You may have heard of, seen, or even lived near an innovation district already. These carefully designed urban neighborhoods are meant to create equitable, livable, sustainable, and yes, innovative city districts. But, is it possible to do so without worsening gentrification? Below we answer: what is an innovation district and how can they change our cities for the better?

What is an Innovation District?

An innovation district is an urban landscape that has an intentional concentration of medical and research institutions, start-ups, and businesses. These areas are essentially neighborhoods or districts designed to enhance entrepreneurship, provide high paying jobs and stimulate economic growth. Typically, the goal of such districts is to convert economically under-performing neighborhoods into hubs of innovation. Institutions work with start-ups, city planners, and venture capitalists to build and develop these districts.

Elements of an Innovation District

Affiliated with a Research University

Innovation districts are typically connected to what is referred to as an “anchor institution.” Anchor institutions are essentially prominent research institutions in the area of the innovation district that invest in the neighborhood. Anchor institutions provide a variety of resources for innovation districts including ideal real estate, helping businesses with start-up costs, recruiting and training talent (they are universities after all!), and helping sustain the district for the long haul. 

Mixed-use Neighborhoods

A hallmark of a successful innovation district is their utilization of mixed-use spaces. Because innovation districts aim to appeal to professionals, they want to provide spaces that blend work, leisure, and living. That’s why it’s essential for them to use designers, architects, and city planners to design a functional district. Some examples of mixed-use spaces include a blend of parks, retail spaces, offices, and restaurants all within walking distance or easily accessible by public transportation. 

Repurposed land or structures

Often, innovation districts find ideal homes in areas where large buildings or warehouses are vacant or abandoned. The goal is to find urban spaces with room for development that are close to major downtown areas. 

These districts have done a lot of good for cities

Following the 2008 financial crisis, communities began to question the insular nature of the large research universities in their areas. In an effort to address these concerns and engage with the community, research universities began to plan entrepreneurially-minded districts that aimed to revitalize and strengthen the economy. Since then, these innovation districts have done a lot of good for the communities they serve:

For example, in Atlanta, the innovation district known as “Tech Square,” has successfully increased business diversity in the area, and stimulated the local economy. The research institution behind Tech Square, Georgia tech, has even recruited giants like AT&T, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, Delta and Home Depot to have innovation centers in the area. Besides big corporations, Tech Square has welcomed many retailers like Starbucks, T-Mobile, and Moe’s Southwest Grill and along with them, many new jobs. 

Many innovation districts also have “opportunity zones” within them. Opportunity zones are areas designated to have strategic tax cuts and incentives for developers. These zones, first created after the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, aim to “help finance initiatives in communities struggling with decline and disinvestment” and support job creation and small businesses. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many innovation districts worked with research institutions and pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna (which both have operations in innovation districts) to develop and distribute vaccines and life-saving treatments. 

Innovation districts are often environmentally friendly. With a focus on sustainability, many innovation districts use innovative sustainable design in their neighborhoods. This green infrastructure includes large green spaces, pedestrian and bike friendly paths, public transportation, and green construction principles like energy efficiency technology and sustainable materials. Some green innovation districts include Oslo Science City and the EcoInnovation District in Pittsburgh.

Innovation District do not come without problems

Despite all of the good these districts have done, they do have some potential problems that deserve attention. Innovation districts by design attract talented, highly educated, and ambitious young professionals. This in turn creates the incentive for new businesses to open up and job opportunities to blossom for the community. However, this does have the potential to put pressure on lower and middle income families who have lived in the area for a long time. Higher demand for housing may increase prices and force residents out, and not every resident will be qualified for one of the new jobs in the district.

In fact, we already have some data that shows that innovation districts don’t always better the communities they aim to. From 2004 to 2014, in Philadelphia’s innovation district, University City-Center, the number of jobs rose by 20 percent. “However, poverty rates in the three West Philadelphia zip codes that include and surround the innovation district average nearly 40 percent, and median incomes are below $20,000.” And these poverty rates continue to rise. This means that while the innovation district is not necessarily causing gentrification, it also isn’t yet helping the economic condition of neighboring residents. This is unfortunate because the goals for these districts is to stimulate the economy and reduce poverty. 

What can be done about it? 

Despite these potential problems, there are ways to create more equitable innovation districts. According to the Times Higher Education, universities should develop community minded solutions like engagement and collaboration initiatives to involve the local community as well as fund affordable housing, education, and training opportunities in the surrounding neighborhoods. Brookings Institution similarly suggests enhancing infrastructure and transportation to help locals commute to innovation districts as well as training pipelines for community members to secure high paying jobs within the districts. 

With mindfulness and community engagement, research universities and Innovation Districts have the power to grow and revitalize economically underperforming communities while preventing gentrification and creating new opportunities for locals. 


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