01/16/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Image of Urban Vitality: Is It Really Just Skyscrapers?

By Mike Powe and Jeana Wiser, Preservation Green Lab

View of Manhattan from Brooklyn.

When you picture the heart of a thriving city, what image comes to mind? You might picture a New York avenue, lined with spectacular, towering skyscrapers. The image of a successful city seems inextricably tied to images of buildings stretching into the air.

It turns out, however, that the skyscraper may not deserve such a tight link to our idea of urban vitality. A better image? Look to the neighborhoods just beyond the shadows of downtown's corporate and condo towers, in the modest (yet bustling!) blocks of older, smaller buildings.

Millennium Park in Chicago, with the Willis and Legacy Towers beyond.

The Skyscraper Debate

Recently, the importance of skyscrapers for cities has been the subject of much debate, both favorable and unfavorable. Prominent urban thought-leaders such as Edward Glaeser, Ben Adler, and Matt Yglesias have argued that cities need towers and skyscrapers if they are to remain (or aspire to be) innovative, affordable, and sustainable. Skyscrapers can offer space for an incredible density of residences and offices, with a relatively small building footprint -- and at the same time, leave space for parks and plazas.

Just as skyscrapers have their advocates, they also have their critics. Just last week, Treehugger's Lloyd Alter presented a strong counterargument against growing cities into the clouds, suggesting that new towers often serve as inefficient, expensive homes that often succumb to issues of vacancy.

Richard Florida has also suggested that skyscrapers often mute the "spontaneous encounters that provide cities with so much of their social, intellectual, and commercial energy." Meanwhile, Tim Halbur, communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, points out that while skyscrapers may boost a city's supply of rentable space, they also pull life away from the street.

H Street in Washington, D.C.

Buildings Down at the Human Scale

We will undoubtedly need tall buildings to accommodate cities' growing populations, but we should not underestimate the more modestly sized buildings. As Jane Jacobs argued more than fifty years ago, older, smaller buildings are tremendously valuable places for small, local businesses, and they set the stage for Jacobs' "ballet of the good city sidewalk." She maintained that neighborhoods with a mixture of old and new buildings are often the most socially and economically vital places a city has to offer.

Human-scaled neighborhoods reward walkers with interesting window displays and a variety of small businesses to consider (see the work of Jan Gehl for more information). A tower downtown may offer high-density housing, but on the flip side, small-scale blocks have diverse spaces that see incredible intensity of use throughout the workday and into weeknights and weekends.

The Alps Hotel in Seattle, Wash. This building has more units of housing and more storefronts than the majority of block-sized bread-loaf projects in the city.

This spring, the National Trust's Preservation Green Lab will release a report that builds upon extensive city mapping and analysis to demonstrate the important role that older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage commercial corridors play in fostering vibrant communities. We will show, with data, just how right Jane Jacobs was: Older, smaller buildings and diverse urban fabric play a critical role in supporting robust local economies, distinctive local businesses, and unforgettable places where people connect and unwind.

So, the next time you conjure up an image of a vibrant urban place, make sure you don't overlook cities' older, character-rich neighborhoods!