Jane Jacobs was right: New ideas need old buildings

Atlas cover
© Preservation Green Lab

Saving old buildings is unfashionable these days; economists and writers think that we are all “nostalgists and NIMBYs” who are preventing the development that is needed to make housing affordable and keep cities from ossifying. Jane Jacobs is also being reassessed by those who consider her the patron saint of NIMBYs.

But a new study from the Preservation Green Lab, the Atlas of ReUrbanism, demonstrates once again that in most cases, the opposite is true; that cities with older, smaller buildings actually have higher density, more diversity, a greater number of small businesses and lots more entrepreneurial activity. And yes, they even have more affordable housing. It actually confirms Jane Jacobs’ dictum that "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

As was demonstrated in the recent American election, it is one thing to view the world from New York City or San Francisco, but it is a very different thing in the rest of America. The Atlas of Reurbanism mapped fifty cities on a fine-grained grid and came up with findings that would make Jane Jacobs proud. It builds on the work of the Preservation Green Lab in their earlier study, Older, Smaller, Better.

One of the key items that the Atlas measures is character. They recognize that preserving old buildings isn’t about “A” buildings that everybody loves and considers "historic" , but those everyday B and C buildings that are the backdrop.

Blocks of older, smaller, mixed-age buildings add character and charm to cities, but these areas are far more than quaint relics. High Character Score areas provide a foundation for strong local businesses, innovative startups, and mom-and-pop small businesses. Whereas large, new buildings sometimes provide space for major employers, older blocks with more modest, unassuming buildings contain economic development engines of their own. For example, every Starbucks, Boeing, or Microsoft had to start somewhere, and in each of these cases, older, smaller buildings provided the launching ground.

And indeed, they found that there were 46 percent more jobs in small business in areas with high character.

HoustonAtlas of ReUrbanism/Screen capture

More affordable housing

It’s not always the best housing on top of the store, but it is often a place to start.

High Character Score neighborhoods also have higher percentages and counts of affordable units of rental housing. In many cities in the Atlas, there is twice the number of affordable housing units on blocks with older, smaller, mixed-age buildings. Economists and housing experts refer to a process of of filtering, in which older stock serves as unsubsidized, “naturally” affordable housing. This report shows clear evidence of just how important older housing is.

It is also really dense, housing a lot of people. As we have pointed out many times on TreeHugger, you don’t have to go tall to get dense. The study confirms it.

Too often, however, density is associated only with building size and height. While some cities have areas where lots of people live in tall buildings, the densest neighborhoods overall are almost always characterized by blocks of older, smaller, low-rise buildings. Developed before the automobile claimed so much of our urban landscape, these areas have a hidden density that is clearly revealed by the data summarized in this report.

Los AngelesAtlas of ReUrbanism/ Los Angeles/Screen capture

Finally, as we have seen in cities all over North America, these areas of density and character are where people want to be, at all ages. You can knock everything down and build 40 storey towers like economist Ed Glaeser thinks we should do, but what do you get?

Dense, walkable, active, and architecturally rich neighborhoods are attracting new residents and investment. Older buildings with layers of history and flexible floorplans are attracting companies large and small. The ability of cities to attract and retain talented young workers is closely tied to the presence of character-rich places. The value of these areas points to the benefits of preservation advocacy and policies that support good design.

We have been talking about this for years anecdotally, but these very granular maps provide real data that confirm what Jane wrote in Death and Life of Great American Cities:

[Businesses] that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead. If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do.

It is not so simple as saying that real estate is all about supply and demand, and that if we build more new stuff prices will drop. New stuff is expensive and unaffordable for many of the uses that we are trying to promote, and it often doesn’t even increase density or create many more housing units. The data from the atlas clearly show:

We need a mix. We need character. We need old buildings.

The atlas has studied fifty cities; only a few are posted so far but watch for more here.

Tags: Cities | Preservation | Urban Planning

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