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‘Silicon Alley’ v Silicon Valley: urban planning for science and innovation-led development

By ucqbcme, on 4 November 2014

The CityAge: Global Metropolis event in London highlighted common challenges faced by cities around the world, along with the instrumental role of universities in delivering the potential for urban development through science and technology research, innovation and commercial translation. Bringing together some high profile speakers, including Alicia Glen, New York’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, it demonstrated that cities as similar and diverse as London, New York, and King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, are looking to higher education establishments to generate activity in these fields as part of an overall strategy for urban growth, quality of life, and prosperity. And also that new graduates in the tech and innovation industries are showing a strong preference for urban centres as places for integrated work and living over the out-of-town science parks and campuses developed during the last decades of the last century.

As Glen put it, ‘Silicon Alley’ has become more appealing than Silicon Valley. In New York, the opening of Cornell Technion University on Roosevelt Island is part of a major drive to attract talent in competition with new innovation cities such as Austin and Denver and diversify the city’s economy, which currently relies on a few high impact industries. The finance sector notably accounts for 30% of the city’s payroll, but only employs 9% of its workers. Combating inequality has been recognised as central to maintaining New York’s competitiveness. This includes not only creating new jobs in the tech sector, focused on physical innovation clusters around the city, but also making changes to planning and land use policies, and imposing ‘aggressive, mandatory’ obligations on developers to provide affordable housing (subsidised by the city authorities) in order to stop low-income and middle-class citizens being squeezed out. In addition, it requires heavy investment in infrastructure across the five boroughs to re-align historic transportation systems with the locations where people are living and working today.

Noting that the challenges between London and New York are ‘remarkably similar’, Glen’s comments prefaced Johnson’s announcement of a new name for Cross Rail 2 – the Winston Churchill Line – and a commitment on the part of City Hall to finding half the £20bn funding required to ensure completion by 2028. Johnson stressed the importance of the line to supporting a 15% increase in the number of people able to access London’s central economic zone within 35 minutes, as well as ‘tens of thousands’ of new homes in the Lea Valley. These fall within designated Opportunity Areas created to ‘make housing work’ through mixed-use development – typically ‘city fringe type areas’, as Ed Lister put it, which appeal to tech companies, and are also tempting some of London’s major universities (cf UCL East and Imperial West) to put down roots as potential anchor institutions for new innovation clusters with local as well as wider economic impact.

As in New York, these developments have involved re-thinking urban land use and planning policy, and are highly structured by local development plans and masterplans. But a word of warning was offered by Fahd al Rasheed, CEO of King Abdullah Economic City. As one of five new planned cities in Saudi Arabia designed to host new investment in science, technology and related industries, in order to diversify the oil-based economy and create jobs, it incorporates a new multi-university campus and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, to support the development of home-grown, globally competitive, talent. However the original masterplan was, said Al Rasheed, ‘over-engineered and not ecological at all’. In his words, the process had taught them ‘one lesson: never stick to a masterplan; it only tells you what you should not do’.

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