COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Placemaking and the Evolution of Innovation Districts

Nate Storring
Aug 1, 2019
Aug 1, 2019

“The new innovation districts will be more like the market districts of a hundred years ago than the financial district of fifty years ago.”

The sun was settling into a blue haze over La Marina de València, and Ramon Marrades, the marina’s chief strategy officer, was shouting insights about economics and urbanism in my direction over thumping dance music. It had been a long day of sessions at Placemaking Week Europe, and 400 placemakers were letting loose with a potent mix of dancing, networking, and philosophizing.

“The next wave will concentrate commercial activities, like anchored institutions and business incubators,” continues Marrades. “But they’ll also be active and interesting twenty-four-seven, three-hundred-and-sixty-five. They will be attractive to nearby city dwellers, joggers, or kids that need safe places to play. They’ll balance economic centrality and everyday-ness.”

A Placemaking Week isn’t just a conference. It’s part public space activation, part festival, part family reunion. Photo credit: La Marina de València.

La Marina de València, which hosted Europe’s regional edition of Project for Public Spaces’s own upcoming International Placemaking Week, is a different kind of innovation district. While it has the usual mix of universities, startups, incubators, and amenities that can be found in other districts, its history as a major public destination and its dedication to serving the surrounding community set it apart. After multiple white elephant projects and mismanagement left the site’s governing organization in massive debt, Marrades helped lead a new strategic plan to set the Marina on the road to sustainability and accountability through two complementary strategies: lighter, quicker, cheaperplacemaking projects and fostering an innovation community in the buildings on site. In 2018, the Marina attracted over 7.7 million visitors, increased its operating profit by 13 percent (formerly in the negatives before the strategic plan), achieved numerous participatory activations of underused buildings and spaces with nearby residents, and continued to attract and support a hub of biotech, fintech, and hospitality businesses.

But the Marina is just one of over 100 unique innovation districts that a new report by the Global Institute on Innovation Districts estimates have sprung up around the world since 22@ Barcelona first coined the term in 2000. The Institute’s newest report “The Evolution of Innovation Districts” builds upon five years of research on innovation districts led by the Brookings Institution and Project for Public Spaces by examining the challenges and best practices emerging from practitioners of this increasingly popular economic development strategy.

The conversation about placemaking and innovation districts will continue this fall at the 3rd International Placemaking Week in Chattanooga, TN, co-hosted by one of the foremost innovation districts in the United States. Pictured above, a gathering at the city’s Edney Innovation Center. Photo Credit: The Enterprise Center.

Reading through the report, I couldn’t help but think that Marrades has it right. The most successful innovation districts will have a lot in common with the best market districts—lively public places where the economy is made visible, where commercial and social exchange mingle together, and where the barriers to participation are low. Meanwhile, innovation districts that fail to embrace this open-ended physical and social complexity will be left in the dust, bleeding tenants like the many aging office parks around the US today.

To that end, perhaps more than any previous research on innovation districts, this new report recognizes the important role that placemaking must play in the ongoing evolution of innovation districts. However, it also contains some insights that will challenge placemakers to evolve themselves.


The report focuses on three key insights that are driving the evolution of innovation district development today. The first insight, and by far the longest, is that successful districts are using asset-based strategies that weave together economic, social, and physical assets into one integrated approach.

An innovation ecosystem requires economic, physical, and networking assets working in concert. Image Courtesy of the Global Institute on Innovation Districts.

Economic assets are things like businesses, research organizations, and human capital; physical assets are things like buildings, public spaces, and infrastructure; and networking assets are all about relationships between people and organizations. What makes these innovation district strategies unique is the way that they blend all three types of assets together through policies, programs, and places.

For example, a single building may act as a public-facing community hub on the ground floor, with an incubator and coworking space above and private offices above that. By strategically mixing workspace and infrastructure, businesses and supporting organizations, and community-building events and amenities, such a building can provide a ladder of engagement for innovation district newcomers to become regulars, regulars to become entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs to become mentors in the innovation community.

The authors identify five specific strategies that districts are using to strengthen and better connect these assets, and each strategy reaffirms the vital role of placemaking in successful innovation districts.

  1. Successful districts are defining a clear competitive advantage, an economic or technological niche that aligns with that of the broader region.
  2. Successful districts are building up a critical mass of businesses, researchers, workers and entrepreneurs in close proximity to each other. This allows for the walkability, amenities, sociability and knowledge sharing that set innovation districts apart from a suburban campus.
  3. Although districts generally have some kind of economic specialization, the most successful districts invite in adjacent fields, industries, and sectors, too, and foster interdisciplinary convergence. This collaboration is increasingly important for developing emerging technological platforms, like next-generation energy and materials, or tackling complex problems like public health.
  4. Successful districts are developing a strong quality of place. While placemakers may think they know all there is to know about this strategy, the authors emphasize the importance of considering economic assets through this lens. Many economic decisions that a business makes have physical and social consequences, and generally speaking, the bigger the business, the bigger the consequences. Some districts are finding creative ways to balance technical needs like large floor plates or high security with a business’s duty to contribute to the public realm.
  5. Finally, successful districts are orchestrating a “buzzing,” connected community. Notably, the authors identify strategic public programming as the key to this effort. Regular innovation-oriented events can help build both “strong social ties” within an industry and “weak ties” that transcend usual social groups—both vital for spurring innovation. However, the authors also note that districts rarely invest enough in these activities, threatening their sustainability.

