What is an innovation district? Understanding innovation districts and placemaking


An emerging trend in urban areas, innovation districts are targeted areas that have potential for innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish given the right catalysts. In these areas, spaces and ideas develop organically to spur connections.

Defined by a specific geography, with a special focus on areas with strong entrepreneur, science and technology communities, innovation districts enhance those spaces with a mash-up of institutions, schools, mixed-use development like residences, retail stores and office space, bike-sharing and more. These spaces make it easier for people to congregate, collaborate and network – to share ideas that can lead to more development, access to capital and commercialization. And they end up drawing people from elsewhere in the community to visit, leading to more growth.

What is placemaking?

Placemaking is defined as a multifaceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Community-based participation is at its center, and it capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential to create quality public spaces.

Examples of innovation districts and placemaking

Innovation: Boston

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District Hall is the new civic space for Boston’s innovation community that offers open workspace, classrooms, assembly space, flexible use “pods,” writable surfaces and coffee, beer and food at “Brew and Gather.” Photo by Gustav Hoiland/Flagship Photo and provided by Hacin + Associates.

Boston has Seaport Square, a neighborhood in South Boston’s emerging Seaport District centered on 1,000 acres near the waterfront. It was deliberately planned as an initiative by former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to foster innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship. It includes a mix of office and research space, residences, retail shops, restaurants, hotels and cultural institutions. It also offers open and green space, has direct access to public transportation and is within walking distance to Boston’s financial district. By many accounts, it turned the area into a vibrant one that offered a community for entrepreneurs and catalyzed other growth and collaboration.

District Hall, which opened in 2013 as the first building completed at Seaport Square, is a 12,000-square-foot gathering and event space designed to foster even more connection there. It was built as a partnership between the City of Boston, Boston Global Investors, and the Cambridge Innovation Center. “District Hall is a place for entrepreneurs, investors, companies, to bump and mingle and share ideas. It’s got the requisite coffee during the day and beer at night. For some reason it leads to generation of ideas,” Brookings’ Bruce Katz said at the board retreat.

Innovation: Philadelphia

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Drexel University's Innovation Neighborhood area and 30th Street Station in Philadelphia can be seen in the distance of this photo. Photo by Jeff Fusco, for Drexel.

Drexel University is developing a new Innovation Neighborhood in University City, which has long been a haven for connection around institutions. The area is near the University City Science Center, which was founded in 1963 as the nation’s first urban research park. In addition to Drexel and the Science Center, University City includes anchor institutions the University of Pennsylvania, University of the Sciences and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and clusters of companies working in the areas of life sciences, nanotechnology, information technology and other areas. Drexel’s mixed-use “Innovation Neighborhood” is planned for 10.1 acres of prime, urban and transitoriented land intended to become a “centerpiece of innovation, technology, globalization and economic development” in the region, Drexel announced on its website. As Brookings’ Bruce Katz notes, “Eighty percent of the office market construction in Philadelphia is probably happening in University City, less than one percent of the land mass … A whole bunch of companies want to be near these universities and anchors.”

Placemaking: Bryant Park in New York City

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New York City’s Bryant Park transformed from a haven for illegal activity to one of the best-run municipal parks in the country. Photo provided by Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

Bryant Park, a longtime staple in New York City, is ideally located next to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan. Thousands of people pass by the park every day, but in 1981 when PPS began its work there, hardly anyone would go inside the park’s boundaries. It was home to drug-dealing and other illegal activities and had very few scheduled activities that would attract a law-abiding citizen.

Several design flaws were in place that partially explained its downfall. The entire park was raised three and a half feet above the surrounding sidewalks, and hedges and a fence made the interior of the park hard to see from the sidewalk. After studying the area and conducting interviews with park visitors and nearby employees, PPS made some specific recommendations to make the park more visitor-friendly. Changes included removing visual barriers to make the park more open and adding movable chairs, food and beverage kiosks and a restaurant with outdoor seating. Bryant Park implemented the PPS strategy and reopened in April 1992. The recommendations brought more people to the park and pushed out the illegal activity, and now Bryant Park is one of the most recognized city parks in the country.

Placemaking: Downtown Detroit

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People gather in downtown Detroit for The Beach at Campus Martius Park. Photo provided by Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit is an example of the impact that lighter, quicker and cheaper placemaking efforts can have on a community. In 2013, PPS partnered with Rock Ventures, the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. to experiment with efforts that would make downtown a friendlier place for Detroit residents. With its location in the commercial center of Detroit, Campus Martius Park was the perfect location for placemaking efforts.

In 2013, PPS transformed the park’s existing lawn into The Beach at Campus Martius by bringing in truckloads of sand, colorful seating, umbrellas and a beach-themed bar and grill. The new design was complemented by the park’s programming, which included exercise classes, sandcastle building and live music performances.

Not only are more people enjoying this downtown space, but the Beach at Campus Martius is inspiring other measures of placemaking across downtown Detroit. Other public areas in downtown offered robust programming for the public, including Cadillac Square, Capitol Park, Grand Circus Park and Paradise Valley.

The spirit of “lighter, quicker, cheaper” placemaking is also evident outside of downtown Detroit. Residents of a community that was once considered a place desert – an area without any safe, meaningful places for residents to meet and interact – reclaimed an abandoned commercial building and adjacent gas station and created a community center. The Alley Project, located in southwest Detroit, offers arts programs and community programming in a repurposed alley. The framework of placemaking with an immediate impact has empowered Detroit residents and organizations to actively engage in the redevelopment of their city.

The success of the 22@District in Barcelona serves as a model for other innovation districts. Photo from Barcelona Activa (Barcelona City Council)

Innovation: Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s 22@District (also known as El Districte de la innovación) began more than 15 years ago as an urban renewal project to transform a former industrial and then-dilapidated neighborhood (Poblenou) into a thriving techno-creative area. The government initiative focused on five “knowledge clusters”: information and computer technology, biomedical, design, energy and media. By 2010, there were 7,000 companies, businesses and shops that had moved there or opened in the last 10 years and a 23 percent increase in residence. Today, it has universities, research and training centers, startups and cutting-edge technology companies and serves as a model for other innovation districts.

Innovation: Eindhoven, Netherlands

Located in the Netherlands, this Innovation District, known as the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, has more than 135 companies and institutes and 10,000 researchers, developers and entrepreneurs. Campus companies include Phillips, NXP, IBM and Intel, and the district offers easy access to high-tech facilities and international networks. The innovation district’s companies are responsible for nearly 40 percent of all Dutch patent applications. The campus includes research and development facilities, collaborative spaces, a conference center with an auditorium, a farmhouse that’s been turned into a bar and event space available to employees of the district for rent, several restaurants and a restaurant management service, a Campus Wellness Center and shops and services. Campus sporting events and tournaments also bring people together.

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