Joe Baur: Smart Cities Will Advance Sustainable Development


​But after nearly 60 years of abandonment and sprawl, many American cities are left wondering where to begin. The beginning is in adaptive reuse.

Adaptive Reuse

Buildings and a city’s infrastructure frequently outlive their original purpose. Adaptive reuse is the idea of adapting these key ingredients of the urban paradigm to benefit the needs of modern society.

What are our needs? Efficiency and sustainability.

Reusing old buildings makes better use of existing infrastructure and encourages populations, such as millennials and empty nesters, to relocate to the urban core where walking or cycling to a work is more convenient (and enjoyable) than driving a car. This allows cities and regions to maintain a closed loop of efficiency when it comes to providing services, such as water, waste and energy, rather than extending the network to the fringes of civilization.

Over the latter half of the 20th Century, American cities followed an unsustainable model of abandoning the urban core to develop previously untouched rural areas by expanding a costly road network we can no longer afford to maintain. The result has been low-density sprawl and environmental decline fed by the exhaust coming out of our tailpipes.

Thankfully businesses and the powers that be are beginning to the see the economic and societal opportunities by reinvesting in the existing framework of cities. Smart cities, like Boston and Portland, are getting the most out of their buildings and their city services. Perhaps even more telling is the application and success of adaptive reuse in resource-drained Rust Belt cities, such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where the smart city methodology is needed most.

Win, Win

Pittsburgh has suffered from strained resources thanks to decades of population loss and sprawl just as much as any of its industrial cousins. That is why it is imperative for the Steel City to focus investment on its existing assets in order to capitalize on the trend of Americans migrating to vibrant, sustainable urban cores. Luckily, Pittsburgh is already on board with adaptive reuse.

Take South Hills High School, for example. The school opened in 1917 and closed in 1986, sitting empty for more than 20 years with only minor improvements given throughout that time to keep the structure stable.

Finally, in 2006, a developer purchased the building from Pittsburgh Public Schools and it has been reborn as the South Hills Retirement Residence. The 106-unit housing complex received LEED Gold certification by investing in solar panels that account for 70 percent of the building’s energy needs. It’s a win for investors and a win for the new residents of Pittsburgh’s South Hills community.

Conclusion and Other Needs

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet in solving our sustainable development needs. Adaptive reuse is arguably the first step.  The next step is naturally getting people to and from those buildings through multimodal transportation initiatives that account for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation.

The current American strategy of unfunded mandates for a bankrupt highway system is clearly the enemy of sustainable transportation. With strained budgets, we need to invest intelligently in infrastructure that returns on investment, like Cleveland’s HealthLine or Portland’s streetcar. Using the same methodology behind adaptive reuse, these infrastructure investments should go along existing corridors where redevelopment is already occurring.

A smart city is a city that makes sense. There’s nothing logical about spaghetti streets feeding into lifeless cul-de-sacs 20 miles outside of the urban core. They contribute to dwindling resources that lead to poor city services.

What makes perfectly good sense is adaptive reuse of existing buildings and infrastructure. And the smart cities that advance sustainable development practices will be the most successful cities of the 21st Century.

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