Throughout this section, placemaking emerges again and again as a means of connecting people, supporting and concentrating a district’s unique focus, and aligning many diverse stakeholders around a unified vision for the future. However, the integrated, asset-based approach presented in “The Evolution of Innovation Districts” also challenges placemakers to change their mindset in one crucial way: Public space can and should respond to the needs of people as producers, not just as consumers.

CIC Miami advances minority entrepreneurship through space for gathering and working, strong programs, access to capital, and other resources. Photo credit: Alexia Fodere.

As the report reveals, the physical and social assets of a district’s public realm strongly influence whether researchers, workers, and business owners get to know each other or not. Are there public places to meet? Can people easily walk to them and to other workplaces? Are workplaces arranged in a way that brings people together? Are there shared workspaces and equipment? Is the ground floor of the district active and open? Are there places and events that support the district’s economic niche and intentionally encourage people to connect across silos of discipline, industry, and sector?

Likewise, these same physical, programmatic, and social qualities can also dictate whether these employment hubs are open to all and whether they reach out to people who have been historically excluded from their benefits. Is there porous urban design that makes the district feel like a welcoming, public part of the city, rather than exclusive campus? Is there a public space that acts as a “front door” for the district, giving newcomers an enticing and easy place to learn and connect to other people and opportunities? Are there educational programs that introduce young people to the district’s economic niche? Is there a clear ladder of engagement, from newcomer to regular to mentor in the innovation community? Are there policies that encourage major businesses and institutions in the district to hire and buy local, and programs that help locals meet the demand?

Placemakers are uniquely positioned to help answer these questions, however it requires rewiring the common habit of thinking of public space as solely a place of leisure. Public space is also a place of work in many direct and indirect ways. Therefore, just as market vendors must guide the vision, experience, and function of a marketplace, so too must the needs and aspirations of researchers and entrepreneurs, workers and learners shape an innovation district.


For placemakers, the report’s second and third insights are best understood together. The second is something placemakers know all too well: place management matters. A well-governed, well-financed district-wide organization is critical to building and executing a shared vision for the innovation district.

As we have written about before, Philadelphia’s University City District provides a model of next-generation district management, combining placemaking with economic inclusion programs. Credit: Photo credit: Halkin/Mason Photography, courtesy of Drexel University.

Relying on this strong organization, the third insight points out that innovation districts have a unique ability and responsibility to address economic and social inclusion. The fact that these districts are often located adjacent to low-income neighborhoods and dominated by industries with a mixed track record on diversity, equity, and inclusion ironically also makes them the ideal frontline for tackling old problems in new ways, and for expanding opportunity through education, entrepreneurship, local procurement policies, and workforce development.

Taken together, these two insights can be understood as a call to action for place management organizations to address issues of economics and equity head on. Although the field of place management has evolved far beyond the limited and questionable “clean and safe” days of early business improvement districts, many of these organizations are still mostly focused on increasing property values, the zero-sum game of talent attraction, and activation for activation’s sake.

Innovation districts are challenging this paradigm by making the creation of new local jobs and businesses core to their mission, and increasingly, by finding creative ways to grapple with a history of economic exclusion through placemaking, programming, and policy. They also employ models of governance and finance that avoid some of the perverse incentives of the classic business improvement district model by engaging mission-driven anchor institutions over private-sector property owners as the key players. Even for those who do not oversee an innovation district, reading about their approaches to management and inclusion can inspire fresh thinking about what is possible for district management organizations to take on.

Chattanooga's innovation district itself will be the conference venue for the next International Placemaking Week, with most workshops, panels, tours, and more taking place in buildings and public spaces within a five-minute walk of beautiful Miller Plaza, pictured above. Image Credit: Innovation District of Chattanooga.

This October 1-4, Project for Public Spaces’ 3rd International Placemaking Week is coming to one of the foremost American innovation districts in Chattanooga, TN, and the district itself will be our venue. Participants will have access to tours of the places and people behind this humming hub of entrepreneurial activity, as well as insights from placemakers working at the intersection of innovation and public space from around the world, both in classic innovation districts and in unconventional settings like repurposed industrial sites, rural communities, waterfronts, and downtowns. So if you’re a placemaker who cares about innovation, inclusion, or the future of district management, come join us to explore the evolution of innovation districts together.

Nate Storring
Nate Storring
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