Chattanooga supports a burgeoning Innovation District. Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

“Labeling something innovative does not make it so.”

City planners are rightly on guard for fads. Think the festival marketplaces of the 1970s, or naming neighborhoods to sound like New York’s fabled SoHo. This year’s model—the Innovation District—may be next in line for a dose of healthy skepticism.

As an economic development strategy, the basic idea is perfectly sound: Gathering together a critical mass of tech start-ups, incubators, and lab space in one part of town, and paving the way with rezoning, redevelopment, and adaptive re-use. As a city-building exercise, Innovation Districts are generally dense, walkable, bike-friendly, transit-oriented areas with a strong sense of place—all good.

The blending of urban planning and economic development, an age-old art, seems tailor-made for the booming tech, green tech, and health sciences sectors. Millennials want to be in fun, cosmopolitan places with lots of other interesting and creative people around. Cities would be foolish not to step up; it would be like not building docks in the era of ocean liners.

The days of the big company town are long gone, so better to set the stage for businesses to thrive in the 21st century economy. The urban scenario has already become a compelling alternative to the car-dependent, walled-off suburban office park campus model, wrote Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner in the 2014 Brookings publication The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America.

As if on cue, however, came some caution: Harvard professors Jerold Kayden and Ed Glaeser suggested a more evidence-based approach on how Innovation Districts will actually work in a wide range of cities. Others questioned the wisdom of trying to shoehorn economic activity within potentially false boundaries. Katz and Wagner acknowledged some of these bumps in the road with a follow-up in 2015. “Labeling something innovative does not make it so,” they wrote.

As with most other trends in urban planning, economics, and housing these days, an important distinction must be made: Between established cities like New York or San Francisco, and those trying hard to move from fiscal stress to prosperity, such as Detroit or Baltimore.

In booming markets, we see NOIDs—naturally occurring innovation districts. (I wish I could say I made that up, but the acronym has actually been previously invoked.) The basic idea is this: When Twitter moves to Market Street in San Francisco, the planners can go home. Economic activity will propagate on its own.

Similarly, Kendall Square in Cambridge is the site of a kind of cell division and duplication every time a Silicon Valley satellite office opens in whatever real estate is available. Boston’s Seaport, adjacent to the SoHo-esque Fort Point neighborhood—thankfully, the area of old molasses warehouses hasn’t been given a cute moniker—was dubbed the city’s Innovation District as a kind of afterthought. General Electric’s relocation of its headquarters there was an ultimate benediction.

Where things get interesting is in the second-tier cities, the struggling and rebounding Legacy Cities, looking to reinvent themselves after years of disappearing manufacturing bases and relentless population loss. These places are beyond grateful for the jobs, and the tech sector loves them right back. Bargain rents, lower cost of living, and perfectly good quality of life—and the coffee and cocktails can be just as good in Chattanooga as in Cambridge.

But here’s the ultimate question about Innovation Districts: Can every city really have one? Is there enough innovation to go around? In the quest for this latest metropolitan badge of honor—to add to tourist destination, convention mecca, home to a professional sports team—some risk is evident.

Two case studies, presented at the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference in Phoenix earlier this month, are revealing. In St. Louis, some 200 acres once occupied by metalworks, grain elevators, and Ford and Studebaker plants, have been designated the Cortex Innovation Community. The district has drawn in some 163 companies, including a branch of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which began at the aforementioned Kendall Square.

These were no little plans, requiring legislation for blight redevelopment, powers of eminent domain, and the use of sometimes-dicey tax-increment financing (TIF) mechanisms. Much persistence was required to add stops and stations to the Metrolink light-rail line, said St. Louis city planning director Donald Roe at the conference. But the scale presents its own challenges. Presidential campaigns constantly worry about venues for rallies, because even a decent crowd in a large room can look like a paltry turnout. So it is with a vast innovation landscape that is going to require a lot of filling-in.

Along Washington Avenue downtown, meanwhile, start-ups and incubators, such as T-Rex, are occupying rehabilitated garment buildings, one by one.

Columbus, Ohio, was also dreaming big, said planning director Steven Schoeny at the conference. But the physical location of an Innovation District there unfolded in fits and starts, as city leaders sought just the right balance of new and old in existing neighborhoods. The big advantage was the buy-in by Ohio State University, well-positioned as the equivalent anchor institution of MIT.

The topic of Innovation Districts was chosen by more than 30 planners in the Big City Planners Institute, who gather annually under the auspices of APA, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (where I am a fellow). These are the folks on the front lines, so if they seek a deep dive on a subject, it’s a good indication of ubiquity. One can imagine mayors telling staff, “Ah, yes, Innovation Districts—got to get me one.”

“Hear how larger cities take on this issue and succeed,” the APA program for the session promised, but the actual task remained as finicky and glitch-prone as growing orchids. There are some key ingredients, to be sure—land, anchor institutions, meaningful public space. Some care must be taken in branding, as well. The betting seems to be on putting an “X” somewhere in the name.

“People want definitions and rules,” said Scott Andes from Brookings, also part of the APA discussion. But it’s the underlying conditions, he said, that matter most—the qualities and characteristics of the particular garden being tended. Eds and meds are the foundation in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while video-game developers have settled in Chattanooga.

If regenerating cities want to know a failsafe recipe, it’s because the pressure is on. According to Antoine Van Agtmael’s and Fred Bakker’s book The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, the innovation economy is the ticket to ride, from Akron to Albany.  There’s something anxious about those kinds of aspirations. So hurry up, Gary, Youngstown, and Buffalo. We’re eager to hear the story of how the next Facebook was founded on a block of rehabilitated turn-of-the-century factory buildings, and the IPO was celebrated over local craft beers at the impossibly hip bar on the corner.

Top photo: Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com

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