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Good ol’ Buildings Sometimes Better Than New Ones: Reconsidering Our Urban Design

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Market Street, San Francisco, CA, circa 1900Cities are always evolving, often out with the old and in with the new. Some old things are restored, while others are razed and make way for highways with increased traffic capacity, or high-rise office buildings. This seems to be the way of progress in urban design, but what happens when disaster strikes?

September 11, 2001 gave New Yorkers a hard lesson in building safety. Thousands, who could not escape the building, perished in the collapse. The “Frankenstorm,” Hurricane Sandy, just hit the Tri-State Region, leaving millions without power. Without power, light, heat, elevators, and water pumps all cease to function.

Climate change scientists are telling us that conditions will only worsen, and what happens to cities when the power goes out and the fuel lines run dry? Alex Wilson, in his series on Resilient Design, notes, “I believe that our single most important priority is to ensure that our dwellings will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel.”

New buildings, according to Wilson, rely on too much artificial lighting, ventilation, lifting, and heating. When power runs out, these things cease to function. Older buildings rely on better insulation and natural ventilation. In case of a power outage, it is much easier to walk down four flights of stairs instead of forty. Natural light in smaller buildings can be achieved by simply opening a window.

Older neighborhood design is also more resilient. Stores are within walking distance, unlike suburbs where the nearest market could be miles away. Buildings break up wind instead of accelerating it. Even in power outages, gravity-fed water systems still function.

Urban design is going to have adapt to the worsening conditions the future seems to be presenting. If planners go back to before the Industrial Age in terms of size and placement of buildings and infrastructure, then there won’t be so many losses when disaster strikes.

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