Preservation Green Lab's Liz Dunn on the Economics of Urban Grain

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Liz Dunn is a champion for Main Street. A long-time resident of Seattle's eclectic -- and gentrifying -- Capitol Hill neighborhood, she spent years battling insensitive new development as an outspoken community member before she decided to lead by example. In 1997 she launched her development practice Dunn & Hobbes, which specializes in new-build urban infill projects and adaptive reuse of character buildings left over from Capitol Hill's gritty "auto row" past. Many of her projects have been among Seattle's most talked-about, garnering design awards and becoming veritable magnets for star tenants from the local restaurant and business scene.

Dunn extended her reach beyond Seattle three years ago when she became consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab, an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Lab works with cities to develop policies that leverage the value of existing buildings toward achieving sustainability goals. She speaks frequently to audiences in the U.S. and abroad about the importance of nurturing "urban grain" with more sensitive approaches to urban infill, and possesses a formidable ability to connect with both the business and policy communities.

Liz recently sat down with us to discuss the importance of historic neighborhoods as economic engines, and why it would be wise to put a locavore lens on investing.

The term "urban grain" seems largely qualitative, and thus potentially problematic as a basis for developing and enforcing policy. Are there certain aspects of urban grain that draw a predictable response from a majority of users, and should be regulated?

There are many possible interpretations of the phrase "urban grain" or "granularity" that have to do with the scale and composition of cities. A lot of work has gone into analyzing the street grid -- for example, the size of blocks within a grid. I'm personally most interested in block-scapes, and the elements that coexist within a block or set of blocks.

Yes, I think there is a set of attributes here that is both recognizable and useful for policy making. I think we could be measuring, for example, the economic and social activity that occurs on blocks that have a larger number and variety of skinnier buildings, compared to what you find on blocks occupied by large, homogeneous building fronts. Measuring how the pattern and mix of buildings impacts urban activity would provide a way to assign value to organic, incremental development that would be more quantitative than the cultural arguments for preservation, which would in turn inform land use policies. There are many win-win solutions for balancing urban grain with new development.

As new technologies develop, retrofitting existing buildings to meet new standards -- for energy efficiency, for example -- can be daunting and expensive. Can you talk about how the Preservation Green Lab works to show owners and policymakers how existing buildings can be assets rather than problems?

We will be publishing a piece of research this winter that studies the life-cycle environmental impacts of keeping an existing building of average environmental performance compared to replacing it with a new high-performance green building of the same size. We studied six different building types, and what the early findings are telling us is that the environmental resource impacts of new construction (in terms of energy, carbon, water, materials, toxicity, etc.) are such that it takes decades for the greenest new building -- even one with significantly lower energy and water use -- to pay back these up-front costs.

Our grid fuel mix is as dirty now as it's ever going to be (we hope), so now is not the best time to incur this up-front penalty when we don't have to. My point here isn't that we shouldn't be pursuing new construction projects to increase the supply of urban space, but rather that it makes very little sense to replace existing buildings to do that. I think we need a more precise, surgical strategy for inserting new density. Interestingly, energy efficiency is a completely different lens on the issue than the question of granular urban block-scapes, but one that begs for many of the same policy solutions.

Some of the most economically and socially successful neighborhoods are the ones with a stock of older, three- to six-story buildings.

What are your suggestions for creating policies and practices that would support the surgical infill approach you suggest without over-regulating and discouraging development in general?

My concern is that suburban-style developments are being dropped onto urban sites. There are a number of issues at play here that have to do with the scale of global real estate finance and the skill sets of larger traditional developers, that don't lend themselves well to building more surgically in a community context.

Presented by

Julia Levitt writes and consults on sustainability, policy, innovation, and strategy in the built environment. She is currently studying management at the London School of Economics.

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