Density is an Historic Resource

mpls people street scene 40s

Typical historic street in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

Lately I’ve been thinking about historic preservation.

Though it may be overblown, Saint Paul and Minneapolis seem to be full of fights between “urbanists” and “preservationists” over the future of our cities. Examples include the ongoing spats over an historic but run-down house in Uptownold single-story buildings in Dinkytown, or the width of sidewalks in Lowertown. In each of these cases, urbanists and preservationists have ended up calling each other names, rolling their eyes, and holding all-night vigils and/or emergency strategy meetings. With so much emotion on display, something must be going on.

The problem irks me because the urban design and historic preservation communities have so much in common. Both groups of people share a deep-seeded sense of history. Both share an anger about the destructive renewal policies of the 50s and 60s that leveled our cities in the name of progress. Both groups love looking back at old pictures of our cities, going on history tours, and thinking about architecture. But somewhere on the way to the present, the two groups diverge. Preservationists and urbanists seem to lack a common language for thinking about the value of cities. Why is that?

gateway 1962 c


The Conservation Frame

Here’s one problem. Many historic preservation narratives adopt a “conservation frame” that reminds me of stories about endangered species. The call to “preserve our historic resources” rhymes with stories of environmentalists chaining themselves to old-growth firs. Meanwhile, in this story developers and their urbanist henchmen assume the role of the diabolical loggers, menacing the forest with a chainsaw and a bulldozer.

earth first forests

What it feels like.

By calling old buildings “historic resources”, preservationists transform cities into a zero-sum game. You must choose between conservation and waste. You either have stasis or destruction. History becomes precious,  like oil or pandas, and cities are always in danger. Once we lose them, they’re gone forever.

(Thus, the all-night vigils, name calling, and histrionics.)

My problem with the “conservation narrative” is that cities are far more than buildings. Cities are the name for how our built environment shapes our lives. Cities are the shared spaces through where we make meaning. Cities are the common ground on which we understand each other. Cities are the everyday interactions that make up a street. In short, cities are people. You cannot reduce cities to piles of bricks, glass, and concrete without thinking about the dynamic social relationships that surround and fill them. Much more is at stake.

The Resource Fallacy

Maybe that’s one difference between preservationists and urbanists. When I look back at old photographs of Minneapolis or Saint Paul, I don’t focus on the amazing architecture. I’m too entranced by the people.

stp wabasha st 1905

Wabasha Street in Saint Paul c. 1905.

Sure it’s riveting to see the old Metropolitan building or the Great Northern depot. I am amazed by the detailed signage, the intricate cornices, and the complex layers of shops, factories, and homes.

But in these old photographs, I can’t take my eyes off the crowds of people on the sidewalk. Imagine the pace of traffic in an old street! I dream about the variety of people who might fill an old downtown: young children, women in fancy dresses, men in hats, bums in the alley, workers everywhere carrying all kinds of things, vendors pushing carts, shop keepers minding the foyer, and a dozen different languages floating through the air. (Also, horrible pollution.) Historically, our cities were rich not just in high-quality architecture, but in high-quality density.

And to me, you cannot separate the our buildings from the social life of our cities. Minneapolis and Saint Paul will never have detailed buildings with copious doorways, windows on the street, and elaborate brickwork without sidewalks full of people to notice and use them. Our historic buildings come from an era when our cities were far denser than they are today. It is not enough to preserve buildings simply because they’re beautiful or historic or architecturally significant. We must revive them and bring them back to life. Otherwise, our cities will be little more than building museums.

st paul parade 1924

A parade in Saint Paul in the 20s.

minneapolis population growth

Charts are more sophisticated in French.

Historic Density Demands Compromise

And that’s one crux of the problem. To my mind, density is an historic resource. To bring our cities back to their historic densities, we need to make difficult decisions. Is the historic value of an old house, or a sidewalk, or a 1920s commercial storefront worth more than the historic value of street life and density? How do we make that decision?

