Innovation Districts in Massachusetts

Increasingly, cities and regions have come to realize the importance of catalyzing innovation and entrepreneurship through planning, policy, and development approaches. The greater Boston area has been at the forefront of developing innovation ecosystems to drive the local and regional economy. Lessons from two of its well-established districts have helped shape other cities’ plans for innovation districts across the country. Creating spaces where creative people can work, connect with potential partners, and develop their ideas into projects is a critical component to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. Other elements common to successful efforts include building relationships with educational institutions, and facilitating communication across industries and between the public sector and communities of entrepreneurs and creative professionals. Finally mixing spaces for work with housing and nightlife activities are important for generating a sustainable hub of innovation.

Together, Boston and Cambridge are home to three distinct innovation districts, organized around different management and development strategies, and operating at different scales. Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, developed as a place where academic discoveries from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could fuel business ideas in the engineering and life sciences sectors. The Boston Innovation District represents a successful example of a city government using innovation to fuel economic development and transform its working waterfront into a dynamic, mixed-use 21st century neighborhood. The Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT) Eco-Innovation District showcases the potential for innovation to operate at the scale of an existing residential neighborhood and integrate technical knowledge of environmentally sustainable practices into local workforce development strategies.


Mitigating Displacement

The success of Kendall Square and the Seaport Innovation District have highlighted the need for strategies to manage neighborhood change and mitigate displacement as part of innovation district planning. Both districts have seen commercial rents rise rapidly and have needed to develop strategies to preserve affordable work spaces for entrepreneurs and companies from the start-up phase to the point at which they are fully established. In addition, residential neighborhoods that become hubs of arts and innovation are likely to attract new residents and workers eager to access the scarce spaces and resources that support innovation, entrepreneurship and the arts. Increasing housing supply at a range with subsidies to ensure affordability to a range of income levels, a range of household types and a range of family sizes is an important strategy for combating rising housing prices and displacement pressures. In addition, the districts have introduced zoning use categories for small, flexible and shared workspaces and required that such spaces be included in new commercial developments. The work of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation in the TNT Eco-Innovation District illustrates the way that neighborhood-based organizations can develop a network of programs that work in concert to improve the physical condition of a neighborhood as well as the increase the economic opportunity of its residents.

Kendall Square Innovation District; Cambridge, MA

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has driven Kendall Square’s emergence as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship, and business development. MIT purchased land adjacent to its campus in the 1960’s and redeveloped it as Technology Square. Early tenants like IBM and Polaroid helped establish the area as a site of academic collaboration with industry. Originally designed to compete with industrial clusters forming in the suburbs, its wide streets, self-contained blocks, and zoning regulations prevented its development as an active, mixed-use district despite its continued value as a connector for industry to MIT’s wealth of knowledge and human capital. In 1999, the creation of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which focused on providing shared workspaces for startups with venture funding, helped to drive the area’s economic rebirth after the bursting of the dot-com bubble left vast stretches of empty real estate throughout Kendall Square in 2001. A purposeful planning initiative to revitalize the area around Kendall Square was launched by the MIT Investment Management Corporation in 2008 and submitted to the City of Cambridge in 2011. The success of the area as an incubator of entrepreneurship and a driver of demand for office and laboratory space also generated an increasing demand for housing, a use almost absent from the district with the exception of some on-campus housing owned by MIT.

MXD Zoning & Kendall Square Urban Renewal Plan Amendment includes among other things:

  • 10% of the commercial space will be “Innovation Office,” with an incentive to set aside 25% of that space for a new below market Innovation Office space program
  • Residential: 25% of the residential development will be below market including 20% reserved for low/moderate income and 5% reserved for middle income.

Additionally, 5% of the new residential development will contain 3-bedroom units which will be dedicated to the City’s below market housing programs. In total, the development is anticipated to include an estimated 560 housing units with an estimated 140 of those being below market. Boston Properties has committed to a portion of the residential development to be ownership rather than rental only.

