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Review of University City: History, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District

By Carla Maria Kayanan

University City: History, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District Laura Wolf-Powers University of Pennsylvania Press 204 Pages, Hardcover $39.95 USD When I was a doctoral student studying innovation districts, Professor Robert Fishman, my dissertation supervisor and internationally recognized expert in urban history, pointedly asked: “What is the difference between the city as locus of innovation versus the innovation that occurs within the delineated boundary of an innovation district?” I believe the answer is profit and that Laura Wolf-Powers’ University City: History, Race, and Community in the Era of the Innovation District supports this claim.

University City comes at a time when various stakeholders across the globe are pouring time, effort, and public resources into building innovation districts. Introduced in 2000 with Barcelona’s 22@bcn, the innovation district concept has rapidly proliferated (see here for a series of maps). These urban-based, mixed-use developments depend on design interventions within a delineated boundary to create a targeted environment—a type of petri-dish so to speak—where talented individuals will create new apps for the platform economy, entrepreneurs will ideate and scale, and research laboratories will propel a healthier future. Anchors, such as universities and cultural institutions, play an important role in the innovation district strategy, alongside a wide variety of stakeholders representing public and private sectors. By and large, the innovation district succeeds on a speculative imaginary of entrepreneurial endeavors generated through university spinouts. The benefits of the innovation district are meant to trickle down across proximate neighborhoods, as is the income generated from a development model based on the consumption patterns of today’s urban dwelling knowledge worker.

Amongst planners and economic developers, the innovation district concept is uncritically supported. Yet, as Wolf-Powers writes, stakeholders rarely question how wealth generation will be distributed amongst residents, the public sector, and property investors. Fortunately, scholars are beginning to produce research highlighting the role of innovation districts in exacerbating inequalities. Wolf-Powers’ University City falls along this line of research and, in doing so, contributes four important strengths to the field of urban planning and community and economic development.

1. Reparation over mitigation

Wolf-Powers recounts the history of urban development policy in West Philadelphia’s Lower Lancaster Corridor across five decades of land use and economic development planning. The type of development under interrogation in both instances remains constant: the hopeful pursuit of research and scientific knowledge through university expansion. In the 1960s, this entailed the University of Pennsylvania clearing 82.6 acres of housing in Black Bottom, home to a predominantly Black population, to build a science research complex and a science-specialized high school. Later, in 2015, this entailed Drexel University’s plans for the Drexel Innovation Neighborhood, a live/work/play innovation district replete with offices, labs, housing, retail stores, public spaces, and a new school to replace the failed, and later demolished, science-specialized high school built in the 1960s.

While the book title forefronts the focus on the innovation district and university expansion, the real focus and strength of the book is the tracing of half a century of fights engaged by community members to preserve their neighborhoods, livelihoods, and identities under the shadow of powerful universities and their corroborators. In doing so, University City closes the gap between research on urban development focused on race on one end, and research on innovation districts focused on urban development on the other end. Not only does Wolf-Powers bridge the research together, but she furthers work in the field through a call for reparation-based policies. This call is well supported through a historical focus on the role that race has played in development decisions shaping the Lower Lancaster Corridor neighborhoods. Wolf-Powers shows how mitigation policies have repeatedly failed to produce intended benefits for West Philadelphia residents and attributes the genesis of the failures to the derogatory and stereotypical treatment of Black residents in university real estate strategies.

2. Foregrounding the voices of community activists

Through the telling of a half-century of development and by highlighting the role of the activists as heroes in the preservation of their neighborhood, University City strongly demonstrates the importance, impact, and effectiveness of community organizing. Following the introduction, the book situates the reader in 1969 at a University of Pennsylvania student demonstration against a university-led expansion project threatening to displace residents from Black Bottom. The ensuing chapters trace key players and neighborhood-based institutions that emerged from this period of activism and community organizing through to 2015 with negotiations between Lower Lancaster Corridor neighborhood alliances and Drexel University innovation district stakeholders.

Importantly, Wolf-Powers’ selected methods in University City set an important tone for the book. By tracing the roots of certain community groups and key figures in the territorial fight against university encroachment, Wolf-Powers documents the critical importance of champions fighting for their neighborhoods. These individuals inspired others and influenced the creation of institutions, coalitions, and alliances pivotal in the fight for neighborhood preservation. It is the stories of these individuals and those they inspired that Wolf-Powers captures through archival research, interviews, and participant observation of civic association meetings.

Wolf-Powers explains that the interview questions inquired what residents of the Lower Lancaster Corridor felt entitled to. By fore fronting the voices of the residents and asking them what outcomes they felt they deserved, Wolf-Powers strongly arrives at policies of reparation over mitigation. Collectively, Wolf-Powers’ methods document how development tensions in the neighborhood historically hinge on a politics of self-help versus mitigation. Mitigation, as is demonstrated, does not result in positive benefits for low-income residents. However, by strengthening self-help efforts through reparation policies, neighborhoods in the Lower Lancaster Corridor can flex the multiple neighborhood and organizing capacities made so strongly evident in the book.

Things aren’t always clear, however. Wolf-Powers introduces dozens of characters, eventually making it challenging for the reader to keep track of who’s who. And while University City punctuates the importance of champions willing to fight for spatial justice, it raises the unaddressed question of what happens in places where community bonding is less strong, and fewer champions exist to fight for a neighborhood’s vitality and preservation. It also demonstrates that community capacity cannot be solely carried on the shoulders of activists and teachers and requires strong institutional support. This leads us to the third strength: recognizing the role private interests can play in reparation.

