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The Rise of Innovation Districts


A new complementary urban model is now emerging, giving rise to what we and others are calling “innovation districts.” These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.1 They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.

Innovation districts are the manifestation of mega-trends altering the location preferences of people and firms and, in the process, re-conceiving the very link between economy shaping, place making and social networking.

Our most creative institutions, firms and workers crave proximity so that ideas and knowledge can be transferred more quickly and seamlessly.

Our “open innovation” economy rewards collaboration, transforming how buildings and entire districts are designed and spatially arrayed. Our diverse population demands more and better choices of where to live, work and play, fueling demand for more walkable neighborhoods where housing, jobs and amenities intermix.

Led by an eclectic group of institutions and leaders, innovation districts are emerging in dozens of cities and metropolitan areas in the United States and abroad and already reflect distinctive typologies and levels of formal planning. Globally, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Medellin, Montreal, Seoul, Stockholm and Toronto contain examples of evolving districts. In the United States, districts are emerging near anchor institutions in the downtowns and midtowns of cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cambridge, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Diego. They are developing in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Seattle where underutilized areas (particularly older industrial areas) are being re-imagined and remade. Still others are taking shape in the transformation of traditional exurban science parks like Research Triangle Park in Raleigh-Durham, which are scrambling to keep pace with the preference of their workers and firms for more urbanized, vibrant environments. 

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