Older, Smaller, Better: New Research from the Preservation Green Lab

Posted on: May 15th, 2014 by Mike Powe

Older, Smaller, Better report coverToday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab released Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring how the character of buildings and blocks influences urban vitality. This study demonstrates the unique and valuable role that older, smaller buildings play in the development of sustainable cities. Based upon statistical analysis of the built fabric of three major American cities–Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. –this research finds that established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.

In her classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed that “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” This Preservation Green Lab report provides the most complete empirical validation to date of Jacobs' long-respected, but largely untested hypothesis: That neighborhoods containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of diverse age support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings.

Looking not just at historically designated or older buildings, but all existing structures across these three urban landscapes, the research team empirically documented the age, diversity of age, and size of buildings and statistically assessed the relationships between these characteristics and 40 economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics. Each city was divided into a grid of 200-meter-by-200-meter squares (about one to two square city blocks). Squares composed of commercial and mixed-use areas of the city were analyzed using statistical models, generating “apples to apples” comparisons of results across diverse urban landscapes.

Findings from the project support the idea that retaining blocks of older, smaller, mixed-vintage buildings can help cities achieve sustainable development goals and foster great neighborhoods. Below are a few key insights from the study:

Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable.

In Seattle and San Francisco, older neighborhoods with a mixture of small, mixed-age buildings have significantly higher Walk Score® rankings and Transit Score® ratings than neighborhoods with large, new buildings.

 Young people love old buildings.

In Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., 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.

Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.

San Francisco and Washington, D.C., city blocks composed of mixed-vintage buildings host greater cellphone activity on Friday nights. In Seattle, areas with older, smaller buildings see greater cellphone use and have more businesses open at 10:00 p.m. on Fridays.

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.

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.

Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density.

In Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., 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.

Infographic from Older, Smaller, Better

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 Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., areas of the city with older, smaller buildings host a significantly higher proportion of jobs in small businesses.


The Older, Smaller, Better study is the first phase of a broader Preservation Green Lab research agenda focused on the role of older buildings in sustainable development. With the help of interested funders, local governments, and partner organizations, the research scope is expanding into additional cities with different economic, social, and physical contexts, including weak real estate markets and high building vacancy rates. The Green Lab’s goals are to identify opportunities and to share solutions that benefit residents, property owners, investors, and community leaders alike.

The complete Older, Smaller, Better report provides more detailed results and recommendations that expand upon the findings and principles discussed in this post. The report details the research methodology, statistical modeling results, and mapping analysis, and includes community case studies from the three study cities. Recommendations based upon the research are offered for community leaders, developers, and policymakers, along with directions for future research and empirical investigation.

The Older, Smaller, Better project was made possible through the generous support of the Summit Foundation, the Prince Charitable Trusts, and the Kresge Foundation. The project was managed and led by the Preservation Green Lab, a department of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that researches the sustainability value of older and historic buildings and identifies policy solutions that help communities leverage their built assets. This project benefitted from collaboration with Impresa, Inc., Gehl Studio, and State of Place™.The complete report can be downloaded at oldersmallerbetter.org. Visitors to the site can also explore interactive maps with data on building character and measures of performance.

Access the full report at www.oldersmallerbetter.com
Are you a Preservation Leadership Forum member? Download the latest Forum Focus: Putting the Older, Smaller, Better Report to Work for Historic Preservation. 

Additional blog posts on Older, Smaller, Better

Jane Jacobs and 21st-Century Preservation
Big Data: A New Frontier in Historic Preservation?
Older, Smaller, Better – Exploring Sources of Character and Urban Vitality Data

On PreservationNation Blog: [Preservation Tips & Tools] Older, Smaller, Better: New Findings from Preservation Green Lab

About Mike Powe

Mike Powe is the senior research manager at the Seattle-based National Trust Preservation Green Lab.

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