What mobile phone and Flickr activity can tell us about the economic importance of Capitol Hill’s old buildings


character scoreIn booming urban areas like Capitol Hill, older “character” buildings are often valued as historical assets, but some new research shows they should be considered serious economic assets as well.

A study that examined the local economies of Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. suggests older buildings are inextricably liked to thriving independent businesses, younger residents, density, and jobs.

In their report Older, Smaller, Better, researchers at the Capitol Hill-based Preservation Green Lab used a wide range of over 40 metrics and maps to examine the plainly observable, but not so easily quantifiable, connection between older buildings and urban vitality. According to the report:

Older median building age was significantly associated with important neighborhood “vital signs,” ranging from increased cellphone activity on Friday nights; greater numbers of outdoor seating at cafes; greater numbers of businesses, jobs, and creative jobs per commercial square foot; higher percentages of non-chain businesses; and higher Walk Score and Bike Score ratings

“The character and scale of buildings really matter … We saw a greater concentration of businesses, jobs, and creative jobs,” said PGL senior researcher Michael Powe. “Columbia Tower is going to have more businesses and jobs in the aggregate, but these older, smaller buildings punch above their weight class.”

PGL, a initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was launched in 2009 with the help of Capitol Hill’s preservation-minded developer Liz Dunn, who started research on the economic impact of old buildings as a master’s student.

Perhaps the more important takeaway from the study is the finding that smaller, older buildings are strongly correlated with independent businesses. That proves true on Capitol Hill where 96% of the businesses are local, non-chain establishments, the report says:

Non chain bizes

But the researchers also found that developing new buildings in old building neighborhoods was crucial to sustained economic vitality:

The higher performance of areas containing small-scale buildings of mixed vintage suggests that successful districts evolve over time, adding and subtracting buildings incrementally, rather than comprehensively and all at once.

Researchers say their study provides some broad statistical backing for a decades-old theory that older buildings are intrinsically connected to the things we like about cities. It was an idea championed by Jane Jacobs in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which offered a strong rebuke of the post-war urban renewal projects that swept through U.S. cities in the 1950s.

And while old buildings seem to lead to economic vitality, it’s not clear if incorporating only the shells and dimensions of those buildings produce the same results. CHS visited one of the neighborhood’s first preservation incentive-focused developments earlier this week. A neighborhood group Dunn is a big part of will meet next week with the community and city officials to discuss proposed upgrades to the preservation rules. Powe said he’s not convinced that preservation efforts like the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District would necessarily lead to the younger tenants and creative class jobs. Powe said PGL may one day examine how those efforts have panned out.

Paired with the study are over 40 interactive maps that allow for some interesting digging into some exotic metrics, like a block-by-block (technically 200-meter-by-200-meter square) snapshot of average cell phone activity in Seattle at 10pm on Fridays.

Cell activity

According to the map, cell phone activity at 10 PM on Friday’s was greater in Pike/Pine than anywhere else in the city. Powe said neighborhood that have the greatest diversity of new and old buildings actually see the most nighttime mobile phone activity.

Flickr photos

As another metric of human activity and urban vitality, researchers looked at the number of Flickr photos uploaded in 2012 broken down by their 200-meter blocks. The reports says outdoor seating correlates to increased Flickr activity, which could also partially explain the Pike/Pine hotspot. But there has to be something interesting enough to justify taking your camera out of your pocket. In that, it seems, Pike/Pine and its remaining old buildings excel.

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5 thoughts on “What mobile phone and Flickr activity can tell us about the economic importance of Capitol Hill’s old buildings

  1. I hope those who are always complaining about Capitol Hill being taken over by corporate chain stores will take note….the study shows that 96% (!!) of businesses in our neighborhood are “local, non-chain establishments.”

  2. Bryan,

    Thank you for this excellent article.

    The references (especially the “Older, Smaller, Better” report) add depth, data & meaning to the debates surrounding the growth & change on our beloved “Hill” ( makes me proud, too).

    Connie Innis

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