Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Adaptive Reuse?

3 minute read

Key to urban revitalization or harbinger of gentrification—whichever way you look at it, adaptive reuse has been a key development type in the transformation of U.S. cities throughout the 21st century.

Adaptive reuse is a specific form of redevelopment that, in recent decades, has driven the revitalization of historic neighborhoods around the world. Adaptive reuse refers to a specific variety of redevelopment that makes use of existing building stock for the purposes of contemporary living—even if that existing building stock was built for obsolete uses in a bygone era.

The adaptive reuse process implies the renovation of an existing building, but whereas renovation stops at freshening and refinishing a building for its original purpose, adaptive reuse implies a transformation of use. In many examples of adaptive reuse projects in the past two decades, vacant office buildings have been adapted to new forms as residential buildings, with either apartments to rent or condominiums to buy. Former industrial warehouses converted to restaurants are another common example of adaptive reuse. Many other versions of adaptive reuse are possible depending on the development history of cities and the current state of the economy in the nation and the region.

Adaptive reuse is the building and construction technique that made it possible for historic neighborhoods to meet the renewed demand for urban living. Many cities had to make changes to planning and development policies to enable the conversion of buildings from office and industrial uses to residential or retail uses. The city of Los Angeles, for example, approved an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO) in 1999, paving the way for a complete transformation of its downtown historic core from vacant commercial buildings to upscale loft, condominium, and hotel developments. Key to the success of the ARO in Los Angeles was a more permissive approach to parking and fire and safety regulations than would have been granted to a new development. Thus, planning policy provided incentives for a desirable new form of development. Downtown L.A.'s adaptive reuse trend has since proliferated in other neighborhoods.

Adaptive reuse has provided a significant source of momentum to the revitalization of historic urban cores in cities all over the United States, while having the additional benefit of providing steady work for architects and landscape architects, even during the lean development years of the Great Recession. For planners, adaptive reuse provides a different benefit—a tool for achieving ambitious policy goals like reducing the use of automobiles by locating homes closer to jobs and transit lines. Another common policy goal supported by successful adaptive reuse policies include the creation of "24-7" vibrancy in the public realm in neighborhoods that previously only served daytime office populations.

There are also downsides to the kind of urban revitalization made possible by adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse, which has responded to market demand as demographic trends have seen the return of affluent, white Americans to urban areas, is frequently identified as a signifier of gentrification and displacement, and thus a negative force of change that has displaced existing communities. 

The use of adaptive reuse as a tool for historic preservation is less controversial. While the form of historic preservation referred to as façadism can sometimes attract criticism, numerous preservationists consider adaptive reuse a powerful way to keep historic buildings in active use, positioned centrally in the present and future of the culture and life of cities.


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