By: Sam Zacher
Z-scores, standard deviations, statistical correlations. In a world of data and numerical trends, what good are descriptive observations? The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab’s (PGL) research is predominantly quantitative and involves studying large datasets to determine certain characteristics of urban neighborhoods. While that type of work can tell us much about urban vitality and the health of a community, it can leave behind the nuances, emotion, and character associated with the community.
PGL’s Older, Smaller, Better (OSB) report demonstrated that neighborhoods with older, smaller, and mixed-age buildings often have more healthy social activity and local economies. The Green Lab researchers studied San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., to see how a city’s “Character Score” (a statistical combination of building age, size, and diversity of age) correlated to a more vital neighborhood, as measured by 40 economic, social, and environmental metrics.
One of my assignments as a summer intern with the PGL was to see how well the Character Score statistics aligned with on-the-ground observations. I visited several neighborhoods in Chicago and Minneapolis, applied the research methodology from the Older, Smaller, Better report, and then added my own observations to the statistical analysis.
Logan Square, Chicago
I began my neighborhood observations in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Logan Square in northwest Chicago includes one of the largest Hispanic populations in Chicago; the neighborhood is 58 percent Latino compared to 29 percent citywide.
In my experience, Logan Square’s high Character Score statistic certainly translated to urban vitality. Recent commercial activity has turned Logan Square into one of the “hipster” capitals of the Midwest. The neighborhood is packed with locally owned restaurants, galleries, and shops. While Logan Square doesn’t have the parks of many Chicago neighborhoods, it does have Palmer Square, in addition to tree-lined boulevards, a central square, and a new bike path, all of which offer greenery and enjoyable outdoor areas. These shops, eateries, and urban nature cultivate pleasant hangout spaces that draw large weekend crowds and contribute to a fun neighborhood culture enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
Lincoln Park, Chicago
As a second Chicago case study neighborhood, I explored Lincoln Park. Nestled north of downtown on Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park is an old, big, and predominantly white (84 percent) neighborhood. Property values are high and the median income in the neighborhood is around $85,000 (city’s is around $47,000).
A main attraction is the park itself, which sits between the neighborhood and Lake Michigan. The neighborhood’s easy access to the outdoors allows residents to bike downtown along the lake, go to the beach, or even visit the Lincoln Park Zoo, which provides spectacular views of downtown. Because of the park, the lake, and the neighborhood’s five-plus other parks, Lincoln Park is family friendly. DePaul University is also located in the neighborhood, providing a nightlife destination for people from all over the city. The large population, plentiful bars and restaurants, and various transportation veins in Lincoln Park create a feeling of hustle and bustle on nights and weekends, seen by streets packed with ebullient crowds.
The OSB methodology reliably predicted thriving neighborhoods in Chicago, but would it have similar results in another Midwest city? I explored two neighborhoods in Minneapolis to find out.
Uptown Minneapolis has attracted increased attention in the past few decades. The neighborhood was established in the early 20th century and was modeled after Chicago’s Uptown. The 1970s and ‘80s brought an arts scene that attracted new residents to the area. Hennepin Avenue, the main drag, is lined with shops and restaurants. The main attraction, the Uptown Theater, built in the 1920s, attracts crowds for movies and film festivals.
Quiet residential communities with houses and two- and three-story brick apartments surround Hennepin Avenue. Uptown is mostly white (86 percent), with denser housing than the rest of the city. As Minneapolis is the “City of Lakes,” Uptown is adjacent to Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, which feature bike paths and aquatic activities. There’s a tasteful, calm yet exciting feeling to Uptown, as younger people and adults explore Hennepin Avenue’s myriad shops, restaurants, and coffee shops without a feeling of overcrowding. Beautiful lake paths nearby draw both hardcore exercisers and those out for a leisurely stroll.
Downtown West (Minneapolis)
The final neighborhood I explored is Downtown West. Downtown West is the longtime commercial and financial hub of Minneapolis. Bordering the Mississippi River, it covers a large area of downtown.
The Target Center (home of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx) and Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins) attract large crowds on game nights and are surrounded by numerous bars and restaurants. Demographically, Downtown West is 60 percent white, 21 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 4 percent Latino. Since the area is so large, though, the median income in different pockets of Downtown West fluctuates between $70,000 and $18,000. As a downtown neighborhood, there’s far less of a community feel in Downtown West. Many patrons of bars, restaurants, and sports games come from elsewhere, but that doesn’t stop the neighborhood from attracting jovial crowds on nights and weekends.
These four neighborhoods in two cities have many similarities: they all attract people to restaurants, bars, shops, entertainment, and outdoor areas, which stimulates the local economies. They also all have older building stock, and generally high Character Scores for their cities (Logan Square and Lincoln Park very high for any city). The Green Lab’s Older, Smaller, Better report concluded that neighborhoods with older, smaller, and mixed-age buildings generally have more social activity and stronger local economies. In the observational, experiential cases of Logan Square and Lincoln Park in Chicago and Uptown and Downtown West in Minneapolis, this research finding holds true.
PGL is continuing its work quantitatively studying neighborhoods in U.S. cities with the upcoming City Atlas Project, which will apply the analysis of the Older. Smaller, Better report to more than 50 cities, from New York and Chicago to smaller cities like Boulder, Colorado, and Hartford, Connecticut. The data behind high “Character” neighborhoods like Logan Square and Uptown will be under study, but it’s important to remember that attractions like breweries, bike paths, lakes and parks, also make these older neighborhoods special.
Sam Zacher was a summer intern with the Preservation Green Lab. He is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.