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Sustainable Economics

January 27, 2011

Suomenlinnna Island, Helsinki, Finland

There is a famous Jane Jacobs quote I’ve loved for years, “New ideas need old buildings”.  I like it for its aesthetic sense. I personally love the feel an old building imparts and find creative inspiration in the patina of a well used urban environment.  There is  a character and charm of place acquired through decades of love and attention, and its just not something that you can build new.

Until this week, however, I had not considered the economic context Jacobs was actually speaking to. As explained in Steven Johnson’s new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Jacobs recognized that creative enterprises were simply too strapped financially to be able to afford new, modern spaces. The more functional, cheap, raw spaces an urban environment provides the more opportunities there are for cutting edge, fledgling, innovative enterprises to move in.  I particularly like Johnson’s comparison of urban environments to coral reefs. How the the calcified bones of urban structures left behind as their creators move on then provide homes for creative fish to move into.

Some urban fabric in Sydney, Australia

Some urban fabric in Sydney, Australia

Gerding Theater

Bioswale adjacent to the historic armory, now the Gerding Theater, Portland, Oregon

This coming Monday, January 31st, The Natural Step Network of Oregon will host the premier of a new film, “The Greenest Building,” discussing the economics of “reuse and recycle” in terms of the built environment. (Preview video clip/Buy Tickets)  The film will be shown at the Gerding Theater, particularly fitting as Portland’s first registered historic landmark and the first theater anywhere to achieve LEED Platinum.  While the architecture industry has been discussing “embodied energy” for some time now in the context of sustainable construction practices and Edward Mazria’s 2030 Challenge, new work such as this film expand the concept to include “economic embodied energy” as well.  It brings Jacobs’s economic thinking back to the forefront as well and shows how renovation and reuse can achieve economic, social, and ecological balance as well.

Macerata, Italy

A hill town street in Macerata, Italy.

Another such thinker, Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics, addressed a similar issue in his speech on “Economics, Sustainability, and Historic Preservation” at the National Trust Annual Conference in 2005. In it, Rypkema described “social embodied energy”, in which buildings create a social environment that is changed or destroyed when replaced or razed. Maintaining an existing structure maintains and stabilizes its surrounding urban context as well. Renovating an existing building often utilizes local materials and labor to a much greater extent than new construction does, which is a fundamental goal of LEED and Living Building Challenge metrics.  An excellent example of the devastation caused by “urban renewal” is currently shown in the “Re-building South Portland” exhibit at the Architectural Heritage Center.

Abandoned warehouse, Donald, Oregon

Abandoned warehouse, Donald, Oregon

Steven Johnson explains how the World Wide Web has built upon layers of creative platforms.  That spending time and energy reinventing the wheel doesn’t get you a Ferrari.  A coral reef’s success is built on the generations of reef builders that came before.  The same thinking applies to the built environment as well.  We don’t have the time, energy, or resources to continue tearing existing buildings down, hauling materials around and replacing them with new ones only to tear those up in another 20 years. Our post-industrial world must learn to build structures well the first time, maintain what we have built, and renovate or restore them before they reach a state in which they must be replaced. Of course it will not always be possible or appropriate to preserve the past intact, nor should it be.  But thinking of growth in terms of building on the past instead of replacing it will take us a long way down the road towards creating the beautiful, historic urban fabrics we Americans spend so much of our time traveling elsewhere to see. Perhaps that will help us spend our dollars locally as well!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Stubbs permalink
    January 28, 2011 9:08 pm

    “. . . spending time and energy reinventing the wheel doesn’t get you a Ferrari.”

    No, it gets you an automobile where before you had carriages and horses. Or wrings an airplane from a bicycle shop. Or it gets you concrete where before you had bricks and lumber. Or it gets you a transistor-based computer where before you had rooms and rooms of vacuum tubes. Or an abacus.

    It gets you the Rome of Sixtus V. It gets you Baron Haussmann’s Paris.

    More locally, it gets you what Ada Louise Huxtable dubbed “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance,” the series of public spaces and interactive fountains which wends through the “devastation” of the South Portland area and culminates in what may be the best piece of public architecture in the city, Forecourt Fountain, the reef upon which Portland has built the many interactive fountains that now all but define our outdoor spaces.

    The internet is an interesting example. Much of the innovation/functionality we currently enjoy on the internet was pioneered on the PLATO network run by CERL and later CDC. It and its aged architecture of mainframes are important parts of history, but there are reasons pieces of that architecture ended up pushpinned to my wall as nostalgic decorations. Most (if not all) of the actual computers used in the early internet, and certainly many of the initial networks involved, have in any real measure ceased to exist, replaced by newer constructions. Hmm. Kind of like older buildings being replaced? The analogy has more than one edge, at the least.

