One of the surest ways to decimate your neighborhood or city center is to replace its organic hodgepodge of smaller historic buildings with a uniform block of newer, larger, more monotonous structures. At least that’s the major conclusion of an important study published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation around 15 May 2014.
The study, Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality, details many interesting findings in its 115-page publication. This post highlights three of the report’s more curious conclusions. But first, some background on the study is necessary.
Older, Smaller, Better
The Older, Smaller, Better project examined all existing structures (not just the old or historic) in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco. By dividing each city into a grid of 200-meter squares (to allow “apples to apples” comparisons with other cities), “the research team empirically documented the age, diversity of age, and size of buildings and statistically assessed the relationships between these characteristics and 40 economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics.” The maps produced by this study are fascinating to look at, so be sure to at least check those out if you get a chance.
It was difficult to choose just three findings to analyze because they are all noteworthy, but here are my picks.
1. Young People Love Old Buildings
This finding surprised me because I sometimes hear preservation professionals discussing how challenging it can be to get young people engaged in their cause. And, to be frank, this assertion (or at least its phrasing) may be a bit of an overstatement.
The study’s conclusion that “young people love old buildings” is based on the observation that “the median 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 other words, young people in the subject cities prefer to live in neighborhoods with more historic buildings rather than areas with larger, newer buildings.
As the study notes, it is entirely possible (and probable) that young people prefer to live in older neighborhoods not because they love old buildings but because these areas offer lower rent or better access to amenities. So while historic neighborhoods do seem to appeal to young people, it might be a stretch to imply that young people love old buildings for their intrinsic value instead of other external factors.
2. Older, Smaller Buildings Provide Space for a Strong Local Economy
The gist of this finding is that areas with more historic buildings are a haven for small businesses. These areas “have a significantly higher proportion of non-chain restaurants and retailers” and they “host a significantly higher proportion of jobs in small businesses.” This makes a lot of sense and is not at all surprising—when was the last time you saw a chain restaurant or national retailer on your town square? But it is good to have the data to backup this intuitive principle.
Policymakers in cities need to pay special attention to this finding if they want to retain and grow their commercial tax base. After all, the 23 million small businesses in America “provide 55% of all jobs and 66% of all net new jobs since the 1970s,”
So rather than bending over backwards to let that big box retailer build their mega warehouse on the outskirts of town, try offering more incentives to rejuvenate your historic neighborhoods and city centers. The small businesses attracted by historic buildings keep more investment in the local community and will never be outsourced.
3. Older Commercial and Mixed-Use Districts Contain Hidden Density
I love this intriguing and enigmatic phraseology: “hidden density.” It really conjures up images of treasure maps and secret passages a la Indiana Jones. In essence, the study found that the buildings in historic neighborhoods are used much more efficiently than large, new buildings.
In particular, historic areas “have greater population density and more businesses per commercial square foot.” Perhaps even more significant, these historic areas “also have significantly more jobs per commercial square foot.” This underscores my previous point—investing in the preservation of historic buildings is a much better investment than new construction.
Don’t Kill Your Neighborhood
Although many local governments have killed neighborhoods and city centers in the name of “urban renewal,” it is (almost) never too late to reverse course. Small, old buildings are not just quaint features of a city’s downtown—they are the backbone of the city’s economy. Now that you’re informed, it is up to you to educate your peers and your elected officials. Go hug an old building!
Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.