An urban revival: skyscrapers, or historic preservation?

Should cities revive themselves through high-rise skyscrapers or historic preservation of housing stock? Architecture critic Inga Saffron writes that it's complicated.

What kind of built structure really helps a city: mile-high skyscrapers, or historic preservation of that city's past?

Your gut might go with the steel-and-glass choice, but architecture critic Inga Saffron writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the rehabilitation of dilapidated housing can also help a city revive itself -- perhaps even more effectively.

Pitting Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas and Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser against each other in a review of the latter's book Triumph of a City, Saffron says there's a push-pull relationship between the "heritage mafia" and cutting-edge creatives:

More high-rises, [Glaeser] says, translates into greater supply and lower costs. If housing in Philadelphia were as cheap as in Houston, Glaeser suggests, this city would really rock. Smart people would be drawn here because rent was such a bargain, and they would create businesses and jobs that would make Philadelphia wealthy again. If only!

Just look at China, Glaeser insists. They can't erect skyscrapers fast enough. And isn't China booming?

The problem is the darn preservationists won't let American cities behave like Shenzhen. Places like Philadelphia are so irrationally attached to their old, low-rise, inefficient rowhouses that they protect them with a Byzantine web of preservation laws. The occupants of those fine Society Hill houses are effectively keeping prices high for everyone else, forcing people to seek housing and work in less expensive places.

But according to Saffron, they're both wrong. True, cities compete on ideas well thanks to their dense concentrations of diverse people, but the concept is not as simple as mere free-market dynamics. You can achieve density through skyscrapers, but you can also do that with "tightly packed" rowhouses fewer than five stories tall, she writes.

The wild card? Cultural cachet. At least for Philadelphia, revival has been seen in the neighborhoods with its most historic housing stock. Still, "Skyscrapers have their place," Saffron writes, "and Philadelphia could do with a few more."

My take? Pick a strategy and stick with it. Cities such as New York and Chicago shunned their past, for better or worse, to reach to the sky with architectural landmarks. Cities such as Boston and Philadelphia did the opposite, keeping skylines trimmed. But in all of these examples, it was a robust and diverse local economy that lit the fire beneath the housing boom. If you're lacking jobs, the housing choice doesn't much matter.

Changing Skyline: History vs. high-rises: An urban debate [Inquirer]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com