Neighborhoods with a mixture of old and new buildings have significant advantages over those with buildings of a homogenous vintage. Researchers from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab conducted an analysis of the building stock of Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC in order to determine what correlations (if any) exist between building age diversity and urban vitality. The report, entitled “Older, Smaller, Better”, concludes that neighborhoods with a healthy mixture of old and new buildings enjoy a range of benefits including better walkability, more robust nightlife, and more minority- and women-owned businesses.
How might the findings of this report translate into urban policy? The obvious answer is a call for stronger historic preservation regulations. The recent wave of redevelopment playing out in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the city’s historic auto row and cultural heart, has been tempered with attempts to retain the building character while welcoming the influx of investment. But success of this approach has been decidedly mixed: community-led initiatives have prevented historic structures from insensitive redevelopment; but the technique of preserving historic facades while razing the rest of the structure has generated criticism and earned the less-than-desirable name a “facadeomy”.
Perhaps what is needed is a system for incentivizing smaller-scale, infill development that respects and responds to the historic character and diversity of the neighborhood. Seattle developer Liz Dunn has made a successful career doing just that, but she expresses a healthy degree of cynicism about the notion that large-scale investors will be willing to take on projects that yield smaller profit margins at a much slower rate. Meanwhile in hot real estate markets like Capitol Hill and South Lake Union, entire blocks are being razed in order to make the projects pencil out.
A policy solution needs to do more than slap extra historic preservation requirements on big developers. It needs to give small-scale, infill projects a competitive advantage. As AP Hurd points out in *The Carbon Efficient City*, reusing buildings is no easy task but it yields significant savings in terms of resources and energy. Perhaps the federal government can work with lenders to free up capital for projects that revitalize Main Street without slamming down a Walmart in every downtown. And cities can do their part by aligning policy tools like overlay districts, urban design frameworks, and neighborhood plans with this approach. Support for infill development can range from relaxing energy efficiency codes to celebrating small, slow projects that show excellence in their embodiment of neighborhood character and diversity. If Dunn is correct in her assertion that “the new economy is happening in the old neighborhoods” then her brand of strategic, context-sensitive infill will need to become more commonplace.