What the Brookings study advocates is not only a top down approach to urban planning, but something akin to a gated community for the creative class save a passing reference to the social inequity lingering just outside the walls: “At a time of rising social inequality, they [the districts] offer the prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations given that many districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.”
How that “prospect” might come to pass is not expanded on. Nor is there a single caveat to the extraordinarily optimistic predictions for this admitted “trend”. There is no downside at all. Employment will surge, education opportunities will be a spillover, and apparently those living in low and moderate-income neighborhoods will continue to live there in spite of the nearly inevitable rise in real estate values.
But the problems of cities, at least those that do not as yet have established networks of institutions, are not so easily modified, nor has the innovation district proven to do so. In his intriguing book, The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti, a Berkeley economist, relates the history of what he calls “innovation clusters” from Seattle to Palo Alto and Boston-Cambridge and by assessing that history asks if what we learn can help struggling cities “create a self-sustaining local ecosystem” that will support good jobs? Note that he cautions: “The history of high-tech clusters indicates that while we understand fairly well what happens after clusters are established, we often have a hard time predicting them. We have an even harder time creating them.”
And what exactly is being created by these innovation districts? To be creative and economically resilient a city must have an understanding of its identity, past and present, and what is specific to it. It must allow room for spontaneity and the unexpected. It is difficult to see much of that in these prescribed, ordered, and altogether unspontaneous precincts. As Cain reminds us, Wozniak would have been utterly out of place in this New Groupthink environment. And many others right along with him just would not fit in. For what is it like in this cocooned environment “fueled by caffeine” and away from the good messiness of real city life? The Brookings report quotes Dennis Lower of Cortex Innovation Community in St Louis: “it’s all about programming: choreographing ‘spontaneous’ opportunities for smart people to interact with each other.”
Where one wonders are the opportunities for these smart people to interact with those outside these districts? What is the knock on effect? Do these districts contribute to a solid economic base to be shared by everyone or only the “creative class” that works and possibly even lives within them?
The danger inherent in the idea of an innovation district is that without a deeper analysis of the capacity to succeed along this model, cities in the US and elsewhere can invest their limited resources, as many did to create “cool” cities, and end up with little to show for it or worse, millions of dollars and precious time wasted. There will not be a one size fits all solution to complex urban problems and innovation districts for all their promise for some do not hold promise for all.
Moretti reminds us that visionaries have long chased the unicorn: “Utopian communities have always ignited people’s imaginations, with their promise of curing social ills through enlightened planning and strong values.” But he adds, it is “difficult to engineer utopia.”
We need to stop swooning over the mantra of innovation and pay attention to alarms like the one Standard & Poors rang recently about social inequality and its damage to the economy. In August, their economists published a report informatively titled “How Increasing Inequality is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, and Possible Ways to Change the Tide.” Their research and data gathering leads them to conclude that “when you have extreme levels of inequality, it can hurt the economy.” They helpfully suggest a way to stem this tide and one which has been debated in public policy circles for years but until this report has gone unacknowledged in financial circles: Increase investment in education.
Daniel Brook’s introduction to A Future of Cities tells us that the cities he intends to discuss matter because “their founding promise endures: to build the future.” An innovation district while not a city offers a vision of the future, too. In fact, as they are currently being hyped, they are a kind of stand-in for the city itself. They are just newer and more modern than the creaky old apparatus around them. It is this idea of newness and modernity that they are surfing on, without any of the inherited unpleasantness. But to paraphrase Brook on Dubai, they are an idea; not a place.
Cities still need to be places and ones that offer promise for all their citizens, where individual talent and creativity are nurtured within an urban environment that Jane Jacobs envisioned: “…the fact is that big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”
Peter Hall was a believer in cities as places to be celebrated however messy and disorderly they might be and perhaps because of it. He also saw the danger in the present and future of what he termed “an unequal urban world…in which the rich get even richer and the poor poorer; and in which, as a result, ‘The bandwith-disadvantaged are the new have-nots’, excluded entirely from the mainstream economy and the mainstream society.”
The cities of tomorrow, the ones being discussed in innovation districts, are actually here today. It’s time to examine how they are dealing with issues of urban innovation and urban decay and find out rather than imagine what help they need. Endless models of utopian creativity won’t respond to the on-the-ground complexities of urban environments that struggle with poor infrastructure, housing, and education. A truly creative strategy to deal with these and other urgent inequalities must engage with people from the bottom up and not regard them from a distant citadel. Citizens have strong opinions and good ideas about what will make their neighborhoods and their cities better. Our “innovations” should be about finding out what they know and supporting their urban creativity.
* Dr. Linda Lees is founder and director of Creative Cities International (CCI). CCI developed the Vitality Index™ (VI) which was greatly influenced by the work of Peter Hall. She has spoken on behalf of CCI and the (VI) at international conferences in Copenhagen, Berlin, London, Istanbul, Doha, and Campinas (Brazil). She first wrote about the VI concept (Creativity in the City: The New Measure) in 2010 in the refereed UNESCO e-journal. Her talk in Singapore, “Culture Counts”, is included in Vital Speeches. She holds a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.