The Resilience of Older Neighborhoods

By Jim Lindberg posted 04-21-2020 15:28


For years preservationists (myself included) have touted the connections between older buildings and urban vitality. We have talked about the “vibrancy” of bustling historic blocks lined with small businesses. We have photographed crowded sidewalks and pointed with pride to the “hidden density” of older neighborhoods. 

Are these messages still relevant? Or has everything changed? Every day there are new maps showing the impact of the coronavirus across the country. The numbers change, but one pattern is consistent: the virus is hitting older cities hard— especially New York, but also cities like Detroit, Chicago, Boston, and New Orleans. Some have said that population density in older urban centers is to blame. Others are predicting a new era of suburban sprawl. 

Will the days of what Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet” come back?” Photo of 2nd Street in San Francisco, California (2014). | Credit: Jim Lindberg

For preservationists and urbanists this is unsettling to hear. “The coronavirus undermines our most basic ideas about community and, in particular, urban life,” writes New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. Will the urban renaissance of the past two decades suddenly end? What will this mean for the historic neighborhoods and commercial districts we have worked so hard to conserve and revitalize? 

Many urbanists have argued that the link between the spread of the virus and urban density is weak. Some of the earliest flu outbreaks in the United States occurred in suburbs (New Rochelle, New York, and Kirkland, Washington) and resort areas (Eagle County, Colorado). Meanwhile, some of the densest cities in the world, notably Singapore and Seoul, have successfully contained the spread of the virus. 

It is too early to know how the coronavirus epidemic will ultimately impact cities and urban neighborhoods. After September 11, 2001, many predicted a flight from Manhattan and other high-rise downtown districts. The opposite occurred. Historic urban cores gained population and office and residential towers reached new heights. Instead of trying to predict the future, perhaps we should look more carefully at the past. What can we learn from the urban places that have survived and thrived through past disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and economic busts? What makes these older places so resilient? 

Perhaps like some of you, I have been thinking about questions like these while taking more frequent walks around my neighborhood, and I’ve been reading what others have to say on these topics. Below, not in ranked order, are my “top 10” reasons why older neighborhoods and buildings have proven resilient in the pastand why they are so important for our recovery today. 

1. Density. Yes, this can be a good thing and older neighborhoods have more of it. The concentration of people in urban neighborhoods supports a full range of services within a small number of blocks. This can be especially important in times of crisis, keeping essential businesses, medical facilities, and parks available to residents of all means, including those without cars. According to health experts, it is crowding, not density, that we need to avoid. Crowding can occur anywhere if we are not careful—in a high-rise elevator, at the entrance to a big box store, or on a sidewalk that is too narrow.

2. Social spaces. Common features of older buildings such as porches, stoops, balconies, courtyards, and operable windows provide informal places for people to converse (or sing, or applaud, or howl) while maintaining a safe distance. Urban designer Michael Mehaffy observes that older neighborhoods offer a full spectrum of spaces, from public to private, that allow residents to adjust their level of social distancing.

3. Diversity of residents. Each urban neighborhood has its own historic mix of housing types, from row houses and triple-deckers to walk-ups and garden courts. This diversity of living options allows households of different sizes, ages, and incomes to make their homes in the same neighborhood. Having residents of varied ages living on the same block during a time of crisis makes it easier to keep an eye on children, check in on the elderly, or find someone to walk a sick neighbor’s dog.

Social distancing for take-out from a locally-owned restaurant in one of Denver’s older urban neighborhoods (April 2020). | Credit: Jim Lindberg

4. Redundancy. Urban neighborhoods are built of many small, similar parts that can absorb economic, climate, and health shocks. If one neighborhood store is closed, another may be still be open down the block. Even after worst-case scenarios, recovery can begin in small increments, one building and one business at a time. The scholar and popular writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term “antifragile” to describe urban neighborhoods that can suffer adversity, recover, and emerge stronger than before.

5. Fail-safe design. Imagine living on an upper floor of a contemporary high-rise when the power goes out during a summer heat wave. With elevators inoperable, access to the street requires exhausting trips down service stairs. Sealed windows don’t open, so living rooms and bedrooms quickly become sweltering greenhouses. In contrast, older residential buildings are typically five stories or less and units are accessible by a short flight of stairs, with windows that open to help keep spaces more comfortable, even during a heat wave.

6. Healthy spaces. Architects are reimagining what healthy buildings will look like after the coronavirus. Among the design elements that may become more popular are features often found in older buildings: open stairs, wide hallways, high ceilings, operable windows, usable balconies, and plentiful daylight. Historic materials in older buildings can also offer health advantages. For example copper and copper alloys like brass and bronze kill bacteria and viruses shortly after contact and have been used to make door handles, railings, and water fixtures for centuries.

7. Adaptable buildings. To survive across decades, buildings must change frequently to accommodate new uses and occupants, a process that Stewart Brand documented in his classic book, How Buildings Learn. Constructed of common materials like wood, brick, and plaster, older and smaller buildings are easier and less expensive to reuse, renovate, and repair, whether in response to changing economic conditions or when recovering from a natural disaster.

8. Sustainable design. The current emergency can invigorate efforts to confront other challenges we face as well, especially climate change. Older buildings offer many lessons for how to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of global warming: thoughtful orientation to the sun, passive solar heating, repairable rather than throwaway parts and materials, accessible outdoor spaces for kitchen gardens and clotheslines. And most are located in walkable, connected neighborhoods. Architect and writer Stephen Mouzon calls this way of building the “original green.”

9. Inspiring histories. Studying historic urban neighborhoods can remind us of how we responded to health concerns in the past. In the mid-19th century, after it was discovered that cholera spread in contaminated water, cities across the country built their first sanitation systems. Fears of disease helped launch a nationwide urban park movement in the late-19th century. Unhealthy conditions in overcrowded neighborhoods like New York’s Lower East Side led to a series of tenement laws requiring more ventilation and light. Porches and balconies blossomed on buildings in the early-20th century so those suffering from tuberculosis could “take the cure” of fresh air. Remembering and learning from examples like these can inspire us during our current crisis.

10. Human connections.
The sudden distancing of “sheltering in place” can be disorienting and even depressing. We miss daily contact with the people who transform our buildings and blocks into places of life and community. Our appreciation for the businesses, organizations, and institutions that enliven our neighborhoods has only been enhanced by the experience of this pandemic. When their doors finally reopen and we can reconnect, we will not be fleeing our cities. We will be celebrating them.

Rather than causing the death of cities, the current crisis creates a chance to make them better. Inequities in our cities have become even more starkly apparent as the virus has disproportionately impacted low-income communities of color. Action is needed to address critical needs, including stronger support systems for small and local businesses, more affordable housing, improved transit options, and reconfigured streets that serve people instead of cars. Working collaboratively with others who seek to improve our cities, preservationists can bring forward the lessons of resilient historic neighborhoods. Together, we can create healthier, stronger places that are better prepared to weather the storms ahead.

Jim Lindberg is Senior Policy Director at the National Trust