Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Older, Smaller, Always Better

Blight in Cleveland
Cleveland, Ohio
Hello Everyone:

Once again it's time to clean out the drop box folder and post about articles that have been sitting around for a time.  Today's post is based on an article on the website, titled, "How To Kill Your Neighborhood."  It's not as homicidal as you think it is.  The story is about ways to decimate the unique character, meaning historic, of a neighborhood or city center by razing the smaller mix and maybe match smaller buildings with a uniform block of boring bland steel and glass boxes.  This was the conclusion that the report Older, Smaller, Better Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality, undertaken by the National Trust for Historic Preservation Green Lab ( together with the The Kresge Foundation.  The 115-page study is an interesting look at the vital role older smaller buildings play in the development of sustainable cities.

Pike/Pine Corridor
Seattle, Washington
Older, Smaller, Better

The Older, Smaller, Better study analyzed all the existing structures in Washington D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco.  The research team use maps and spatial statistics design to the hypothesis "that older building age, greater diversity of building age, and smaller-sized buildings are associated with greater social, cultural, and economic vitality." (Older, Smaller, Better, 19, 2014)  The study looked at the relationship between the built fabric in the above listed cities and forty key measures of urban vitality  The research objectives were two-fold:
1) Assess the contributions of older smaller buildings to economic, social, and cultural vitality;
2) Create a methodology for measure the performance of older smaller buildings that can be used to inform plans, policies, and sustainability metrics in communities nationwide. (Ibid)

Chinatown International District
Seattle, Washington
Each of the cities was divided into a 200-meter square grid, in order to create like comparisons with other with other cities.  The maps created for the study are actually quite fascinating to look at and most definitely worth of your time and attention.  While the draws a number of conclusions, here are three notable findings:

1. Young People Love Old Buildings

Old buildings are great but getting young people engaged in saving them can be a challenge. Thus, the conclusion that young people love older buildings was very surprising.  This pronouncement is based on the observation that "the median age of residents age of residents in areas with a mix of small, old and new buildings is lower than in areas with larger, predominantly new buildings."  In short, the much hallowed millennial generation prefer to live in older communities mainly for their affordability or access to amenities.  Therefore, while historic neighbor do appeal to that key demographic, the real attraction lies in the externalities of the places rather the internal characteristics.

H Street Corridor Fest
Washington D.C.

2. Older, Smaller Buildings Provide for a Strong Local Economy

The point here is that in communities with number of historic buildings are also an epicenter for small businesses.  These areas, "have a significantly higher proportion of non-chain restaurants and a significantly higher proportion of jobs in small businesses."  This should not come as any surprise because if you spend time in your town square, the chances are you won't find a national retailer or chain restaurant.  On caveat, this is based on intuitive data, you need the physical data to back up this observation.  Policymakers, not only the study cities but everywhere else, need to give this finding some real attention if they want to retain and grow their commercial tax base.  There are 23 million small businesses in America that provide 55% of all jobs and 66% of new jobs since the seventies.  Perhaps it's finally time for Congress to take its collective thumbs out of their mouths and make it easier to invest in smaller older buildings by saving the Federal Historic Tax Credit programs.  Therefore, rather than caving into some big-box retailer and letting them build another enormous warehouse on the edge of town, how about offering neighborhood revitalization incentives.  Small businesses are attracted to historic buildings for a number of reason, chief of which they keep more investment in the community.

Rendering of Mid-Market Revitalization
San Francisco, California

3. Older Commercial and Mixed-Used Districts Contain Hidden Density

"Hidden density."  Sounds like something Indiana Jones might uncover in some remote exotic location.  Really, instead of our whip-cracking hero battling evil developers and civic officials, the study revealed that buildings in historic neighborhoods are used in a more efficient manner than large new buildings.  Specifically, historic districts "have greater population density and more businesses per commercial square foot."  More important, historic areas "also have significantly more jobs per square per commercial square foot."  This emphasizes the previous point that investing in historic buildings is a better investment opportunity than new construction.  Yet one more reason to save the Federal Historic Tax Credit program.

In short Don't Kill Your Neighborhood, please.  Unfortunately, many municipalities have killed their neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal.  Usually, it's too late to undo the damage.  Smaller, older buildings are more than just a quaint feature of a downtown, they often serve as the nucleus of a city's economy.  Older and smaller is definitely better.

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