other game — from drying winds to intense sunlight and reflected heat — and it's one they are exploring together. 

"Community Thrives Along With a Garage-Top Garden" by Annie Thornton originally appeared on, a platform that connects you with local landscape design professionals and more information on urban gardens. Photo credit: Eric Higbee | Landscape Architect, original photo on Houzz

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