Innovation Districts


The US is seeing a rise in innovation districts, sections of metropolitan areas that are redesigned to spur both economic growth and livability. In these compact urban areas, leading research-oriented anchor institutions, established companies, startups, and business incubators and accelerators cluster near cultural amenities, retail establishments, residential space, and transit options.

According to the Brookings Institution, this clustering creates an "open innovation" economy that offers rich opportunities as places to live, to work, and to promote entrepreneurship. As places to live, innovation districts by definition are compact, walkable, and located near transit options. They provide easy access to a wide range of services and amenities, such as grocery stores, medical offices, restaurants, retail establishments, public markets, and cultural institutions. As places to work, innovation districts offer employment opportunities and flexible work options at research institutions, startup companies, and established firms. And as places for entrepreneurship, innovation districts attract company founders and nascent firms to take advantage of the ideas, information, resources, and talent that concentrate there. Other resources—including intermediaries, incubators, and mentor programs—also promote entrepreneurship.

Thus far innovation district leaders have focused on attracting millennials. But younger adults are not the only people who can contribute to and benefit from the economic development in innovation districts. Planning intentionally for people age 50 and older and for traditionally-underserved populations—including racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, people with low incomes, and people with disabilities—allows everyone to contribute to and benefit from revitalization.

Making these communities accessible to diverse populations is challenging. Compact urban development and proximity to jobs and amenities have made innovation districts desirable places to live, thus pushing up housing costs. This can make it hard for people with low incomes already living in these districts to remain there or for others of more limited means to relocate to innovation districts and reap its benefits. Intentionally preserving, expanding, and diversifying area housing stock for all levels of affordability will allow a broader range of people to live in innovation districts and help keep current residents from being displaced. Addressing these issues requires a variety of tools to engage developers, homeowners, renters, and the public sector. These tools include the preservation of existing housing stock, subsidies for households with low and moderate incomes, tax incentives, affordable housing requirements for new construction, and strategic public investments.

Finally, in order to create livable communities for all, innovation district leaders must pay attention to the design of the built environment: Narrow walkways and entrances, poor lighting, difficult-to-read signs, and other physical impediments affect accessibility and mobility, which in turn constrain people’s ability to age in their communities.

Innovation Districts: Policy

Innovation districts

In this policy: Local

Innovation districts should intentionally:

  • plan for, engage, and integrate older adults and traditionally-underserved market populations as an opportunity and a community asset;
  • promote the economic well-being of existing residents of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities;
  • ensure an adequate supply of housing that is accessible to and affordable for people with low and moderate incomes (see this chapter’s section on Housing Accessibility and Universal Design);
  • increase age diversity in the workforce;
  • create workforce development programs that are accessible to and meet the needs of a diverse population of older workers and job-seekers;
  • encourage older adults to participate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem; and
  • promote intergenerational engagement and understanding (see Chapter 12, Personal and Legal Rights—Intergenerational Cooperation and Chapter 7, Health—Cognitive Health)