There are no easy answers. The future of our cities is not black-and-white. Change is neither always good nor always bad. Buildings aren’t panda bears or redwood trees. They are places where people live, and each situation demands careful debate.  We must weigh the value of our existing spaces against our visions for the future. I know historic buildings are very valuable, and shouldn’t be tossed aside lightly. But so too is the kind of density that fostered those buildings in the first place. Re-creating density deserves to be part of the discussion.

gateway park 1924

Lots of people between Hennepin and Nicollet.

45 thoughts on “Density is an Historic Resource

  1. Jeff Klein

    The way I end up interpreting this is that the buildings worth preserving are the ones that also have good urbanism. I don’t mind seeing an old house replaced with a modern, mixed-use building that increases density, but it’s sad to see lovely old buildings torn down to replace them with something that’s no different in terms of use and number of stories.

    This, by the way, is an ongoing discussion on the ubiquitously ignored West Broadway, where developers are attempting to rid the street of rather excellent old 2-4 story buildings rather than build on empty lots a block away, or better yet, tear out the disgusting strip malls. That is the kind of preservation I can get behind.

  2. Kasia McMahonKasia

    I think it was Sartre who said, “Hell is other people.” Even the most extroverted people probably cringe at the idea of living in a place like Mumbai (23K people per sqkm).The only thing that makes density bearable is a sense of community (after clean drinking water of course). Historic preservation is not about keeping the buildings with “pretty cornices,” its about protecting the places that tell the stories of our past. Its about keeping the history of a city alive and nourishing the bonds of a community. Without community, a dense urban area is nothing but a factory farm.

    1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

      You might cringe at living in Mumbai because that city has some of the strictest building and zoning restrictions in world. India’s rural poor, on the other hand, flock to Mumbai because it represents opportunity. Poverty is bad in Mumbai, I’ve visited it myself and I can attest to that, but it pales in comparison to the desperate and hopeless conditions of the Indian countryside. If Mumbai worked harder to lift bureaucratic restrictions and build housing, then the breakneck entrepreneurship and innovation taking place in the slums could spread and create a thriving middle-class that lifts itself out of poverty and enlivens the entire city as well.

      Aside from that aside, I think Bill was pretty clear in his article that it’s always a hard trade-off when it comes to demolishing an existing building. Only the most bone-headed urbanist wouldn’t agree. No one on this site is advocating for Hong Kong style housing blocks.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Density at those levels can be done while being incredibly desirable to first-world inhabitants as well (ie non-cringe worthy). Paris’ net density per sqkm is right at the levels of Mumbai. I’ve never been to the latter so I’ll defer to Michael’s expertise, but he raises good points on the fortunes and standard of living found in densifying cities relative to their rural counterparts. (as another aside, Paris could really stand some more housing per sqkm to alleviate some of the highest housing prices in the modern world, as long as it remains as wonderful a pedestrian experience as it is today).

        I appreciate the ability to stroll the streets and see history, stories, etc courtesy of the built environment. But I also appreciate modern tools for documenting these structures if they do give way to higher intensities, and new stories of the evolution of our cities – we must remember that many structures we cherish today also replaced older ones. Our existing built form isn’t the only story to tell.

      2. Kasia McMahonKasia

        My point was only that historic preservation is more than an academic pursuit (collecting artifacts). There are real impacts to preserving historic places for the city–beyond the aesthetic. Buildings are preserved because of the stories that they tell and because they link us to the past and to other people in a very real way.

        Population density, on the other hand, is a statistic that only correlates with good urban design ( Sometimes density is the product of a well designed city, but as you point out, in the case of Mumbai, it could also be the product of extreme economic pressure. I don’t see why “creating density deserves to be part of the discussion” when considering the value of an historic property. Density is a statistic that MAY indicate positive design but I don’t think it is a compass for making design decisions (as in, Will this action produce more or less density? If yes, good. If no, bad.)

