President's Note: Older Buildings, Livable Cities

Stephanie Meeks discusses the advantages of older buildings for both the economies and people of America's cities.

Stephanie K. Meeks 2012The Detroit Economic Club is recognized internationally as a forum for vital ideas. As a guest speaker there this past spring, I had the opportunity to share our thoughts about preservation's role in making cities more dynamic and livable. Whatever impressions people may have harbored about preservationists before my talk, I believe they left with a better understanding of who we are, what we do, and why retaining older, smaller buildings is important to our communities.

Detroit was the perfect place to deliver our message. The city is working to rebound from financial and economic crisis. Its population decline is easing as more people make their way back to the urban center. Yet, sadly, Detroit is planning to demolish nearly 80,000 abandoned buildings.

Our argument for saving older, smaller buildings is simple: They contribute to robust local economies and provide uniquely livable communities. As the DEC audience learned, the National Trust released ground-breaking data from our Preservation Green Lab in May giving us a definitive perspective on historic buildings and neighborhoods that we never had before.

The report, “Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality,” uncovered how cities are using older commercial districts and corridors to achieve a competitive edge. As a result, they are generating more creative jobs, sustaining greater population and commercial density, and attracting younger talent than investments in newer, large-scale developments are able to achieve.

Our study analyzes data from three major U.S. cities — Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. And it measures how neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller building types perform better than districts with bigger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures. The insights offered in our report, available at OlderSmallerBetter.org, confirm that how we build and what type of structures we maintain matter tremendously to the
success of our communities.

In Detroit and cities across America, we want people to know that preservation can help with this effort. By collaborating more closely with city officials, developers, and community leaders, we can change outdated zoning and regulatory barriers that restrict the reuse of older buildings and hamper growth.

In our partnership with the Urban Land Institute, we already have worked to encourage reuse in Los Angeles, and success there has now led to similar work in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Only when we overhaul these laws can our cities transition to healthy communities that attract new residents and businesses and become the dynamic, livable destinations that we know they can be.

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