Vitality in Diversity

A new study released by the Preservation Green Lab, a divison of the National Trust for Historic Preservation finds that neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings give rise to more diverse populations and more new businesses than those made up of newer, larger structures. The study, titled Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality, focused on three cities with strong real estate markets and rich urban fabrics: San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D. C. The report empirically weighed the age, diversity of age, and size of buildings against 40 economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics.

The results provide the most complete validation of 1960s urban activist, Jane Jacobs’ hypothesis that “cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

The Preservation Green Lab gives seven examples “that demonstrate how the character of buildings and blocks influence urban vitality in some of the nation’s strongest urban real estate markets.”

  1. Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable.
  2. Young people love old buildings.
    1. These areas are also home to a more diverse assemblage of residents.
  3. Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.
  4. Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds.
    1. A mixed-structure neighborhood is significantly more likely to house a higher proportion of new businesses and women- and minority-owned businesses.
  5. The creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods.
    1. Including media production businesses, software publishers, and Jennifer Griffiths.
  6. Older, smaller buildings provide space for a strong local economy.
  7. Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density.

Sadly, many cities, regions, and states suffer from outdated zoning regulations, overly prescriptive building codes, misdirected development incentives, and limited financing tools that disincentivize the reuse of older structures in urban areas, while incentivizing new development in “greenfields.”

Cleveland Responds

Here in Cleveland, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) released yesterday its strategic vision for “linking and enhancing development, public spaces, and destinations in Downtown Cleveland.” The plan has the double-purpose of knitting together Downtown’s various neighborhoods (i.e. Warehouse District, Waterfront, Theatre District) to guide future public and private investment decisions and aid the renewal of the Downtown Cleveland Special Improvement District (i.e. all the nice yellow-shirted DCA folks who clean the streets and guide visitors around town).

The Step Up Downtown plan demonstrates our City’s commitment to shaping the 21st century city as they “aim to achieve core values that include a vibrant, inclusive, green, connected, and innocative community.”

I am proud and happy to see our civic leaders’ forward-thinking in creating a vision built on the tenets of a mixed-use, diverse, and resilient community! It is more important than ever for us to appreciate their work and aid in its translation to Cleveland’s neighborhoods, surburbs, and our region at large. 

To read more about the Preservation Green Lab’s study: visit http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/green-lab/oldersmallerbetter/report/NTHP_PGL_OlderSmallerBetter_ReportOnly.pdf

To read DCA’s strategic vision, Step Up Downtown, visit http://issuu.com/ksucudc/docs/stepupdowntown_07-09-2014_issuu/1