        Most serious preservationists also don’t use simple metrics to make decisions (old=good, new=bad). There are, of course, people who do have this knee jerk reaction to change, but lucky for the Urbanists, most preservation efforts fail. Being an historic preservationist is a sad business (my dad happens to be one).

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          This is interesting. I’d love to talk to serious preservationists about how to frame the conversation so that being a historic preservationist doesn’t have to be a sad business.

          I’m reminded of this heartbreaking radio story about Richard Nickel, who gave his live trying to save and document Sullivan buildings in Chicago (

          Is this the only model for the preservation profession? Or if we think about density as part of the historic landscape that we’re attempting to preserve and restore, can preservationists lead happier lives that aren’t always about loss, but are also about planting the seeds for a re-vitalized urban landscape? Isn’t that a historic goal, too? Don’t streets and cities full of people create new stories for us to tell? Aren’t old buildings that much more valuable if they’re appreciated every day by the people that live in and use them (and not just by historians and architecture tour guides, such as myself)?

          That’s why I want to move past the ‘conserving resources’ frame and towards another way of thinking about historic preservation that includes the (historic) vitality being continually re-made everyday on the streets.

          Can we think of pedestrians as “historic re-enactors”? If a building is preserved in a city, but nobody is there to live in it, does it make a sound? Are there any limits to the “stories” that buildings can tell? Can they keep writing new ones?

          1. Kasia McMahonKasia

            I found this commentary in the NYTimes (, its a bit old, but it has helped me understand why you might see the frame of historic preservation as a limited one. I think I probably agree with you on that point. Historic preservation IS a limited frame of city planning. The author of the NYT commentary makes the observation that because US cities have so little control over the design of development, historic preservation has morphed into this greater role. Here’s a good quote from the article:

            “Preservation morphed into a four-headed monster: a planning tool, a design review tool, a development tool and a tool to preserve genuinely valuable old neighborhoods and buildings. Today decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what and what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.

            Worse, these decisions are mostly left to the whims of overly empowered preservation boards, staffed by amateurs casting their nets too widely and indiscriminately. And too many buildings are preserved not because of their historic value or aesthetic significance, but because of political or economic deal-making.

            Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.”

            1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

              I like the idea of more design review. Or maybe not another review step, but having the review done in advance through design guidelines, form based codes, etc. West 7th St area did an excellent plan like this that will likely make sure that new development is thoughtful and respectful of the existing historic neighborhood, IMO. That helps to reduce for demolishing old bldgs by making sure developers know they’ll have to build high quality replacements.

              Also granny flats (ADUs) seem to increase density w/out impacting existing buildings. That’s a win-win for preservation and urban density.

            2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

              PS That Times piece is a really useful link. “Preservation” is being asked to do too much, and doesn’t really have the tools and concepts for accomplishing such diverse goals. I think that fits with my general sentiment here, too.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I’m not sure I agree with you here, Kasia. One problem I have is that “community” is not a universal concept. One person’s sense of community might be someone else’s Sartre-ian hell. (E.g. a frat house is a great community, but I wouldn’t like it. Same holds true for an old folks home.) Lots of places have community. Prisons have community. Dense urban areas have community. Soviet-era housing blocks in Prague have community. Bro-tastic new developments in Uptown have community. Hell, even Shakopee has community. These just might not be the kinds of community that you or I enjoy…

      So I try to be more precise when using words like “community” or “character” of a neighborhood. Whose community? What kind of character?

    3. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

      Density also typically comes with more job opportunities and possibilities for creativity and for entrepreneurship and more variety in restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, and entertainment, and the freedom to walk, bike, or take public transit to these options much more easily. It’s more than a “sense of community” and clean drinking water that make dense cities “bearable.” It’s more amenities and cultural attractions closer to where you live. To me, it makes density not just bearable, but preferable. Of course, everyone has their own preference, but perhaps the difference is density flourishes in relatively few areas and takes time and the cooperation of a large community to develop, whereas low density sprawl spreads like weeds and needs little more than a collector road and a building permit to take root.

