We present you with an opportunity: There are 500 million surface parking spaces in the U.S., and the number grows daily. In some cities, parking lots make up more than a third of the land area. But the basics of parking design haven’t really been rethought since the 1950s, even as developers charge toward denser population centers. So there is a car-park field ripe for the designing—and some cities, engineers, and architects have taken the initiative by pushing parking garages underground or reinventing them for dual uses. And yes, Miami is leading the way.

It started with a whisper in 1996. Arquitectonica’s adaptive-reuse Ballet Valet Parking Garage on South Beach retained historic Art Deco storefront façades on the street level, but installed a lush, vertical-gardened garage on top for a quiet, urban landscape. Herzog & de Meuron cranked up the volume 14 years later with its hotshot Miami Beach garage, 1111 Lincoln Road. It may be the first parking-garage-as-destination—it has even hosted weddings. “There’s nothing that causes a blanker look than telling people, ‘I’m taking you to a parking garage,’ ” said Miami resident Choire Sicha, cofounder of the website The Awl, when asked by The Huffington Post where he takes out-of-town guests. “And you’re like, ‘Wait, don’t panic, it’s a parking garage with a New Yorker architecture critic review!’ ”

Then there’s TEN Arquitectos, Gehry Partners, and Zaha Hadid Architects, who have all brought their talents to South Beach as well. But it’s not just Miami that’s experimenting. Everyone is trying new solutions. As a few recent projects make clear, some innovators would like to build garages that do more than just house cars.

Ehrlich Architects, for one, would like to supplement sportscars with sports. In Claremont, Calif., the firm recently consolidated Pomona College’s parking into a garage with a lacrosse-and-soccer field on top. The college wanted to free up space for further campus expansion, using old lots for new building sites. So the firm, based in Culver City, Calif., partnered with Watry Designs, a parking-specialist firm from San Jose, Calif., to design the two-story, 318,000-square-foot facility, whose 608 spots opened in April 2011. “Look at it as an opportunity rather than a hunk of concrete that stores cars,” says principal Steven Ehrlich, FAIA. “A lot of people are creating structures out of photovoltaics to shade cars, but I think we should push conceptual issues even further.”

Michelle Watry of Watry Designs, the structural engineer and executive architect for the project, says that besides serving multiple purposes, the garage checks off another trend, the seemingly counterintuitive one of integrating car parks within their environments. Ehrlich and Watry bermed up the southeast corner of the garage so that it fuses into the campus. “It’s like a non-building,” Ehrlich says. “It’s more like an earth-landscape environmental piece, even though it is a fairly large volume where cars park.”

In the city center of Carros, France, a half-hour away from Nice, N+B Architectes also turned the pragmatic, nonaesthetic parking structure into a multipurpose architectural design that fits cohesively with its environment. “Usually a parking structure is only a box for cars,” notes N+B principal Elodie Nourriga. But the 46,274-square-foot lot-on-a-landscape takes advantage of its roof by offering an open public space and a shop. Benches and trees surround the site, offering suburban respite. And the exterior of the 240-spot garage is wooden and latticed—an additional connection to the landscape.

The 2010 garage, commissioned by the cultural center of the Coteaux d’Azur, effectively serves as connective tissue between the city and surrounding countryside, providing an activation point rather than a dead hole in the manmade-to-natural fabric. “On one side, it’s the suburban part, and on the other, it opens onto a beautiful natural landscape,” Nourriga says.

And speaking of landscapes, those architects are getting in on the parking game, too. New York landscape firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) is now working on an underground garage in Toronto for the Harbourfront Centre, the number-one cultural destination in Canada, says associate principal Gullivar Shepard.

The structure, a collaboration with New York architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle, was commissioned in 2009 as a 300-spot garage that would free up public space on the York Quay of Lake Ontario. MVVA pushed that program to include an installation by James Carpenter Design Associates (JCDA), also based in New York. On the inside of the structure, a light well by JCDA will bring daylight into the stereotypically dank, dark, and often anxiety-inspiring experience of an underground garage. It’s also a wayfinding point, one that helps limit the garage’s dependence on electrical energy for lighting. Passive-air circulation, aided by a few fans, will bring air, sunshine, rain, and snow into the structure, to keep it connected to the outside. “You had to do something big and robust to counter some of that deadness of garage architecture,” Shepard says.

The project also has an urban strand of trees on top. Through selective coppicing—an ancient form of forestry that involves cutting trees off at the trunk, so that each tree regrows stick-straight—MVVA hopes to offer the Harbourfront Centre timber for harvesting as well as an artistic attraction when the trees are uniform stumps. Shepard thinks that the firm’s “urban-stand-of-trees-as-green-roof” may be a first.

“Would you traditionally have a landscape architect do this project? No,” he says, “but we’re interested in exploring this new conceit of landscape urbanism that’s out there now.” The surrounding area will also be available for programming by the center when the project is finished this October.

In truth, starchitect garages go back even further than Arquitectonica’s 1996 Miami project—Paul Rudolph’s 1962 Temple Street Parking Garage in New Haven, N.J., and especially Bertrand Goldberg’s 1965 Marina City in Chicago come to mind—but this generation’s focus on multipurpose parking is surely the fruit of a denser 21st century. “We’re at a pivotal point in what has become a very dynamic industry,” says Shawn Conrad, executive director of the International Parking Institute, which conducted the 2012 Emerging Trends in Parking Survey in May. “With new, high-tech tools, we have unprecedented ways to improve the landscape, enhance customer service, and support environmental stewardship.”

So pay no attention to the garages behind the concrete walls. If architects have their way, like Sicha, you too will soon enough be treating your guests to a visit to the local parking garage—slash park, slash event space, slash gym, slash garden …