    As for the economic component to the Jacobs’ quote, it’d be more accurate to say new ideas need cheap spaces. Certainly creative enterprises benefit from large swaths of older, cheaper buildings at first. Often enough, and more often when they succeed, they drive themselves out, simply by being the vanguard of a larger wave. The Pearl is a fine case in point. How many starving artists lived there once upon a time? And now?

    Putting up a new building is rarely a reinvention of the wheel. And I would argue that in many cases it’s more akin to a changing of a tire. Constantly changing out tires is, of course, a bad idea. Dragging feet when one is less functional than the needs of the driver require is no better.

    I say all of this as Devil’s Advocate, of course. I am by nature wary of default positions, whether they be Corbusian or Jacobean. And a contrarian. (I do feel I ought to disclose my ownership of a house on the National Historic Registry, though.)

    • January 29, 2011 4:26 pm

      Some good thoughts here Peter. South Portland and Halprin’s fountains are a great example of the positive and negative sides of wholesale urban renewal as it was practiced mid century. Nicely timed in light of the exhibit I mentioned at the Architectural Heritage Center. I know there are some new books coming out on Halprin as well, I’ll see what I can find and continue that thread.

      For Jacobson’s quote though, taking it all the way to economics and saying that new ideas need cheap doesn’t work either. Any more so than saying it’s just for aesthetics. We have to look at preservation/renewal as a three-legged stool: aesthetic, economic and, what Rypkema brings in, social. South Portland is an example of renewal for economic reasons that had a big social cost.

      There was an great talk at the White Stag last night by Emily Pilloton of Studio H where she spoke to designing in the local context understanding the local needs. I think it factors in here as well. It is kind of a reaction to the homogeneity of the world as transportation and the world wide web continue to make it appear smaller than it actually is.

      Two questions then. 1) Will I see you at the movie? And 2) as devil’s advocate, you now qualify for a guest post! Willing to talk about your thoughts more?

      – B –

      • Peter Stubbs permalink
        January 29, 2011 9:57 pm

        Quite frankly, the South Portland redevelopment was massively problematic from several standpoints, and there isn’t another element that lives up to the promise of Halprin’s work. I took the opposite stance in a reply to a slightly snide comment by Randy Gragg about criticism of the redevelopment (in the wake of Halprin’s death), that the erasure from downtown(ish) Portland of the SROs in that area was in essence the forced ejection of a population that was already under-served by local housing. The fatal flaw of that planning scheme, were I to pronounce one, would have to be that: The capricious and short-sighted failure to consider the existing housing stock as at the very least a real and significant indicator of the future needs of the neighborhood and action in light of that failure. It may have been apropos to remove quite a few of the buildings that were removed, but to do so without regard to the need to replace them *in kind* was bad policy & bad planning. I have little doubt that were the larger scheme done with the sensitivity that Halprin’s part received the area might well have eclipsed what has since happened in The Pearl.

        Really. I am a contrarian. (And a big believer in gray areas.)

        For the record, I am always a bit skeptical when I hear the intangibles brought out to defend preservation. probably because I hear them loudly & often. The “sense of place and collective memory” cited by the write-up for the movie are both heartier and less consonant than preservationists seem to believe. As evidence I would put forth the brouhaha over the “Made In Oregon” sign, about which some activists said they couldn’t imagine the skyline without those particular words. The sign had changed before, of course, but that was way back in . . . uh . . . 1997. An inviolable city icon in twelve years? The collective memory was short-circuited in pursuit of the sense of place, and I think that speaks volumes about the malleable and somewhat untrustworthy nature of each. (Again: contrarian.)

        I think the three-legged stool must also either add as a fourth leg or fold into the social aspect the issue of accessibility. Rehabilitating older buildings presents many, if surmountable, issues as far as access for a wide range of disabilities. I point this out largely because I’m convinced equitable access and use are not simply issues of social equality but of long-term sustainability for any building. To grossly oversimplify, the building with the widest possible base of users will see the greater use and, all other things being equal, the useful building is the one most likely to endure.

        As to the questions . . .

        The last movie I saw anywhere other than at home was WALL-E. We need to cultivate some babysitters, but more problematic is that I’m shaking an ugly cold & my wife is getting it, so energy levels are low and her ability to work, THEN take care of our almost-two-year-old son is nil. Which is to say I’d love to, but it’s not even a remote possibility.

        As for guest blogging, um. Uh. I think I spent my brain coins writing the first reply. (See: almost-two-year-old son, caring for.)
        I *may* have an idea or two that could be wrought into a larger framework, but my brain is telling me I’d be better off writing about Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber’s idea of the Wicked Problem, and how it applies to Portland (past & present) in particular. That said, I’m not sure I have the intellectual horsepower to pull off something of that nature, or that it would be even close to digestible as a blog entry.

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