      1. Cadillac Kolstad

        Much of the “density” being added in minneapolis is destroying jobs and small businesses by eliminating buildings suited to their functions, with large apt blocks oriented around commuting and very limited and expensive mixed use facilities that do not accommodate our needs.
        Density advocates SHOULD take this into consideration.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          While I’m not sure if Cadillac’s point would hold up under scrutiny, the question he’s asking is important to me. How do various building types, and various building ages, create the economic conditions that lead to diversity? (Diversity of class positions, land uses, retail opportunities, ways of life, etc.)

          Jane Jacobs’ famously argued about “the need for old buildings” not an esthetic or historic grounds, but because these buildings were incubators for opportunity in cities. Run-down older buildings offer space for small businesses and diversity. I really like that logic, but it only works as long as old buildings remain affordable.

          1. Peter

            I think part of what keeps older buildings affordable is new buildings. If all that exists in an area is older buildings with weird floorplans, the “chains” (those evil chains!) will be able to come in and outbid a local business for the space. If there’s some new more expensive space as well as older harder to use space, everybody wins. The businesses flush with cash have nice big spaces that they can easily adapt to their use, and the small businesses have the weird little spaces that are affordable.

            It can hard to be for “incremental urbanism” in an area that’s been frozen for so long, but in reality, these commercial nodes weren’t frozen 50 years ago. They were constantly changing, providing new space for those that could afford it, lessening demand on older less desirable spaces.

  3. Claire VanderEykClaire

    This is excellent, thank you for writing it. I will be graduating with my Master’s in Historic Preservation this spring and also consider myself an urbanist, so I am very familiar with this tension. Discussions between urbanists and preservationist are all too often hostile and when people come into the conversation defensive, I just don’t see how a collaborative solution can be obtained. That’s a major problem, in my opinion. There is too much time spent focusing on each group’s divergent goals, and not enough talk about their shared aspirations for our cities. Also, there are many preservationist who do not oppose new construction (namely, me), but want the loss of existing buildings to be weighed heavily against any possible gain the new building might offer. I think collaboration is key, instead of arguing we should be working together to find the best way for our cities grow in a thoughtful, prosperous manner. I have a problem with the word “historic” I think that it is a very loaded word that evokes different meanings to different people – I don’t think the answer is to designate every old building as a historic resource, but instead try our best to find creative new uses for buildings that have outlived their original purpose. The bottom line is, like you say, we, as citizens, just want fun, interesting and diverse places to work, live and enjoy – we’re not going to create those places by constantly arguing with each other about the way to accomplish it.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Claire: I love what you say here, except the very end. We ARE going to create these spaces by arguing with each other about how to accomplish it. Well maybe not “arguging,” but certainly “discussing” and “debating.” I’d love to talk more with you about collaboration between fostering density and valuing preservation.

      1. Claire VanderEykClaire

        Indeed, debate is necessary (and inevitable) because there are, of course, many different viewpoints on the topic of proper urban growth. But, I see arguing as unproductive, where people are talking “at” each other rather than “with” one another. This is actually the topic I’ve framed my Master’s theiss around, using Lyn-Lake as a case study.

          1. Claire VanderEykClaire

            What’s your email address? I’d live to send it to you! I’m looking to get as much feedback as possible before I get it bound and sent to the school! 🙂

  4. brad

    The comparison with environmental issues is really interesting. Makes me think of the shift in forest management policy where all fires used to be immediately suppressed, but now some fires are allowed to continue, as it’s understood that these are necessary from an ecological perspective to maintaining a healthy forest overall.

