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orkney-islands

The second largest settlement on Orkney. (Photo: Guinnog/Wikimedia Commons)

Triumph of the Entrepreneurial City

• January 08, 2014 • 4:00 PM

The second largest settlement on Orkney. (Photo: Guinnog/Wikimedia Commons)

As long as talented people born in different places are coming together, even the Orkney Islands can be an innovation hub.

Before the Great Recession, all cities hailed the financial district. Post-crisis, Bruce Katz and Brookings hail the innovation district as the driving logic of urban economic geography. The innovation district is defined in opposition to the suburban tech park. More on that bit of geographic myth-making later in the post. Urban is more innovative than suburban because of collision density:

Economist Edward Glaeser, who wrote the book Triumph of the City (copies are found in most Downtown Project properties) posited that the right density for a thriving city is about 100 residents per square acre. Downtown Vegas, with hardly any housing, is decades away from achieving this density. And housing is expensive.

So the Downtown Project is instead looking at residents, employees, and regular visitors (they call them “subscribers”) to contribute 1000 annual “collisionable hours:” three to four hours per day of a person walking around/eating at a cafe/drinking at a bar, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year (3 x 7 x 52 = 1092 hours). This can help the area achieve its goal of 100,000 collisionable hours per acre per year, or, as Schaefer broke it down further, 2.3 collisionable hours per square foot per year.

In a way, this math seemed awesomely liberating. Although architects think in this data-driven manner when having to calculate capacity for rooms, I felt like knowing that each square foot of project space had to support 2.3 collisionable hours per year would create a very focused mandate for the design of the project’s spaces. But when I asked about the architects who were overseeing this vision, Schaefer could only give me names of architects and designers for particular projects, like a restaurant or a theater.

Normally, when cities embark upon this kind of massive redevelopment project, they hire a team of urban designers, planners, architects, landscape architects to create an overall vision, which makes these kinds of specific recommendations for everything from building heights to sidewalk widths. The Downtown Project famously has no master plan (they’ve said they don’t want one), which is encouraging in some ways—and frightening in others.

In fact, when it comes to overall accountability, it seems Downtown Project itself functions more like a startup than a real estate developer, which might be good. They’re simply consistently rolling out ideas to see if they work—ideas that are likely already written on a Post-It in Hsieh’s apartment.

Emphasis added. The obsession with density has become an alternative to urban planning. Entrepreneur Peter Thiel doesn’t think the Innovation Economy can afford strict zoning regulations. Dan Gilbert and Tony Hsieh have taken over dysfunctional downtowns. Richard Florida fetishizing start-up city:

Cities bring diverse collections of talented people together, allowing them to combine and recombine their ideas and swiftly mobilize entrepreneurial resources. As such, they have long been leading epicenters of creativity and innovation. It is not the rise of urban tech, but rather the movement of industry and people to the suburbs and the short-lived dominance of high-tech nerdistans, that stand as the historical aberration not the permanent new paradigm that many took it to be.

Cities don’t bring diverse collections of talented people together. However, a diverse collection of talented people do come together in some cities. They also congregate in the suburbs:

Clarion Partners LLC, a real estate owner overseeing almost $30 billion, made millions buying Manhattan office buildings and towers in Seattle and Houston after the U.S. property crash began six years ago. It’s now moving to the outskirts of big cities.

“Investors see high quality just outside major metros,” said Tim Wang, head of research at Clarion, which acquired buildings in Arlington, Virginia, and Brookline, Massachusetts, last year. “As the recovery broadens in 2014, you’ll see more capital flowing into secondary markets and select suburbs.” …

… The best suburbs maintain their appeal as “incubation zones” for dynamic industries, according to Michael Phillips, chief operating officer for Jamestown, an Atlanta-based investor that paid $314 million in July for Lantana Media Campus in Santa Monica, California. The four buildings, with 462,000 square feet (42,900 square meters), are a hub for digital video and 97 percent leased, he said.

Consumer technology companies have long gravitated to Silicon Valley towns near San Francisco, defense-related firms to northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, energy firms to the outskirts of Houston, and film, television and video production companies to areas outside downtown Los Angeles, Phillips said.

“You get clusters where like-minded people want to be and that become their own ecosystem, with all the amenities and services of a city,” he said.

Sounds just like an innovation district, in the suburbs. The quality of the place is irrelevant, as are collisionable hours per acre per year. As long as talented people born in different places are coming together, even the Orkney Islands can be an innovation hub (paywall):

The new findings also tell a surprising story about the origins of Britain’s megalithic monuments (“mega,” meaning huge, and “lithic,” or stone): They started here on Mainland Island in Orkney, along with new styles of architecture and a special kind of pottery. From this remote, 520-square-kilometer island, these innovations swept nearly every corner of Britain and Ireland, culminating in the famous monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury in southern England. “We’re looking at a fairly major transformation across Britain, the impact of a whole way of life, religious and social, which comes out of Orkney,” says archaeologist Michael Parker Pearson of University College London (UCL), who has led recent excavations at Stonehenge and surrounding monuments. “Orkney was a place of synthesis, where Neolithic worlds came together.” …

… Why lonely Orkney was the birthplace of all these innovations is largely a mystery, but researchers have some clues. For starters, Orkney was apparently a magnet for early cereal farmers, who could have sustained the large population needed to build the monuments. Based on the labor it took to build the island’s megaliths, Card says, “we are looking at a population of 10,000 or more.” Although cereal cultivation arrived in Britain around 4000 B.C.E., it was quickly supplanted in most of the region by herds of cattle, sheep, and pigs, according to work published last year in Antiquity by archaeologists Chris Stevens of Wessex Archaeology in the United Kingdom and Dorian Fuller of UCL. But Orkney and other Scottish islands were a major exception. For example, the recently excavated settlement called Ha’Breck, on the tiny island of Wyre northeast of Mainland, yielded tens of thousands of charred barley grains, more than any other Neolithic site in Britain. There was “a significant divergence in terms of subsistence practice between the mainland and the islands,” Stevens says.

I picked up on this story in Science via Next City. Since innovation is supposedly urban in nature, these megalithic monuments become a dense place full of the requisite collisions. History is revised in the ultimate triumph of the entrepreneurial city.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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