Historic Preservation Meets Sustainable Development

Copenhagen's oldest buildings are an essential part of the city's character and charm (Armitage/TYG).

By Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN – In this city, I am trying to learn about the intersection between historic preservation and sustainable urban development, a niche issue that nevertheless touches on many contemporary issues in city planning.  Three conclusions that I have reached thus far:

1.  Europe really is further along than the United States when it comes to creating sustainable communities.  I held this idea intuitively at the outset of my trip to Denmark, but I did not feel its force until I had experienced the world of European city planning first-hand.

I expected to return from Copenhagen inspired by the city’s imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse, the practice of renovating and retrofitting old buildings to serve new purposes.  Under the leadership of the historic preservation crowd, many of the most progressive voices in the sustainable urban development movement in the United States are calling for city planners to renovate the nation’s existing building stock instead of focusing only on “green” new construction.  They cite statistics such as the 65 years necessary for an energy efficient new building to make up for the “embodied energy” lost in tearing down an old building.  And they point to Europe, where adaptive reuse has become a common way of integrating old and new buildings.

I certainly have found these imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse in Copenhagen.  I have learned through hearsay, for example, that some of the most expensive real estate in Copenhagen can be found in a former silo tower converted into apartments-with-views.  But I have also seen that in Copenhagen, the progressive voices have moved beyond adaptive reuse to recognize that even the most advanced retrofits cannot compete with the energy efficiency technologies possible in new structures.  Thus in the long term, if cities such as Copenhagen are to achieve ambitious goals like carbon neutrality by 2025, they will need to offset old buildings that are worth saving with truly efficient new construction.  While it may exist in places, I have never seen this holistic thinking on such an advanced level in the United States.

2.  At the same time, however, the existing built environment is going to provide an important interim solution.  While I have seen an ultimate goal that is more sophisticated than adaptive reuse while in Copenhagen, I think that American cities could make enormous progress by learning a lesson that Danish planners have already internalized: retrofits and renovations may not seem glamorous or spectacular, but they are essential.  And when we do permit new construction, we must be sure that it will last longer than, say, 65 years.

3.  While historic city spaces may seem dull when compared to flashy new architecture or urban districts, they actually are worth preserving.  Trying to reconcile historic preservation with sustainable urban development does matter.

For one, preserving historic city plans is often a wise decision for urban designers trying to create the dense, mixed-use urban environment so in vogue right now.  In a number of Middle Eastern cities, for example, the preservation of centuries-old city plans could create exactly the kind of city that many of today’s leading urban planners would want.

Second, history sells and can make buildings more attractive spaces in which to live, work, or play.  I recently learned about the development of a former industrial area in Copenhagen where the district’s history was used as a marketable asset.  The site was once home to the Royal Porcelain company, a producer of luxury china.  Developers have embraced the site’s former use, retaining the name “Porcelaenshaven” (a rough translation would be “porcelain garden”) and preserving architectural reminders that many of the area’s buildings were once working factories.  On my site visit, I noticed the classic Royal Porcelain floral pattern gracing the apartments’ doorways.  After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a building that once produced teacups and saucers for the queen?

Third, respecting a city’s history means respecting the intangible elements of a city–the poetry of the urban spaces–all that helps to create attachments between places and people.  I recently learned about two new developments in Copenhagen, one only planned and the other already executed.  In the former, planners have envisioned an environment in which new buildings compliment and celebrate old ones, in which the roughness and unpredictability that come from generations of use are embraced and even deliberately intensified.  In the latter, by contrast, buildings are spaced far apart in a rational manner, and the area is full of spectacular new architecture.  There is far more smoothness than roughness.  The former seems like a space for real people; the latter does not.

And while my conclusions about the importance of historic preservation in contemporary city planning may seem a separate issue from my first two points about Copenhagen as a model of sustainable urban development, I think that they are actually inseparable.  After all, preserving a city’s heritage is, in a way, just a nicer way of looking at the need to plan future city development within the constraints of the existing built environment.

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1 Comment

Filed under architecture, Europe, urban affairs

One response to “Historic Preservation Meets Sustainable Development

  1. Whichever of you smart Elis wrote this, congratulations…you’ve nailed it. Maybe decision makers will start listening to you on this. Thanks for your fine thinking and astute observations on this issue.

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