Historic Downtowns: Why Can't We Build 'Em Like We Used To?

What is it about historic downtowns that makes them so darned attractive, and unlike the placeless architecture spreading across our urban landscapes? Graeme Sharpe looks at the "basic recipe" that created these admired environments.

2 minute read

January 10, 2013, 9:00 AM PST

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj


Downtown Palmyra

Ken Lund / Flickr

With ample images and diagrams, Sharpe illustrates the three key elements that allowed traditional building developers to use "their limitations as advantages, making the most out of known technology and social behavior."

First, structural engineering limitations and tax policies resulted in small frontages and deep buildings. "The overall effect of a traditional streetscape," says Sharpe, "is like walking through a well-curated art exhibit, where people can admire the buildings or the products in the glass storefronts....Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers....These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city."

Second, "[t]he party wall style of building, where adjacent buildings used the same structural wall to support their floors, was a very important money saving technique in traditional buildings....The owners typically used the savings to invest in attractive architecture with architectural flourishes, since it made business sense." This practice has generally been regulated out of existence.

Finally, the "incremental development paradigm," where owners had the ability to start small and expand their property upwards as needed was a cost-effective way to establish a business district, notes Sharpe. "The 'build at once' streetscape phenomenon is a recent invention, and only necessary because of the presence of parking requirements."

"It is up to us to figure out how to apply these concepts to our modern urban areas," he concludes. "But the key lessons here are to create a development environment where buildings can start small, expand gradually, and create mutually beneficial relationships with their neighbors."

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