Historic buildings: older, smaller and better

A new study finds that neighborhoods with older buildings of mixed use and age perform better than districts with newer, more-similar buildings and uses.

Downtown Boyne City; Photo credit: Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA)
Downtown Boyne City; Photo credit: Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA)

Historic buildings in disrepair can seem like albatrosses around the necks of small towns and cities. To the casual resident observing, they can seem like blight, liabilities for the community and a constant reminder of more prosperous times in the past. Yet historic buildings do a lot for communities whether examined from a placemaking perspective, sustainability angle or more general quality of life standpoint.

A recent study from the National Trust For Historic Preservation entitled Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality, found a mix of older smaller buildings of diverse age in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. performed better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social and environmental outcome measures. Some of the study’s findings include:

  • Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable – Generally, older neighborhoods have higher walk score rankings than newer ones because of smaller block sizes, pedestrian infrastructure, higher densities and mixture of uses (within buildings and adjacent to).
  • Young people love old buildings – This may be due to the relatively smaller size of housing units and thus affordability, but with Millennials being the largest generation in the United States, this segment of the population is an important one to retain and attract.
  • Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, including the creative economy – With smaller-scaled buildings, storefronts and rentals, such districts provide a space for emerging businesses to establish and grow.
  • Older, smaller buildings provide space for a strong local economy – Unconducive to the ‘cookie cutter’ layout of franchises and chain-stores, local businesses naturally fill the storefronts of older neighborhoods.

The study’s findings reinforce the placemaking approach of maintaining historic, mixed-use buildings with the goal of strengthening neighborhood sense of place and striving for sustainability through building reuse. Conclusions drawn from the results also point to a host of principles for other cities to consider when grappling with older buildings and neighborhoods. A summary of principles include:

  • Realize the efficiencies of older buildings – Capitalize on the efficiency that comes with using an existing building instead of building anew and the density that comes with older buildings.
  • Fit new and old together at a human scale – Older buildings and neighborhoods were built to a human scale and replicating that with new construction is important to placemaking.
  • Support neighborhood evolution, not revolution – New construction benefits communities, but should be done in an incremental way in older neighborhoods to infill and replace obsolete structures gradually over time.
  • Make room for the new and local economy – Allow for flexibility in use of buildings to support a variety of business startups, a greater share of which are local and creative in nature in older commercial districts.
  • Make it easier to reuse small buildings – Reconsider regulatory barriers like size, setback and parking minimums to facilitate the reuse of buildings and the reconstruction of similarly sized new buildings.

Communities with older commercial districts (and older zoning regulations) may benefit from a code audit to determine if the concepts in this article can be applied/realized in the community. For more information, read the full report, or contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator.

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