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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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New Impressions of an Old and Contested City

by Diana Saverin

JERUSALEM — In order to work for an international media organization that educates the press on Israel, I will be calling this fascinating city my home for the next nine weeks. I have just moved into a loft in Emek Refaim, more commonly called “the Germany colony” because long ago this was where the Germans lived. Our area is nice and full of little bookstores, gardens, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There are several old residential “colonies” throughout the city — you can tell where the old German houses are because their doors and shutters are made of wood. No Israelis use wood on their houses; all of the Israeli buildings here have to be made out of the same stone, which makes views of the city from above quite dramatic.

In the center city is the “shuk,” which is the Hebrew word for market. The shuk winds under a tarp with tons of fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, bakeries, ice cream, meats, fish, and anything else you would want! I have also made it to the Old City, which is next to center city. The Old City alone has four different quarters — the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter, Jewish quarter, and Armenian quarters — and the Muslim quarter leads to the Western Wall. The Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters consist of rows of markets in streets that wind beneath arches, and the stones on the roads have been there for at least 2,000 years.

The Western Wall offers quite a contrast, as it is an open courtyard with the area closest to the wall closed off for prayer. This praying area is divided between men and women, and there is a good deal of controversy surrounding the women praying. Apparently women who have worn the praying shawls that many of the orthodox men wear, women who have prayed too loudly, women who have not been modestly enough dressed, or men and women who have prayed together in the open area have had objects thrown at them or been subject to arrest. There isn’t as much controversy surrounding the fact that the men’s praying side is significantly larger, has more praying tables, and has an eight story tunnel next to the wall that can be used for prayer during rain. It is simply unfair in the same way that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices are to women (i.e. women in some synagogues aren’t allowed at the front near the Torah or allowed to touch it or sit with the men).

Yesterday I returned to the Old City with a Jerusalemite who is a tour guide after an afternoon spent overlooking the area in beautiful gardens. It was previously the poorest part of Israel, because it bordered Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War and was victim to bombs and rockets. Once it became a part of Israel, the poor were kicked out and it became the most expensive place to live, which is another controversy. Despite the controversy, it is a lovely place: there are no cars allowed, and the flowers are incredible. Vines and trees overflow onto the sidewalk, and in between the houses you can eye the walls of the Old City.

It seems that every square foot of land in this city incites debate: just outside of the Old City, there is a new parking lot where about thirty Orthodox Jewish men were protesting, screaming “Saturday” in Hebrew because the cars park there on Saturdays, which violates Shabbat. The parking lot was put there after another parking lot for those going to the old city was installed in an Orthodox neighborhood. This move has left the group equally displeased. Their numbers have dwindled over the past months; my tour guide friend recalled hundreds of them blocking the streets a couple months ago. He brought me through the Jewish quarter, which has some incredible Roman remnants and looks quite different than the alleys of the other three quarters. I walked through the same parts of town as the day before, but had a far richer understanding as my friend used his expertise to carve through the extraordinary layers of the city and dissect the significance of the each areas to the each religions. We ended at the spot where Jesus was put on the cross and buried. In one hour, we saw the most holy spot for Jews, one of the two holiest spots for Christians (the other being Bethlehem), and the third most holy spot for Muslims, and they are all within five minutes walking distance!

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