  5. Cedar

    I think there are also plenty of people like me out there — people who self-describe as both historic preservationists AND urbanists. I don’t believe that every building should or needs to be saved, but I also think there’s plenty of room to add appropriate density within our current framework. Take “granny flats”, for example; we have lots of large backyards in our urban neighborhoods; let’s tear down more of our (non-historic) garages and replace them with small houses or even small duplexes. When we lived in the Bay Area we lived in the back duplex behind an 1890s single family house — an easy way to boost density and add housing options without tearing down buildings.

    I’d also like to see it easier to adapt buildings. Make it easier to convert large single family homes into apartments, for example, or add onto older commercial buildings. We also have a lot of parking lots around; let’s toss out parking minimums and convert some of the many surface lots in our city into housing for people.

    In any case, I don’t think we should allow ourselves to divide into artificial “urbanist” versus “preservationist” camps, as it’s possible to be both — or, for that matter, neither.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I love where you’re going here. How can we achieve density without destroying old buildings? That’s the question we should focus on. Granny flats (ADUs) are a great way to accomplish this goal.

  6. Cordelia Pierson

    Growth with preservation is the consistent message and goal of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association for our whole neighborhood, including Dinkytown.

    Embracing growth means saying no to tearing down buildings that create a sense of place, and asking for growth – new development – in surrounding blocks, with clear design guidelines.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Marcy Holmes has more of a sense of place than it ever did, precisely because of all the new residents.

    2. Adam MillerAdam

      How do you tell a building that creates a sense of place from one that doesn’t? Or do all building create a sense of place and thus all buildings must be preserved?

      Do surface parking lots also create a sense of place?

  7. Dave

    I think that a lot of the outrage from the “preservationists” is that, in general, we are tearing down very old buildings–buildings with character–and replacing them with buildings that we know will never get to be very old. (What I am about to say is a matter of opinion). We used to build brick buildings that could very easily stand for hundreds of years. On top of that, normal people today couldn’t look at those buildings and ID the decade in which they were built. All we are doing today (in Dinkytown certainly) is building trendy buildings, as cheaply as possible, that look great today but will be out of style in twenty years and probably torn down in fifty. Overall, I still think it’s worth it, but I wish that the city and developers could work to create worthy buildings, that we will want to have around well into the future.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Maybe I’m not “normal people,” but I often think I can guess roughly when a building was built based on its style. Were the Art Deco of the 30s and 40s “trendy” and did they look out of style in twenty years? Were the nearly uniform brick apartment blocks from the war years “trendy” and do they look outdated?

      Granted, I’m rather down on the Brutalism of the 60s and 70s, but I’m not sure that matters of taste are a great guide to deciding what to build or preserve.

      Around DC there is a lot of housing that was thrown up in a rush during WWII. I suspect people thought it wouldn’t last year long either. But it’s still there, and some of it is beautiful. Heck, you can see the city’s post-Civil War growth spurt in it’s architecture too. I wonder if people wondered whether it was sustainable at the time? Which is to say that we all need to be careful when we look into our crystal balls.

    2. Peter

      Everything looks out of style 20-30 years after it was built, and then slowly becomes old enough to look good again. A lot of the 2 story brick buildings we love so much were built the way they were because it was cheap to do so. And then in the 50s we decided those brick buildings should be torn down (and we tore down a lot of them).

      I don’t think you can look at any particular point in time and say “buildings of this era always have been and always will be loved.” And for that reason I find it really hard to be able to say definitively that architecture now will not “hold up” as well as some older buildings will. I think there are building forms (setbacks, how a building adresses the street, even height, etc) that are universal, and we should make sure that new buildings, whatever their facade may look like, follow a quality form.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        Yeah, that’s pretty much my take too. I care most about how a building meets the street, or as Jan Gehl put is, I care about the “spaces between buildings.”

        After that, aesthetic and formal debates might be fun architectural fodder, but shouldn’t be overly constrained. We can argue about it, and I might have opinions, but aesthetics are really secondary to me.

