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Conservation and Urban Density – Can’t we have both?

Mar 09, 2012

By Katherine Idziorek, VIA Architecture

A recent New York Times article about density in Manhattan caught my attention, both because it asks “how much density is too much?” – a thought-provoking question, if not yet applicable to most U.S. cities, which are nowhere in the neighborhood of “too much” – and also because it brought again to the surface the stance on urban densification taken by Edward Glaeser in his recent book, Triumph of the City. Glaeser, an economist, makes the argument that denser cities are in a broad sense more successful and resilient cities, a point with which I have no general objection, and the explanation of which made for a truly interesting read. It’s one of his solutions to the problem with which I take exception – the specific identification of historic buildings and districts as barriers to achieving increased density and therefore successful urban environments.

Are dense urbanism and historic preservation really at odds with one another? It seems they shouldn’t have to be. In a world awash with “green” language, sustainability could be understood as the development of dense urban environments. It could also be understood as the reuse of existing and still viable building stock that promotes the continuity of unique urban histories and identities.

I was genuinely surprised that Glaeser targeted historic districts as a major impediment to achieving urban density.  This might be a more relevant argument when referencing geographically-confined and historically dense Manhattan (though I’m still not entirely convinced), but what would happen if we tried to apply this logic to the rest of the country? The majority of U.S. cities are certainly not lacking in sites for urban development due to the encroachment of historic districts.

Why focus on replacing older buildings when they have the potential to contribute to our cities in such significant ways? There is lower-hanging fruit out there in terms of achieving greater efficiency in urban development than the replacement of historically and culturally significant structures. What about the areas of our downtowns that are devoted to cars and surface parking?  What if we developed some of that land for housing and supported it with improved transit systems and infrastructure so that new residents wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on cars, much less require an abundance of surface parking lots? This strategy might not be as easy as razing a few city blocks, but it would certainly represent a more transformative and forward-thinking approach to urban densification.

The preservation and conservation of existing building stock is inherently sustainable, and older neighborhoods often act as significant economic engines within our cities.  The Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab (PGL), an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is doing some exciting work that supports an emerging economic argument for the conservation of older buildings.  The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, a study released by PGL earlier this year, analyzes the potential benefits of reusing buildings instead of replacing them. In most cases, the life-cycle costing data reveals that building reuse offers greater environmental savings than demolition and new construction of a comparable facility. This is, of course for a building of equal “density potential” – not new construction with greater capacity. But retaining older structures has other, increasingly quantifiable, benefits – greater environmental savings, more job creation, decreased embodied energy and increased materials savings. Conserving significant buildings also contributes to social and cultural capital while providing city residents with an important connection to place.

The recent debate about and modification of height limits in Seattle’s historic districts is evidence of our own city’s recognition of the desirability of urban density, particularly in areas such as historic but economically distressed Pioneer Square, which could use an injection of population. At the same time, the creation of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District is a policy nod towards recognition of the value of existing building stock that is older, smaller, and though it does not qualify as historic, contributes significantly to a unique and economically vital urban neighborhood. Seattle is also grappling with how to achieve dense but contextual new development in and near historic districts, as evidenced in two Pioneer Square projects-in-progress at the North Lot and 200 Occidental.

Tall buildings are by no means the enemy – but we do need to focus on ways of creating dense urban environments without sacrificing neighborhood character. Part of the appeal of historic districts and older neighborhoods is their human scale and fine-grained texture. Contemporary construction is necessarily of a different scale and character than older structures and districts in the city, a condition driven by changes in building technology and development practices over time. It seems that there is great potential for synergy in retaining a mix of the two – conserving still-viable older buildings while striving for the best in contemporary architectural and urban design for new projects.

Building density isn’t just about replacing smaller buildings with larger ones – it requires an efficient and thoughtful use of every aspect of our urban environment and the provision of the appropriate infrastructure to support it. We shouldn’t frame the question as a need to choose between dense downtowns and conserving significant older buildings – we should instead be asking ourselves how our urban systems can be altered in a more comprehensive way to support increased density while retaining still-viable historic and older building stock, which is in itself evidence of urban resilience.

I know that I’m preaching to the converted when writing to the audience of the VIA blog – it’s clear that contextual design and the critical connections between transit, land use, and dense urban development are understood. So, let’s turn the focus of the original question on one of our own cities: what would a significantly denser Seattle look like?  How would it reflect our values as a city? Would we choose to target our historic districts for redevelopment?  Or would we find other ways to increase our urban population?