Older, Smaller, Better: Why new ideas need old buildings

Older, smaller, better
Screen capture Preservation green lab

Jane Jacobs wrote "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings." Old buildings are where the new businesses start, whether it is a cupcake shop on the ground floor or the mobile startup on the second. I have been saying for years that old buildings aren't relics from the past, they are templates for the future.

Now the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has released a new study, Older, Smaller, Better :Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality that goes beyond the apocryphal and comes up with hard data.

Based upon statistical analysis of the built fabric of three major American cities, this research finds that established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.

Preservation green lab/Screen capture

Young people need old buildings.

Some of the conclusions are unsurprising, such as Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable. They are that way by design; that's how people got around when they were built. Or that Young people love old buildings. You don't find a vinyl record store or a tattoo shop in the office building lobby. Nor is surprising that Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.

San Francisco and Washington, D.C., city blocks composed of mixed-vintage buildings host greater cellphone activity on Friday nights. in Seattle, areas with older, smaller buildings see greater cellphone use and have more businesses open at 10:00 p.m. on Friday.

Older, Smaller, Better: small business needs old buildings/Screen capture

New businesses need old buildings.

Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds because the rents are often lower, the operating costs are almost always lower without high speed elevators and security guards at the entrances or God forbid, air conditioning. The creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods because they are generally more interesting and fun to be in and you don't have to eat lunch at McDonalds.

Preservation green lab/Screen capture

Dense cities need old buildings.

And then there is this finding that Edward Glaeser and all the pro-density guys miss: Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density. They really knew how to pack people in. These smaller buildings are often very efficient because there is so little common area and often have incredible population densities in low but tightly packed buildings.

In Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., streets with a mix of old and new buildings have greater population density and more businesses per commercial square foot than streets with large, new buildings. in Seattle and Washington, D.C., these areas also have significantly more jobs per commercial square foot.

I will also continue to point out that older, smaller buildings are greener since they are more resilient, and to use Steve Mouzon's words, they are loveable, frugal, flexible and durable. Great reading from the Preservation Green Lab; get the report and executive summary here. More to follow.

Tags: Ban Demolition | Green Building | Preservation | Urban Life | Urban Planning