Innovation District

students gather for a team picture.

The relationship between the water and the city, between water and people, and between water and architecture, is a critically important issue. In the BuffaloNiagara Region, it is now understood that the typical strategy of fortifying against the elements and creating barricades along the water has had catastrophic ecological, social, and cultural impacts. The junior’s semester-long investigation explored and reflected on the role of water in human settlement and new tectonic possibilities for living in and along the water’s edge.



Nkosi Alleyne
Rachel Bailey
Jocelyne Bello
Courtney Domst
Sarah Donohue
Megan Koury
Eli Levine
Maria Melchiorre
Nicholas Miller
Evan Roorand
Julia White
Vita Wu



URP 581
Spring 2019



The Urban Planning studio on the Feasibility of Innovation Districts in Buffalo has earned the inaugural “Best Student Paper” award in a national competition organized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. The inaugural Planning & Entrepreneurship Awards, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, recognize faculty and student research at the intersection of urban planning and economic innovation.

In pursuit of creative and contemporary economic development strategies, a group of leaders in Western New York identified an innovation district (ID) as a valuable potential resource for this region. This term describes urban neighborhood-scale geographic places where a new economy combines hightech businesses and institutions within a collaborative built environment that is conducive to living, working, and playing.  

This report investigates the plausibility of the emergence of an ID in the City of Buffalo or adjacent municipalities. The studio first sought to investigate appropriate locations for an ID. With insight from local leaders, they selected ten potential sites to study as possible places where a successful ID may arise. Additionally, initial locations were chosen based on their proximity to innovative activity and connections to regional assets and highpowered anchor institutions such as the University at Buffalo

Why are these innovation districts needed?

Innovation districts are one of several ways to improve the local economy, but not a full story of why or how economies improve. The IDs do not attract just any companies. Companies in hightech are especially desirable to change the economy, bring in future industries, and potentially diversify the economy of Buffalo. The impact of physical space on the economy is still important; people are still unable to completely isolate from one another. Through the alteration of the physical space, IDs can create vital neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have a high level of activity, often 24/7 lifestyles with different businesses and liveliness. Physical space place-making will create a place to help lead to collaborative work, and intradisciplinary idea sharing, increasing the likelihood that companies will succeed. Since IDs are urban in nature, they can help counter suburbanization while creating attractive areas that draw young people into the city. Since these districts are often strengthening the nearby educational and medical institutions, the predominant benefit of IDs is to the science and college-educated young adults. However, there are also potential secondary jobs arising for the local community, benefiting those without this formal education.

The construction of IDs does not solve issues of undereducated people. There may be a way to plan for an ID without disposition and gentrification, with the inclusion of sufficient investment in affordable housing. There is also a potential for a reversal of the “brain drain” that many smaller cities with educational systems face. The introduction of an innovation district to a city is not a solution for poverty, however. Cities and neighborhoods with weak economies need help lifting their economy to flourish from other means

What this report does

There are a lot of different IDs in North America. This report shows the keys to building a prosperous innovation district while acknowledging that some can be clearly made with no real effort for marketing purposes. Identifying the potential for Buffalo to have a concrete innovation district that fits the studio’s definition will be the main focus of this report.

This report provides insight on IDs that already exist, or at least have been termed IDs, to give Western New York a better understanding of what key conditions should be considered when attempting to plan for this new type of development. 

Innovation districts defined

IDs are an approach to strengthen local urban economies. They provide for an urban neighborhood approach. The Brookings Institute began arousing public interest in these developments with a series of publications beginning in 2013. They consider an innovation district as a “mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments – all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”

The studio provided a more rigorous definition of an innovation district: a concentration of innovative tech businesses and/ or institutions in a dense mixed-use urban area. A selection of other characteristics of these neighborhoods helps bring about the ID. These include housing, retail, the “funky” local businesses and cultural institutions, good walkability and transit connectivity, internet connectivity with the latest speeds. In addition, at the very beginning of development, development space is needed, and the cost of space per square foot must be low enough to promote development.

Finding innovative activity in the Buffalo metro area

To locate an area in Western New York that would be appropriate for an ID, the studio identified and observed where innovative energy is already occurring by locating, databasing and mapping the innovative firms within the region. To effectively use the identified locations of innovative firms, more defined measurements of an ID were needed. Therefore, the studio refined their definitions of a wider ID and a core ID. The wider ID is a larger designated area that supports or reinforces the core area while also benefiting from the core area’s success. The wider ID is one to two square miles. The core ID is located within the wider ID and encompasses approximately 50- to 100-acres.

A total of 140 companies made it onto the inventory list. The list includes start-ups, more established firms, and large publicly traded corporations, all of which are heavily involved in research and development (R&D) activities. The total employment in this inventory is estimated to be approximately 9,517 individuals. This employment number is an approximation since only employment size ranges can be obtained for some companies. The firms were classified into 82 NAICS codes. In addition, to provide a more comprehensible listing, the companies were further categorized into 37 sectors based on their nature of business.

The analysis of the locations of innovative activities in Western New York revealed that the broader area on which to focus the innovation district is the general downtown vicinity. This downtown area is roughly two square miles. Out of the ten sites initially recommended by local leaders, four are located in this downtown area, which extends from the waterfront to middle Main Street. These four potential IDs are the Waterfront, Lower Main, Lafayette Square vicinity, and Middle Main. In order to determine which 50- to 100-acre area makes the most sense for a core ID, the studio looked at the urban features within the four areas that could make an ID successful. The selection of a smaller area within the broader area was made through a concentrated neighborhood analysis.

Choosing a promising location

It became clear that a methodical way to both assess each location’s viability and to compare them to each other was needed. The studio created a rubric, a scorecard that can compare neighborhoods for their suitability as an ID.

Although Buffalo’s downtown has undergone dis-investment and population loss, the decision to focus on four core districts within Buffalo’s downtown is supported by the overview of innovative tech firms within the region. The research indicates that downtown has the largest concentration of existing innovative firms. With established innovative energy, it’s clear that this location offers the most potential to be a catalyst to attract additional innovative firms and ultimately establish a successful ID.

A core ID’s size needs to be relatively small in order to foster an ID’s desirable high concentration of innovation and mixed-use proponents. Each district would be between 50- and 100-acres to allow for dense development and to create the condensed environment necessary for collaborative innovation. The rubric was developed using case study research as well as ideas from local leaders, both private and public. A variety of desired ID characteristics were outlined, resulting in eleven distinct rubric categories: 1. Innovation firms, 2. Mixed-use, 3. Nearby activity centers, 4. Anchors (institutional and business), 5. Infrastructure, 6. “Funky index,” 7. Density, 8. Housing as the percent of all uses (square feet), 9. Property value (occupied buildings, vacant buildings, and vacant land), 10. Vacancy rate (land and buildings), and 11. Opportunity zone.

Through this process, Lafayette Square was found to be the best location to host an ID as it received the highest score on the district innovation rubric. Overall, the boundaries drawn around the core districts in this research were specifically for analytical purposes. These boundaries are flexible and can be drawn differently in a way that finds the best balance of the advantages and disadvantages between Lower Main and Lafayette Square. Now the time comes for Buffalo’s and Western New York’s leaderrs and informed citizens to weigh in on the creation of an ID