Book Quotes: Jane Jacobs on Old Buildings

Number 4 in our series on Jane Jacobs’ seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In the chapter titled “The Need for Old Buildings” Jane Jacobs argues that, apart from any architectural considerations, every neighborhood needs a mixture of newer and older buildings in order to allow for a variety of uses, income levels, and even ideas within the neighborhood. This section makes me think especially of the simple little downtown Fondren buildings that house some of our most practical neighborhood businesses. It also reminds us that the original “affordable housing” actually consisted of the constant recycling of used buildings, often of high-value when first built but of lower value when abandoned by their original owners. While they may be “used” they are generally of higher-quality construction than those buildings constructed specifically as “affordable housing.”

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation–although these make fine ingredients–but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. These high costs of occupying new buildings may be levied in the form of an owner’s interest and amortization payments on the capital costs of the construction. However the costs are paid off, they have to be paid off. And for this reason, enterprises that support the cost of new construction must be capable of paying a relatively high overhead–high in comparison to that necessarily required by old buildings. To support such high overheads, the enterprises must be either (a) high profit or (b) well subsidized.

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. . . . Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts–studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions–these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

As for really new ideas of any kind–no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be–there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

This is the 4th post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?

Jane Jacobs on City Planning

Jane Jacobs on Streets

Jane Jacobs on Gentrification

Jane Jacobs on the Environment and Suburbia

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation, Urban/Rural Issues

4 replies


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