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Thought Leadership Views From Peachtree

Is Atlanta the Future of Innovation Districts?

By Bruce Katz*

Over the past twenty years, U.S. cities have experienced a remarkable resurgence after decades of decline. From Boston and New York to Phoenix and Pittsburgh to Seattle and San Francisco, the growth has been centered in the cores of cities around advanced research institutions, innovative companies and talented workers. And this growth has been led from the bottom up, by networks of public, private and civic leaders and institutions which have stepped up while the federal government and many states have drifted, what Jeremy Nowak and I labeled “The New Localism” in a book by the same name.

The rebirth of Atlanta in general and Midtown in particular is emblematic of this profound reversal in fortune. In twenty years, what was a blighted and disinvested part of Atlanta has become a globally significant innovation district, home to corporate headquarters and research and development arms of some of the world’s most innovative and powerful companies. These firms have flocked to Midtown Atlanta partly because of the exceptional institutions that have concentrated in the city’s core – the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Savannah College of Art and Design, Emory University Hospital Midtown, the Midtown Arts District (including the Woodruff Arts Center) — and an incomparable startup ecosystem including innovation labs and the region’s largest inventory of coworking space. Just one remarkable fact: The Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year; since its inception a combined $3 billion has been raised by graduate companies.

These firms and their talented workers have also come to Midtown due to the “city-feel” of this community. On a recent visit to Midtown, I was struck by the commitment to quality design, the breadth of amenities, the mix of land uses, the convenience of the transportation choices and the juxtaposition of human scale, tree-lined streets amidst high rise buildings. The evolution of Midtown shows that the magic of 21st Century innovation districts lies as much in the quality of the places they make as the innovations they spawn. The quality of place, in short, is both the magnet that attracts talented individuals and the stage for the seamless exchange of ideas and the creation of new products, films and technologies. 

The impact of this remarkable growth has been astounding. In the end, Midtown is a small place, occupying less than one percent of the land area of Atlanta. But urban and metropolitan economies are often driven by small geographies. The Peachtree Corridor Economic study released back in 2014 showed that Atlanta’s three nodes – Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead – are situated on only 3.7 percent of the city’s land, but harbor 40 percent of the city’s real estate value and contribute one-third of the city’s tax revenues, including 27 percent of the budget for the Atlanta Public Schools. In sum, for every $4 raised in taxes from these nodes of growth, $3 goes to fund services in other parts of the city.  Continued public investment in these areas is a good deal. 

This growth and impact might lead some to grow complacent. But innovation districts, like the cities they inhabit, are not a static, linear phenomenon. They are, in fact, entering a new phase of metamorphosis, driven in-part by the negative externalities of their own growth (e.g., worsening traffic, rising housing prices) and broader societal and environmental dynamics (e.g., growing income inequality, climate change). But innovation districts are also on the cutting edge of the technological innovation that is altering things like the buildings we develop, the sources of energy we use, our modes of transportation and the way we live and experience our daily lives. There lies the promise. 

Successful Innovation Districts circa 2030 will be different than they are today. What might this look like for Midtown Atlanta?

First, working closely with the City of Atlanta, Midtown and other parts of the City could be national vanguards of innovative inclusion, using mixed-use development and the purchasing power of its firms and anchor institutions to grow minority owned businesses in multiple sectors. Cincinnati’s Minority Business Accelerator is the nation’s leading model and could be adapted to Atlanta’s already strong ecosystem of universities, companies, philanthropies and public sector institutions. 

Second, Midtown could be a global node for “smart cities,” the application of technological advances to meet tomorrow’s challenges while improving livability today. The innovative planning underway in Toronto’s waterfront area by Google’s Sidewalk Labs, controversial at times due to concerns over data privacy, shows how the interface of next generation technologies and urbanization drives new possibilities, particularly around climate-friendly development. 

Third, Midtown could explore the outer boundaries of quality place-making and urban transportation. The transformation of Hamburg’s HafenCity in the old port offers one idea. HafenCity has introduced an e-mobility carsharing system, which allowed the number of parking spaces to be reduced from 0.8 to 0.4 per residential unit. This has the benefit of freeing up additional building space and public road space for other purposes, all of which could be managed by a local company pursuing inclusive goals.

Finally, Midtown Atlanta could help invent 21st century governance in cities that not only creates value but captures value for reinvestment in the public realm. Copenhagen’s City & Port Development Corporation, for example, not only has driven the regeneration of Copenhagen’s historic harbor and the near downtown Orestad district, but used a portion of the revenues generated by revitalization to finance public transit in the broader city. 

The future of Midtown Atlanta, in short, is not yet written. Just imagine what the combination of companies, churches, hospitals, universities and intermediaries that make up Midtown and other growing districts in Atlanta, with their critical partner in local government, can invent and deploy in the next decade. New technologies to drive down carbon emissions and new building models to drive up housing affordability. New social enterprises to reduce health disparities and improve educational outcomes. New businesses of scale owned by people of color, occupying all sectors of the economy. 

Atlanta has the capital and capacity and the sheer smarts and sophistication to do all these things and more. It is one of the few U.S. innovation hubs that has the potential to drive innovative, sustainable and inclusive growth in novel and transformative ways. As Atlanta goes, so go cities across the nation and the world. 

Bruce Katz is the Founding Director of the Nowak Metropolitan Finance Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the co-author of The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.


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