  8. Cadillac Kolstad

    I agree with the concept that Density is a Historic Resource, I would put out there that anything built before about 1960 in minneapolis is a remnant from a time when we had 25% higher density.
    I think the most important point is what Bill said in the comments

    “How can we achieve density without destroying old buildings? That’s the question we should focus on. Granny flats (ADUs) are a great way to accomplish this goal.”

    Yes!! Also we should be pushing for higher density than we are getting in new development to take pressure of of historic properties, and the unbuilt environment. Many of the projects going up should be taller and have a higher build standard. Most are built as cheaply as possible to maximize profits.

    If its really about changing the city and not just supporting big developers then please, I would like to see this well organized machine push the city for better density standards across the board. Support changes that.
    -Eliminate rules that arbitrarily limit who can live together
    -Legalize granny flats (ADU’s)
    -Allow artist to live in their studios (get rid of the strict definition of what is residential)
    -Encourage conversions of attic and basements to dwelling space.
    -Make it easier and less expensive to get a rental license.
    -Allow more diverse mixed land use to allow more variety in all areas.

    These are all historic practices that lead to higher density.

    I really struggle with understanding what gives someone the credential to call themselves a “new urbanist”. Reading about new urbanism, and reading comments from people who claim that philosophy on and elsewhere I see a big disconnect. Usually the preservationists are much closer to the “New Urbanist” basic principles.

    The sense of place stuff is also New urbanist language.

    From New urbanism. org
    “promotes the creation and RESTORATION of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities”

    From the Congress for New Urbanism, founded in 1993. foundational text. The Charter of the New Urbanism,
    “urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate LOCAL HISTORY, climate, ecology, and building practice.”

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I love this, Cadillac. I think the vast majority of my friends at this site would get behind your platform. It seems like a huge piece of common ground that we should endorse, and if we do, I hope it could diffuse much of the tension between preservation and density,

      1. Cadillac Kolstad

        Thanks Bill!
        I think there is a lot of common ground. I find it unfortunate that the conversation gets framed the way it does. I would like to see better analysis of the big picture of density in minneapolis and what options there are for adding housing. It is also important to note that the constraint on housing supply has a lot of complex factors. There is a shortage of licensed rental housing not a shortage of available housing. there is housing kept off the market by the city through various means that are creating artificial scarcity.
        Also I notice the tone of many of the self proclaimed new urbanists online and its not conducive to having a conversation. Many of the points made blatantly contradict core principles of new urbanism.

        We need more than just housing to have a vibrant urban core.

  9. Jon Jackola

    I love this article, well done Bill and thank you for writing it. My majors at the U 13 years ago were History and Urban Geography and I always seem to find myself in the middle of these two worlds of being an urbanist or a preservationist. I adore great architecture and beautiful buidings, but can not stand when there is no wiggle room from many preservationists to adapt the old to fit the new.

    Even on an issues of should there be trees in the North Loop, Warehouse district or Mill district now, because there where none when those neighborhoods were initially formed and were in use as industrial areas. In my opinion that is nonsense. The history and buildings and stories of those areas need to be preserved, with the flexibility to transform them into modern day usages and the lifestyles of today’s residents.

    I love your quote, “We must revive them and bring them back to life. Otherwise, our cities will be little more than building museums.” To me that is spot on!

    Also I know you and some others will cringe at this comment, but I am one who thinks density can co-exist in skyways and on streets depending on season in a State like this. Working and living downtown for 10 years I see you can get some great density and vibrancy in both areas if done properly. There is not much vibrancy or social interaction when everyone is in snomobile suits and ski masks during a January lunchhour. That being said, if the Metropolitan building was still standing today and someone stuck a skyway into it, I would be the first to scream foul!

  10. Ben

    so does that mean you are against Historic neighborhoods or what is your take on that?

    This is out my front door Sandy Utah. Notice that gutter? Thats about the only thing historic in this picture. I am not really sure why keeping this gutter is all that.

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