Seaport Innovation District; Boston, MA

In 2010, then Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that the landscape of parking lots between the Seaport piers and the neighborhood of South Boston would become the city’s Innovation District. Without a formal district structure or targeted regulations, Mayor Menino catalyzed the redevelopment of the area by building relationships with key players and targeting financial incentives to attract anchor firms. His vision was for a district rich with creative entrepreneurship as well as vibrant after-work activity. Housing development in the district reinforced his priority of creating opportunities for living, working, and playing to intermingle. Micro housing units, live/work housing, and developments that combine live/work space with conference rooms and office space are hallmarks of the district’s residential development. (“The Development of Boston’s Innovation District: A Case Study of Cross-Sector Collaboration and Public Entrepreneurship,” The Interceptor Project, 2015). The Interceptor Project’s case summary notes that the District Vision was characterized by four elements:

  1. Industry-Agnostic – the District did not focus on cultivating a particular industry but rather promoted itself as open to any innovative enterprise or individual.
  2. Activity Clusters – to encourage cross-fertilization among innovators, the District vision pushed a “Live, Work, and Play” development model to encourage residential and entertainment uses that would encourage a range of social relationships and interactions within the District.
  3. Experimental – the District implemented an experimental strategy of ‘expedited decision-making and planning flexibility’ allowing the public sector to respond to opportunities as they arose.
  4. City as Host – the District positioned the City of Boston as the host rather than an institute of higher education or other anchor institution.

Key Strategies:

One important strategy in the development of the district included the use of Community Brokers to lead outreach to entrepreneurs and community engagement. The Community Brokers served both as ambassadors of the project to local entrepreneurs and residential communities and as liaisons to the City for those same groups to provide input and participate in shaping the district.

Another key strategy was to develop new housing to support entrepreneurs in the district. Innovation housing developed in the district includes live/work spaces mixed with meeting rooms and work spaces in same building. In addition, the City established a 15% affordable housing requirement and a target of 15% microunits to meet a goal of 12,000 new housing units. In addition, the District encourage the development of an active nightlife alongside new commercial and residential development with restaurants, bars, and entertainment uses.

Financial incentives were used within the District to attract key partners and included TIF incentives for companies like Vertex Pharmaceuticals and LogMeIn to attract them as anchor tenants. They also included negotiated rent reductions such as the year-long rent-free lease given to MassChallenge.

The construction of District Hall also proved to be an important driver of the District’s success. Identified as one of the City’s best functioning public spaces in a Boston Globe article, District Hall was designed with a few core elements including a restaurant and bathrooms and design to accommodate a variety of interior space configurations to support the needs of many different groups. In addition, free or reduced-cost access to District Hall is provided for

  • events that contribute to building an inclusive innovation community;
  • non-profit-hosted events that do not charge for access;
  • and events open to the public at large.

This strategy has generated a range of events and activities that cross sectors among organizers and attendees and has established District Hall as an anchor public space and hub of activity that supports the District as a whole.

Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT) Eco-Innovation District; Boston, MA

The Talbot Norfolk Triangle (TNT) Eco-Innovation District provides another model for applying an innovation approach to promoting neighborhood development. Unlike the Seaport District and Kendall Square, the TNT Eco-Innovation District is an example of a District hosted by a non-profit community development corporation, the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation. The innovation approach focuses on improving the energy-efficiency of neighborhood building stock with a goal of retrofitting at least 15% of the existing housing stock in the Talbot Norfolk Triangle to save residents money on energy related costs and building at least one new highly efficient mixed-use transit oriented development (TOD) project. In addition, the Codman Square NDC aims to explore green infrastructure development including green roofs and rain gardens with a goal of LEED certification for two new development projects. The NDC is also exploring local power generation models and incorporating that capacity into new and existing TOD mixed-use housing developments and other local projects. This district model is oriented around building knowledge about sustainable development practices and the capacity to implement those practices among neighborhood residents. This effort is supplemented by other programs run by the Codman Square NDC including DotBiz, a resource to support entrepreneurs and small businesses, the Estate Planning program designed to educate homeowners on the process of transferring wealth through home values, the Keeping Codman Square Affordable Campaign to combat displacement due to rising housing costs, and the Fairmount-Indigo CDC Collaborative.


For more about the project, view these links:

Greater University Circle Initiative; Cleveland, OH

The Cleveland University Circle Innovation District example provides an interesting complement to the examples in Boston. This District located in the neighborhood surrounding a cluster of nineteen prominent anchor institutions in Cleveland, Ohio, including universities, museums, medical and social service organizations, and schools of art and music, and the Cleveland Orchestra. The University Neighborhood itself is home to 7,920 residents, and is surrounded by seven of Cleveland’s most distressed neighborhoods housing over 84,000 residents. These seven neighborhoods in total make up the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods whose stabilization has become a priority for the University Circle institutions. In 2003, a critical number of these institutions joined forces to establish the Greater University Circle Initiative with the goals of:

  • Promoting dialogue about the future of the surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Catalyzing and helping fund projects to transform both the built environment and the lives of residents.

