BY FRED LEESON
Jane Jacobs had no professional training in urban planning when she set the profession on its ear in 1961. Her earth-shaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, attacked the contemporary trend of urban renewal as wrong-headed, counter-productive and just plain dumb.
From simply looking around, Jacobs believed that low-rise streets with mixtures of older buildings provided the most vibrant urban communities, the best places for small business innovation and safer public places. She railed against skyscrapers and the scrape-and-rebuild philosophy of urban renewal aimed at eliminating urban “blight.”
Many planners struck back with venom. Old buildings, they said, stood in the way of progress. Cities that did not renew themselves were doomed to eventual failure.
Now there is impressive new evidence based on massive compilations of data that were not available in Jacobs’ day. Bottom line? “Jane Jacobs was right,” said Michael Powe, senior research manager for the Preservation Green Lab, a Seattle-based research arm of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Powe, who holds a doctorate in planning and policy and design, laid out the results of the trust’s “Older, Smaller, Better” research report in a talk in Portland on October 7 at the Architectural Heritage Center. Based on intensive statistical analyses performed with data from Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, DC, the report says commercial streets with a mix of building ages and sizes provide the most economic, social and cultural benefits.
Powe did not describe himself as a preservationist. And he expressed no intellectual virulence against new buildings or the need for infill buildings on vacant land. “Where you have the old and new rubbing together, there is greater friction and greater street life,” Powe said.
The Green Lab’s statistical analysis broke the three target cities into cells of 200 square meters each, and then plotted a dizzying range of statistics including building size, building age, building ownership business ownership, employee numbers and demographic data, among others. It then used the data to create a “character score” for each of the grid cells. Score categories were broken into an assortment of colors, giving the final maps a visual breakdown of streets with the various scores.
Streets with the highest scores were those with the highest variety of building ages and sizes and with multiple ownerships. In general, these same streets had the best walkability scores, the most independently-owned businesses, the most minority and women-owned businesses and the most successful independent bars and restaurants.
“The foundation of small business is where you find these (older) buildings,” Powe said. He noted that Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks all started in small, old buildings before they grew larger.
“A lot of these things we already knew,” Powe said of the Green Lab conclusions. “The data are important to policy-makers. It is good to have the numbers to back it up.”
As for Jacobs, he added, “I don’t think Jane Jacobs needed big data to tell her she was right. Big data was impossible in her day. You just couldn’t get it before.” Today, however, wonks can probe all sorts of computerized data bases to learn about buildings and business and people and activity. One unusual form of data Powe illustrated was an animated visual image of cell-phone use during a 24-hour period in Seattle. It helped confirm which streets had the most human activity at which times.
Portland was not one of the cities examined in the Green Lab report. However, Powe showed the “character scores” of the 200-meter-square cells covering the Rose City. Many of the city’s vibrant commercial streets, such as Hawthorne and Alberta, glowed the brightest red with the highest scores.
Powe hopes the Green Lab report will help direct future planning policies. He said the six-person Green Lab staff is trying to meet with many city planning agencies. No meetings have been held yet with Portland officials, he added.
The bottom line of Powe’s message: “Character and scale of buildings matter. Think about preservation. Think about why it works. Don’t be afraid to mix old and new. Don’t tear down all old buildings. Be smart about design. Encourage the interplay between old and new.”
Were she still alive, Jacobs likely would agree with much of that.
Fred Leeson is president of the non-profit Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center.