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5 global examples of revitalizing urban areas with innovation districts

Canada has a successful history of using innovative development strategies to revitalize urban areas

By Simon Brandler and John Brodhead

A busy street in Toronto

The revitalization of the formerly industrial “Two Kings” area has helped establish Toronto as a global leader in mixed-use development.
(David Pike for Sidewalk Labs)

Canada has a successful history of using innovative development strategies to revitalize urban areas, dating back to the 1970 creation of the first Business Improvement Area, in Toronto’s Bloor West Village. Similar efforts in cities around the world have shared the same basic premise: that a modified regulatory approach within a targeted geography can not only jumpstart the area but achieve ambitious public priorities beyond the scope of traditional developments.

We used these successful models to design the proposed governance model for the Sidewalk Toronto project — a strategy that would enable innovative development approaches within a particular geography called the Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District, in turn demanding more from developers to improve affordability, sustainability, mobility, and economic opportunity.

In developing this approach, we studied a number of global precedents that have leveraged innovative regulatory approaches to successfully transform former industrial areas, including the five featured here. While these projects aren’t without their flaws, they do offer some lessons that not only informed our thinking but, we believe, should be on any urbanist’s radar.

One thing we should be clear on is that our proposal is not for Sidewalk Labs to oversee this geography. On the contrary, the district, the rules, and the execution of these rules would be led by the public sector. We think that the global experience highlights that this model can help the public sector innovate in partnership with the private sector.

Here are some cases that have informed our proposal.

Two Kings (Toronto)

The site. Following the departure of much of Toronto’s garment industry in the 1990s, the Two Kings area — about 400 acres of historically industrial land on either side of Toronto’s downtown core — was in bad shape. Because zoning bylaws at the time permitted only industrial uses in this area, buildings were largely demolished and replaced with parking lots.

The approach. To spur rapid economic development in the area, city leaders, led by Mayor Barbara Hall and Chief Planner Paul Bedford, designated the site a “regeneration area.” This designation introduced restrictions focused on massing, shadowing, and protection of views, but largely eliminating use zoning (any non-noxious use was permitted), density regulations, and most parking and loading zone requirements. While height limits were implemented, the approach permitted some tall buildings, mostly for residential use.

The impact. The area has experienced an extraordinary pace of development. Revitalization of the Two Kings has allowed for more than 50,000 new residential units. And while job growth in Toronto increased by 20 percent citywide between 1996 and 2016, job growth in King-Spadina and King-Parliament far outpaced this trend, increasing by nearly 70 percent and 30 percent, respectively. In the two decades since redevelopment efforts were completed, more than 20,000 net new jobs have been created in these districts, nearly 30 percent of which are in the cultural, creative, and tech sectors.

Battery Park City (New York)

The site. The area that became Battery Park City was an industrial brownfield site in the 1960s, located on the west side of downtown Manhattan. Most of the area consisted of derelict piers, as shipping had shifted initially to more modern facilities in midtown, and later to New Jersey.

The approach. In 1968, a state agency called the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) was created and charged with developing what became a 92-acre site. A state-approved master plan called for a combination of office and residential construction with park space. The BPCA imposed a number of specific requirements on developers, including requirements for affordable housing units and family units. The authority also imposed environmental standards on developments, encompassing aspects such as indoor air quality, water conservation, energy efficiency, and construction methods. When selecting developers, significant emphasis was also placed on architecture and design.

The impact. The authority has ultimately produced 7.2 million square feet of housing for over 13,000 residents and 10 million square feet of commercial space. Affordability remains a struggle: Battery Park City’s ZIP code has the highest average rents in the United States, despite the authority’s best efforts, including the use of its own funds to subsidize some apartment rents. But the authority also generates a substantial financial surplus that is transferred to the City of New York under various agreements.

Granville Island (Vancouver)

The site. Granville Island is a 38-acre peninsula adjacent to downtown Vancouver. In the early 1970s, the site was an industrial brownfield site controlled by the Government of Canada.

The approach. In 1973, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — a government-owned corporation — assumed control of the site’s development and infrastructure. CMHC rehabilitated the roads, sewers, and flood control; negotiated a modified regulatory framework with the City of Vancouver, exempting Granville Island from all municipal regulation; and cultivated a spirit of public-private partnership and exploration. To take one example, Granville introduced shared streets, which were unprecedented in North America at the time.

The impact. Today, Granville Island is home to about 275 businesses, a popular public market, art galleries, retail spaces, a community centre, and multiple performing arts spaces. The area employs over 3,000 people and attracts over 12 million visitors a year, making it one of Vancouver’s principal tourist attractions. The cost of the project was $19.5 million; it now generates over $215 million in economic activity a year. CMHC retains complete control of the site, including selecting tenants, planning, administration, and infrastructure provision.

HafenCity (Hamburg)

The site. HafenCity is a 157-hectare district, located within walking distance of downtown Hamburg and consisting of two islands. While the area had been active since the 12th century, its ports had become largely vacant by 1990.

The approach. In 1990, the Senate of Hamburg adopted the HafenCity Master Plan to turn the site into a new district dedicated to cutting-edge urban and architectural design. The master plan included substantial investments in transportation, such as a bridge connecting the islands to the mainland and a strong pedestrian network, as well as advanced infrastructure, such as a district-energy thermal grid. The plan also included an approvals process that required all investors and development partners to abide by the district mission and set high architectural standards. Aside from the subway, all infrastructure, development, and management of HafenCity is overseen by a fully municipally-owned company called HafenCity GmBH.

The impact. Today, HafenCity is a true destination — home to residents, shops, businesses, museums, outdoor exhibits, public squares, parks, and promenades. The area beautifully mixes open spaces, historic buildings, and contemporary architecture (most notably the Ebphilharmonie Opera house, designed by Herzog de Meuron, which attracted 4 million visitors in its first year). By 2017, HafenCity was home to over 12,000 jobs across 730 firms. The district continues to evolve and adapt to emerging needs, expanding mixed-use areas, increasing density, incorporating legacy industry, and seeking creative ways to advance architecture and urban planning. In the coming years, HafenCity will become home to Germany’s tallest wooden structure, self-driving buses, and Hamburg’s first fintech hub.

The Docklands (London)

The site. The Docklands are an 8.5-square-mile area directly east of London. Until the 1970s, the area was the world’s busiest port, but changing technology — particularly the rise of containerization — resulted in the abandonment of all of the docks in the area.

The approach. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established by the public sector in 1981 to take charge of planning the area, working alongside private developers. The national government designating the area an “Enterprise Zone,” a label that involved numerous regulatory changes, including exemption from most planning regulations. For example, at Canary Wharf, unlike the rest of London, the only planning restriction was on the height and footprint of the buildings. The LDDC earned enormous profits on the land, which were reinvested in improving the area’s infrastructure, particularly though the construction of the Docklands Light Railway, an elevated rapid transit system that serves the area and connects it with London.

The impact. The Docklands experienced early struggles; for example, the Canary Wharf development filed for bankruptcy in 1992, due partly to its initial lack of transit access, which made it impractical for commuters. But the project rebounded following improvements to the Docklands Light Railway and, later, after a subway extension to the site. The area is now one of the most prominent business districts in the world, and the LDDC and its successors also went on to develop other successful projects, such as London City Airport.

A model worth exploring in Quayside

These geographic innovation zones have enabled the public sector to try new development models and have succeeded in helping create vibrant mixed-use districts like what we are proposing for the eastern waterfront. They are all different and must respond to the specific needs of the local community, but we feel that this model is one worth considering and discussing to help spur innovative development in Quayside and beyond.