Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The 21st-Century Take on Citywide Transformation

June 12, 2014
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The 21st-Century Take on Citywide Transformation
Joseph via Flickr Creative Commons
Here's how innovation districts sprout in places Boston and Baltimore.

As we grow increasingly Facebook-connected, Twitter-obsessed, and otherwise socially networked, a funny thing is happening in our cities: They, too, are seeing the benefits of becoming more connected, networked, and social themselves.

Case in point: Cities are ditching old approaches to economic development — which tended to involve building a sports stadium and sprinkling some housing and retail space around it — in favor of making room for new “innovation districts” that layer some combination of startups, major firms, research universities, housing, and plenty of coffee shops.

One of the most important aspects of these districts? They’re walkable — allowing for happy collisions among creative types that spark new ideas.

As the National League of Cities (NLC) blog explains, innovation districts are emerging around the world — with recent sightings in Baltimore, Barcelona, Pittsburgh, Portland San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, St. Louis, and Toronto.

But Boston may provide the most archetypal example. Over the past four years, 1,000 acres along the rundown South Boston Waterfront have been transformed into what the NLC blog calls “a unique live-work-play innovation community.” The new hub has drawn 200 companies and over 4,000 jobs. Many of those jobs (30 percent) are in the tech space, but not all: Another 21 percent are in advertising and design, and 16 percent represent green technology and life sciences.

Other cities are taking note. The Michigan Municipal League, for one, is taking a close look at innovation districts around the world to isolate best practices. As cities around the world continue to share their innovation-district successes and missteps, this is an area where we can definitively say that over-sharing would only be a good thing.

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