Historic Downtowns: The Models for New Planning Principles


A view of historic Portland, Oregon, 2006.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Adaptively reused buildings on Northwest 13th Avenue in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia


As we look for successful development strategies for the 21st century, innovation is critical – but looking back to the success of a century ago also yields dividends. In the early 1900s, regions throughout the country, including Long Island, were comprised of villages with mixed land uses – residential, commercial, and industrial – and mixed incomes, surrounded by farmland and open space. Trains enabled people to get from place to place and connected the main economic centers of the region.

After World War II, the development of single-family suburban housing boomed, in part because of federal housing policies. At the same time, suburban retail grew because of access to cheaper land and proximity to new markets. Retail activity and employment opportunities left the downtowns and, as a result, these once-vibrant communities became less attractive places for people to live.

But “a new image of urban America is in the making,” says William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institute who co-wrote a report on shifting demographics in cities and suburbs in the 2000s.[1]

Many young people just getting out of college do not want to live in the suburbs and are instead looking for cities and towns that have job opportunities, cultural amenities, restaurants, nightlife, and access to transportation. Senior citizens are leaving suburbs in favor of more walkable, urban centers.[2]

Portland, Oregon, consistently ranked among the most livable cities in the country, has tapped into its historic resources and is attracting new residents, both young and old. Downtown Portland has a distinctive sense of place, with small-scale, late 19th century industrial buildings and 20th century terra-cotta architecture. Old commercial warehouses dating from the 1880s have been adaptively reused for contemporary commercial uses.

An inspiring example of adaptive reuse in Portland is the White Stag Block project, where three vacant historic buildings were transformed for new tenants, including the University of Oregon. Preservation work included restoration of the original cast-iron façade on one of the buildings, as well as retention of the original high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and interior cast-iron columns of the structures.[3]

The White Stag Block project also incorporates principles of environmental sustainability.[4]

The building was retrofitted with modern technology to make it more energy-efficient. And the building is easily accessible via public transportation – the City of Portland introduced a streetcar line in the mid-1990s, which has helped bring both locals and visitors back to the downtown.

Portland’s vibrant downtown is enhanced by its proximity to regional assets, ranging from local foods and wines that are featured on the menus of downtown restaurants to access to hiking trails and other outdoor recreational activities. The relative abundance of open space and farmland surrounding the City is made possible, in part, by the fact that people want to live in the downtown; as a result, suburban sprawl has not eaten away at these resources.

Downtown revitalization and open space protection go hand-in-hand in Portland, as in so many other cities and towns in the United States that have capitalized on their historical development patterns and resources. This two-pronged approach to planning is the model for the Smart Growth movement and the New Urbanism, an urban design movement that seeks to revive the “lost art of placemaking.” As preservationists on Long Island work to revitalize downtowns, they must also work with environmentalists to protect the region’s natural resources, from the vineyards and farms of the North Fork and other remaining open space to waterfronts on both the North and South shores. Now is the time to forge the partnerships that will build livable communities for the 21st century.

[1] Frey, William. “Melting Pot Cities and Suburbs: Racial and Ethnic Change in Metro America in the 2000s” in State of Metropolitan America, No. 31. Brookings Institute: Link

[2] Halbur, Tim. “Not So Fast – Seniors Moving to Cities” in Planetizen. October 6, 2009: Link

[3] Lux, Kelly. “Adaptive reuse applied in renovation of Portland’s White Stage Block” University of Oregon, Office of Sustainability, November 30, 2010: Link

[4] Perrin, Natalie K. untitled article in The Public Historian, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Fall 2010), pp. 124-128.