Flickr/Dougtone

An ambitious plan in Providence utilizes Brown's medical and science campuses.

Confronted with slack economies and urgent about economic renewal, cities and regions in the United States and abroad are creating diverse new redevelopment zones to build on the strengths of anchor institutions (universities, medical complexes, and corporate headquarters) through a combination of urban design strategies, innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives, and business incubators. 

In Providence, Rhode Island, the idea of an “innovation district” is the basis of its own regeneration effort with the relocation of Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School to an emerging 360-acre Knowledge District in the city’s relatively drab Jewelry District.  Here, a fusion of industry cluster, pro-entrepreneurship, and place-making strategies is working to build an urban innovation economy one firm and one block at a time.

The genesis of the Providence district was both deliberative and opportunistic.

Back in 2007, local leaders and organizations, including the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, began to converge around an effort to create a strategy to improve Providence’s economic future. 

"The luster of the city’s so-called Renaissance in the 1990s, which focused on the arts as a means of revitalizing, was losing steam," wrote the New York Times’ Elizabeth Abbott, and so it was time to reboot. Soon the region was coalescing around a strategy prepared by Richard Seline’s New Economy Strategies urging the Providence area to expand its knowledge economy by capitalizing on its enviable knowledge assets.

The resulting blueprint called for the fostering of “eds and meds” economic activity and entrepreneurship. Revamping a flagging industrial quarter with a lot of underutilized factory and office space as well as vacant land became part of the strategy.

So that was the plan. But then spontaneous developments occurred. Within a year or so, Brown University realized that its College Hill campus overlooking downtown lacked room for a new $45 million medical school and decided to consider locations elsewhere in the city. Soon the decision was made to move the school to the nascent 360-acre Knowledge District - specifically, into a converted, four-story, 134,000-foot factory building.

More recently, as the medical school prepared to open in August, additional innovation-related concerns began to congregate. This past summer, the toymaker Hasbro (based in nearby Pawtucket) committed to create nearly 300 new full-time jobs in exchange for a $1.6 million sales tax exemption, perceiving that the young talent it needed to staff its gaming division preferred an attractive urban environment. Likewise, 38 Studios (a video game company started by former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling) also committed to move into existing buildings in the Knowledge District and create 450 jobs, aided by a controversial $75 million loan guarantee

State economic development officials say they hope to establish a cluster of video-game-related businesses in the Providence knowledge area, working with potential partners such as the Rhode Island School of Design and Hasbro.

The medical school has brought some 400 students and 50 faculty members to the Knowledge District along with a 16-room “clinical simulation suite” with practice exam rooms and a cafe on the first floor. It's also served as a catalyst for the delivery of streetscape improvements and vest-pocket parks. 

The Greater Providence Chamber has been further stirring the pot by dispensing, through its Innovation Providence Implementation Council, small grants to companies, higher education, hospitals, industry trade associations and non-profit organizations to support technology-based innovation and entrepreneurship.

Through such smaller-scale fire-starting, local leaders hope to supplement investments in large anchors with "small change" seed grants to help spark organic "knowledge economy" activity in the areas of health care, technology, R&D, alternative energy and workforce development.

Innovation districts represent an important fusion of regional innovation cluster theory, entrepreneurship strategy, and walkable urbanism. In that sense, zones like Providence’s represent urban economics concentrated at the neighborhood scale. It will be intriguing to see how the Jewelry District fares in the coming years as Rhode Island seeks to claw its way out of a deep trough.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dougtone.

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