Monday, May 02, 2016

Urban Renewal and Innovation Districts

Do legacy cities birth innovation districts or do innovation districts sow the seeds of revitalization in legacy cities? I think legacy cities beget innovation districts. What Harvard economist Ed Glaeser thinks:

There’s an overwhelming error of urban policy over the past 75 years which has been to follow a Potemkin village strategy of urban revitalization that acts as if what you need to do to get a city going again is to build more stuff ... Innovation districts are … a hypothesis; they’re not a proven strategy at this point in time. I think they’re as sensible a hypothesis as any one out there, but they’re merely a hypothesis ... It’s very hard to imagine how you can have anything that can be plausibly called an innovation district if 10 percent of your adults have college degrees ... It’s all about having smart people who are connected by urban density and who learn from each other and work with each other.

All of the above are Glaeser's words. If you know his work, you aren't surprised. Cities should get smarter before building innovation districts. Don't build innovation districts to get smarter. In that regard, Glaeser and I are on the same page.

"[A]ll about having smart people who are connected by urban density and who learn from each other and work with each other" is a hypothesis, too. The positive correlation between urban density and innovation may support Alfred Marshall's hypothesis, but doesn't prove it. In this regard, Glaeser and I are on different pages.

Glaeser is a market ideologue. He makes the facts fit his a priori conclusions. An overwhelming error of urban policy over the past 15 years has been to follow a Jane Jacobs East Village strategy of urban revitalization that acts as if what you need to do to get a city going again is to build denser stuff. Denser makes it better. Marshall told me so. Enough said.

We are to question the innovation district, but not the density hypothesis. Instead of cities building more stuff, cities should cram into small spaces more smart people. Both approaches offer to put more of something into a given space. Stand back and then let the market magic happen. Color me skeptical.

6 comments:

JRoth said...

Isn't the Jane Jacobs claim that density (and a bunch of other things) is necessary for well-functioning cities full stop? The innovation may or may not follow, but I don't think that touches her claim. And even if it does, we've been looking at cities for 50+ years since her magnum opus; hers is not the least word.

Jim Russell said...

Isn't the Jane Jacobs claim that density (and a bunch of other things) is necessary for well-functioning cities full stop?

Richard Florida and others make the connection between Jane Jacobs, density, and innovation:

Jane Jacobs long ago argued that cities are the cradles of civilization and of economic development and that density and human interaction hold the key to economic progress.

JRoth said...

If Richard Florida told me that Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, I'd be skeptical.

At any rate, even if this is a fair characterization of Jacobs' claims, my point is that it's still irrelevant to the question of how best to organize urban spaces.

It's a bit like how "broken windows" policing was sold as a way to halt violent crime. It's probably not true—it sure looks like the way to halt violent crime is to have removed lead from the environment 16-20 years ago—but it is true that paying attention to low level crime and neglect is important if you want a neighborhood to be healthy (doing so without harassing local residents is also important).

I have no problem with your skepticism that dense, urban places are innovation engines, and for someone who focuses on economic development and human capital, that's a reasonable bottom line. But urbanists who aren't toeing Florida's ridiculous line still have good reason for praising dense places. Most important is the idea that urban places need to be dense (albeit not uniformly so) to work; suburbanizing them doesn't, for the most part, work. None of this is to suggest that suburbs should be dense. There are larger questions about the suburbs, but density as such isn't a relevant metric.

Jim Russell said...

But urbanists who aren't toeing Florida's ridiculous line still have good reason for praising dense places.

There are many good reasons why an urban planner would encourage greater density. I'm familiar with those arguments and largely sympathetic to the cause. I'm not aiming a jeremiad at that discourse. In fact, Jacobs (and, by extension, Florida) and Glaeser are at odds in terms of how much density. Jacobs is associated with a human-scaled city, whereas Glaeser figures if some density is good, more of it will be better.

But this idea of the city as a magical economic engine, more 'Economy of Cities' than 'Death and Life', is a classic case of a normative geography resisting more formal academic inquiry. Jane Jacobs does, in fact, make the very density-innovation argument that Glaeser advances. Her ideas have had a profound influence on contemporary thinking. That's the Jane Jacobs (urban economist) I invoked in the blog post. It isn't a critique of Jane Jacobs the urbanist who speaks to organizing urban spaces.

JRoth said...

Fair enough; as an architect and sometime planner, I was unfamiliar with Jacobs the urban economist. Thanks.

Steve said...

my point is that it's still irrelevant to the question of how best to organize urban spaces.

You have identified where urban planners and the like are missing the boat. I think that Silicon Valley is the ultimate example proving you and Jim right. Silicon Valley did not start in an urban area. Instead SV was all Apple orchards. But SV and the SF Bay Area, in general, failed to get sufficiently dense/urban as it grew. There are multiple constituencies preventing such development. Now, the entire SF area has a massive housing crunch and transportation there is a disaster. Many people working in SV have to live as far away as Gilroy with a 2 hour commute just to have housing they can afford. That is the problem urban planners should be addressing not whether urban spaces are innovative. Dense walkable urban spaces are the obvious answer to the housing and transportation problems in the SF Bay Area, but focusing on innovation ironically is making the problem worse since nothing gets done.