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POV

Density Without Demolition

Tearing down old buildings won’t make our cities more affordable or inviting. It’s time to make better use of the buildings and spaces we already have.

Baltimore row houses are pictured.
Simply put, older blocks often offer more affordable housing options than newer areas of the city. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

As anyone who’s tried to find an apartment lately can tell you firsthand, many of America’s biggest cities are in the midst of a full-blown affordability crisis. All over the country, as young job-seekers and empty nesters both look to enjoy a more urban daily experience than offered by the previous suburban ideal, neighborhoods are struggling with skyrocketing housing and rental costs and surging development pressure.

We face some tough challenges in trying to navigate these pressures, but creating a false dichotomy between affordable housing and historic preservation should not be one of them. Creating affordable housing and retaining urban character are not at all competing goals. In fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, they can most successfully be achieved in tandem.

This may seem surprising at first, especially given the debates now raging in several cities. Take Portland, for instance, where a highly contested state bill aimed at spurring affordable housing also threatens to weaken historic protections and, in so doing, foster a wave of demolition that only threatens to further raise the cost of homes there.* Last November, San Francisco voters rejected a hotly contested housing moratorium targeting the Mission District, a traditionally Latino neighborhood that has become the favorite of workers in the region’s burgeoning tech sector. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, residents argued sharply over Measure S, a voter initiative that would have restricted any large-scale construction that did not conform to the city’s planning guidelines.

Unfortunately, the heated rhetoric in these cases suggests there is a natural opposition between affordability and community character. In fact, we can achieve both at the same time, as evidenced by the past several years of research at the National Trust. In city after city, we have found that neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks tend to provide more units of affordable rental housing, defined as housing whose monthly rent is a third or less of that city’s median income.

These areas also performed better along a host of other important social, economic, and environmental metrics. Across all 50 cities surveyed in our new Atlas of ReUrbanism, a comprehensive, block-by-block study of the American urban landscape, areas of older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks boast 33 percent more new business jobs, 46 percent more small business jobs, and 60 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses.

They are also denser than newer areas. As anywhere from Boston’s North End to Miami’s Little Havana can attest, relatively low-slung, human-scale neighborhoods with older fabric are the “missing middle” of cities and can achieve surprisingly high population densities.

Simply put, older blocks often offer more affordable housing options than newer areas of the city, while creating employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for urban residents of all incomes. At a time when cities are struggling with the high costs of adding new affordable housing, making better use of the tremendous adaptive potential of under-used existing buildings is a proven way forward that sidesteps many of the problems posed by demolition for new construction.

Of course, in many cities, new construction is also needed to keep pace with growing numbers of residents. But this new development doesn’t have to dwarf established neighborhoods or demolish existing urban fabric to accommodate growth. Almost anywhere you look, there are opportunities for sensitive and compatible infill that can enrich urban character rather than diminish it.

Consider downtown Louisville. Its streets are pocked with surface parking lots that make for asphalt dead zones, and could just as easily provide ample opportunity for new, compatible construction. Louisville is not an outlier: even in our most densely populated cities, parking takes up inordinate amounts of valuable urban space.

And parking lots are not the only underutilized urban asset these days. In New York, as I’ve noted here before, a 2014 survey of a third of the city found nearly 2,500 vacant lots and more than 3,500 empty buildings, enough room to house 200,000 people. Putting these older and often distinctive structures to use makes much more sense than tearing up city blocks to start over.

Ultimately, cities should strive to be character-rich and affordable. We need to embrace policies that address today’s egregious housing costs, but do so in a way that acknowledges the fundamentals of what makes our cities work. As our disastrous national experiment with “Urban Renewal” a half-century ago should make clear, demolishing existing urban neighborhoods is a giant step in the wrong direction. Instead, let’s make better use of the buildings and spaces we have to fashion cities that are affordable, diverse, exciting, and inviting for everyone.

UPDATE: This has been updated to reflect amendments to the original bill.

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