This multi-anchor initiative is led by the Greater University Circle Leadership Group, a collection of representatives from neighborhood institutions including public entities, private foundations, and private institutions. The Leadership Group meets quarterly to set priorities and report on progress. Project areas include:

Transit-oriented development projects

The Greater University Circle Initiative allows anchor institutions to coordinate their development projects to advance goals for the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods. Each physical development project has a single anchor institution as a champion driving the project and projects are chosen to advance a set of eight goals.

Live Local: An employer-assisted housing program

The Greater University Circle Initiative has established a coordinated package of incentives for employees of multiple anchor institutions to reside within the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods.

Buy Local: Procurement Programs

By convening University Circle anchor institutions, the Greater University Circle Initiative identified procurement needs and established contracts with the Evergreen Cooperatives to seed new environmentally sustainable enterprises located in the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods. These enterprises are structured as cooperatives, which allows local residents to acquire new skills while also building equity in the enterprise. Modeled on the Mondragon Cooperative Network in Spain, the Evergreen Cooperatives currently run three cooperative enterprises:

  • Evergreen Laundry
  • Evergreen Energy Solutions
  • Green City Growers

Innovation District: Health Tech Corridor

Rather than focus on planning for innovation within the boundaries of the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods, the Greater University Circle Initiative decided to “focus its business attraction and retention efforts on Cleveland’s MidTown district in order to provide real estate options for businesses to stay in the Corridor for their whole life cycle from incubator to established company.” (“Cleveland’s Greater University Circle Initiative.” The Cleveland Foundation, 2013). The corridor connects University Circle to downtown Cleveland and resulted in 1.2 million square feet of new space developed between 2008 and 2013 and an 86% occupancy rate in 2013. Developments have included new leasable space, housing, commercial expansion and renovated space.

Workforce training programs

The Greater University Circle Initiative established the NewBridge Cleveland Center for Art and Technology to anchor its workforce development approach. This approach includes the following components:

  • Specialized training scholarships targeted to hiring needs of anchor institutions and offer training on soft skills
  • Establishing a track record for placing trainees in jobs
  • Engaging Cleveland youth in arts-based programs in the same location where adult programs are held to expose them to adult role models.

NewBridge convenes a vocational advisory groups made up of representatives from Greater University Circle Initiative anchor institutions.

Community Engagement

The Greater University Circle Initiative has launched community engagement programs to improve knowledge sharing and building connections among residents of the Greater University Circle Neighborhoods, including:

  • Innovation Teams: 15-20 member teams convened eight times over three month periods to discuss how to build on existing neighborhood assets. Participants receive stipend of $500.
  • Neighborhood Tours: Local tours open to the public to build relationships and connection to place.
  • NeigborCircle Dinners: Residents receive funding to host series of three dinners for 8-10 people, with at least half of the attendees including those not previously known to the host. Conversations move toward ideas for neighborhood improvement and are moderated by trained facilitators.

Although these strategies are possible in part because of the innovative multi-anchor structure of the Greater University Circle Initiative, they point to potential neighborhood-based strategies that can connect to and respond to the workforce training and procurement needs of local anchor institutions. The NewBridge Cleveland Center for Art and Technology provides a model for integrating arts education with workforce training programs, and the community engagement model can be replicated and adapted to the Boston context.


Exploring the Ways Arts & Culture Intersects with Housing

This field scan, commissioned by ArtPlace America,explores the intersection of arts, culture, and housing outcomes ? focused specifically on work within the housing sector that seeks to build and maintain high quality housing affordable to low-and moderate-income individuals. Through an analysis of both housing sector priorities and place-based arts and cultural work, this scan uncovers six primary ways that creative placemaking strategies are helping to meet affordable housing goals.

Exploring the Ways Arts & Culture Intersects with Public Safety

This field scan, commissioned by ArtPlace America, is an inquiry into the state of arts, culture, and creative placemaking as it relates to the public safety sector. Its findings and recommendations draw upon existing literature, an online survey of 100 creative placemaking stakeholders, and semi-structured interviews with the community of artists, thought leaders, investors, and organizations working at this intersection. It also identifies projects at the intersection of creative placemaking and public safety and organizes them into five areas of activity.