3. Private institutions and reparation

University City paints a more pleasant picture of positive community engagement than what I have witnessed. Rather than categorically pitting private developers against residents, Wolf-Powers provides examples of how Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust, a private partner in the innovation district development, worked with the residents to develop a Community Benefits Agreement.

Even with a much-negotiated Community Benefits Agreement in place, however, there remained limitations, contradictions, and inequalities. For example, rather than securing the $72 million cash investment for housing, education, community and workforce benefits, organizers had to settle for $3.1 million over five years for a community fund. To this, Wolf-Powers reports a Brandywine representative stating that his company cannot have the remit of ensuring that all concerns raised by the community are met. Meaning, private interests will always remain loyal to their bottom line. Along a similar vein, Wolf-Powers includes an informant’s comments about how Obama’s Promise Zones only marginally provided benefits for the community while private developers benefited from massive tax write offs. Meaning, community organizers are not fooled by who ultimately wins in these development schemes. Additionally, Black construction workers residing in proximity to the university and not hired to build the innovation district parallels critiques of Boston’s Seaport Innovation District for marginalizing Black individuals at all stages and levels of development, as well as critiques in the development of the Cortex Innovation District for having the legal rights to not meet minority-participation goals.

Despite the small wins amongst much larger losses, Wolf-Powers calls attention to the role universities, anchor institutions, and private development can play in implementing anti-displacement policies and reparation agendas. Focusing on reparation within the economic development literature is new and necessary. If reparation is to become the dominant development paradigm, then strong institutions are needed to shoulder the responsibility.

4. Real innovation defined

University City is a direct critique of today’s hyper-focus on entrepreneurs, university spinouts and the commercialization of innovation. Innovation districts rely on a narrow definition of innovation and circumvent the role the diversity plays in stimulating new thoughts, creations, and ideas. Wolf-Powers does not directly acknowledge the activists as innovators until the concluding section of the book, but time and again it becomes obvious that the organisers fighting for their neighbourhood are the true innovators in this story. Time and again, across half a century, residents make evident their ability to approach problems threatening their livelihoods and to organized and action solutions that preserve their community. Without a doubt, innovation flows in abundance in the Lower Lancaster Corridor neighborhoods.

What, then, is the difference between the city as a site for innovation versus an innovation district as the site for innovation? The reality is that cities have always been considered spaces of innovation due to their concentration of various ways of thinking and being in space. Wolf-Powers does not directly acknowledge the activists as innovators until the concluding section of the book, but it is obvious that the organizers fighting for their neighborhood are the true innovators in this story. In fact, Florida’s talented, tech-savvy, and tolerant Creative Class individuals that the universities seek to attract are completely absent from the book. Wolf-Powers’ telling of West Philadelphia’s redevelopment plainly elucidates that innovation districts are a property-driven economic development model focused not on innovation, but on increasing the prestige, population, and footprint (read bottom line) of the university.

University City falls short of providing clear and concrete policy recommendations and prescriptions for other locations where property appreciation near innovation districts is very real and felt by long-standing residents. In addition, we hear little about the innovation district stakeholders with global ties. For example, it is about time someone examined the role of real estate developers Wexford Science + Technology. Wexford Science + Technology have built a portfolio of at least 15 innovation districts across the United States. Interface Studio is another stakeholder in the Drexel Innovation Neighborhood development with involvement in other US-based innovation districts. Not only is it important to inquire into the connection between these organization and innovation district development, but an investigation on the impact of these organizations on quelching local area voices or neglecting to consider their needs is highly in demand.

Notwithstanding the powerful retelling of activist heroes who time and again defended their neighborhoods, University City paints a sad reality. Urban development policies operate under a paradigm that forces a need to fight for the provision of basic welfare. Due to entrepreneurial urban development and austerity politics, the state has few resources to provide public goods in the contemporary city. The building of innovation districts emblematizes the shrunken role of the state and the resultant need for community organizers to fight for what they are rightfully entitled to. Critiquing today’s focus on innovation to fuel prosperous city-regional development, Professor Harvey Molotch, renowned for his research on urban growth regimes and power dynamics in the city, writes in a double book review of Michael Storper’s Keys to the City and Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy:

“rather than figuring out how mayors can make their cities better competitors, we should concentrate (warning to reader: this is a very old-fashioned idea) on how to improve, as directly as possible, the lives of these cities’ inhabitants. Parks are positives not because they might lure new industries, but because folks like them. Good schools are valuable not as a means to attract the talented (or even to raise rates of college admission), but because they give children a better human experience. And so on, for bike lanes, museum walls, and metro-provided free Internet. Just do the right thing—adjusting and encouraging in modest ways that make sense for the public interest—and humbly watch who comes and goes.”

Molotch is correct; the solution to addressing urban ills is not nearly as sexy as an innovation district but it is very straight forward: do the right thing for the people who inhabit the space. Further, and I suspect Wolf-Powers would agree, in places where Black and Brown residents have been racialized and have lost land to powerful real estate interests, make amends and give back the land. It’s the only just way forward.

Carla Maria Kayanan is a political-economic geographer with strong interests in the spatial organization of work in the tech-economy and the resultant landscapes of urban inequality. She is an Assistant Lecturer at the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute in Ireland.




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