Older, Smaller, Better

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New Findings from Preservation Green Lab Older, Smaller, Better

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Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

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Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality This new report from Preservation Green Lab shows that neighborhoods containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of different ages support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings. The three study cities were San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., all of which have extensive older building stock and strong real estate markets.

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Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable. In Seattle and San Francisco, older neighborhoods with a variety of small, mixed-age buildings have significantly higher Walk Score rankings and Transit Score ratings than neighborhoods with predominantly large, new buildings.

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Young people love old buildings. In all three study cities, the median age of residents in areas with a mix of small, old, and new buildings is lower than in areas with larger, predominantly new buildings. These areas are also home to a significantly more diverse mix of residents from different age groups.

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Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages. In San Francisco and Washington, D.C., city blocks composed of mixed-vintage buildings host greater cell phone activity on Friday nights. In Seattle, areas with older, smaller buildings see greater cell phone use and also have more businesses open at 10:00 p.m. on Friday.

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Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., neighborhoods with a smaller-scaled mix of old and new buildings host a significantly higher proportion of new businesses, as well as more women and minority-owned businesses, than areas with predominantly larger, newer buildings.

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The creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., older, smaller buildings house significantly greater concentrations of creative jobs per square foot of commercial space. Media production businesses, software publishers, and performing arts companies can be found in areas that have smaller-scaled historic fabric.

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Older, smaller buildings provide space for a strong local economy. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., streets with a combination of small, old, and new buildings have a significantly higher proportion of non-chain restaurants and retailers. And in all three study cities, areas with older, smaller buildings host a significantly higher proportion of jobs in small businesses.

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Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density. Across the three cities, streets with a mix of old and new buildings have greater population density and more businesses per commercial square foot than streets with large, new buildings. In Seattle and Washington, D.C., these areas also have significantly more jobs per commercial square foot.

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Read the full report. The Preservation Green Lab’s goals are to identify opportunities and to share solutions that benefit residents, property owners, investors, and community leaders alike. Read the complete Older, Smaller, Better report for more detailed results and recommendations, including the research methodology and community case studies.

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Quote: Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities, 1961. Photos courtesy: Brian Teutsch, Flickr; Guastevi, Flickr; George Buchholz, Flickr; Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons; Digital Archaeology, Flickr; Eric Spiegel, Flickr.