Preservation Round-Up: Jane Jacobs Edition

Posted on: March 26th, 2012 by Rachel Bowdon

Written over 50 years ago, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is still one of the most influential books in today's planning world. Celebrated among preservationists and urbanists alike, Jacobs believed that a mixture of uses and a diversity of building types is the key to any great city, and understood that historic preservation is essential to ensuring a community’s social and economic health.

Jacobs famously wrote that "cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." I recently read two blog posts that got me thinking more about the forces that threaten building diversity and the important role that preservation can play in achieving variety and balance of the built environment.


An original ad for Jacobs' most famous book. (Image: pdxcityscape on Flickr)

Generating and Preserving Diversity - City Builder Book Club

Reflecting on Jane Jacobs in his post Generating and Preserving Diversity, Aaron Renn discusses the detrimental effect of "upscaling" that occurs in many city cores as warehouses and class C office space are replaced with single-use districts with high-end functions. “This is reducing the supply of lower rent buildings, undermining one of the pillars of Jacobs foundations of diversity. […] The loss or upscale conversion of older and lower rent buildings in our central cities, while something to celebrate in many respects, should be a long term concern to those who care about truly sustainable urban diversity, especially if taken too far."


Jane Jacobs street art in Toronto. (Photo: ruffin_ready on Flickr)

Rightsizing Retail - The Architect's Newspaper

"It’s been exactly 50 years since urban activist Jane Jacobs described the sidewalk ballet in front of her home on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village. Developers from Seattle to New York are now trying to replicate her notions of mixed-used community while zoning departments from San Francisco to Toronto try to preserve the ones that are left. Jacobs wrote that neighborhood vitality was due in part to the trust between retailers and their neighbors: "It grows out of people stopping by the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer, and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery…""

More preservation and urban diversity stories after the jump. 

Zoning Reform Strengthens Nashville’s Impressive Sustainability EffortsSwitchboard NRDC

Nashville’s “new zoning code has been designed explicitly to give legal expression to a 'Downtown Community Plan' adopted in 2007 to strengthen the character and walkability of downtown neighborhoods. […] To accomplish this, the new code regulates the form of buildings so that, for example, building height guidelines allow increased density in logical patterns but building uses are allowed to vary to encourage mixed uses so long as they support an inviting streetscape. […]The new zoning code is expressly targeted at sustainable placemaking, including appropriately scaled parks and open space, preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings, and density bonuses for structures that meet standards for LEED silver, gold, or platinum certification.”

DC Zoning Update Seeks to Legalize, Encourage Better Neighborhoods - Switchboard NRDC

“Some of our most beloved historic neighborhoods could not be built today, because zoning and building codes have evolved to prohibit some of their key characteristics.” Benfield’s suggestions for a “‘back to the future” reform include “allowing home-based businesses, permitting small commercial uses in certain zones, expanding options for accessory dwelling units, and being more flexible about minimum parking requirements.” DC’s newly released draft of a new proposed zoning code includes all four of these recommendations “along with others that would seek to encourage the replication of the best features of the best neighborhoods in DC.”

Adaptive Reuse Replaces New Builds in Recession - National Real Estate Investor

“In times of recession, it is common for developers to utilize adaptive reuse to find purpose for these buildings and plans rather than investing scarce resources in brand-new projects. Cost savings aside, redevelopment is also getting more attention from a society that is growing fonder of recycling and revitalizing existing spaces and restoring historic properties. Adaptive reuse is also often eligible for tax credits and more cities are rewriting ordinances to accommodate more growth in this area, which is adding even more appeal to the idea.”

A Green Building Opportunity: Three Million Strong - US Green Building Council

"It’s a great time to be an existing building. First: President Obama released last year’s Better Buildings Initiative, focusing financing opportunities on commercial retrofits. Then: USGBC reported that LEED for Existing Buildings project square footage surpassed new construction projects. Now: A new report has concluded that building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction. [...] The study, conducted by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, underscores one main point: We can, and we should, work with what we’ve got. If we can retrofit and revamp an existing structure as opposed to building new, we absolutely should. Historic buildings almost always fall under this category."

New Ideas from Old Buildings: The Rise of Class B Office Space Building - Portland Blog

“Over the last several years I have watched quiet old warehouses transform into hives of economic activity as developer rehab them into creative workspace. This represents the convergence of the new development reality and the new economy. In tough economic times firms do not have the money to lease expensive new class A space and developers cannot get the loans to build it anyway. Rehabs offer an affordable and safe alternative to new construction. New creative economy firms are as a an aesthetic and financial choice opting to locate in relatively affordable space in buildings of character in the inner city instead of newer, drabber buildings in the suburbs.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Rachel Bowdon

Rachel Bowdon

Rachel Bowdon is the program assistant for the Sustainability Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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