Here’s something to keep in mind when you hear mayors making plans for things like designated green energy zones or tech clusters:
Q: Has anything surprised you about downtown’s recovery?
A: This was always a financial center. Now we have a lease for a million square feet from Condé Nast. That is a change. The diversity has been a surprise to me.
That’s from a Crain‘s interview with Larry Silverstein, whose firm is building the 1 World Trade Center. It’s going to be a big building, no doubt, but it’s not a neighborhood. If Larry Silverstein couldn’t predict what kind of company would be the anchor tenant in this one tower, how can we trust cities to pick the futures of entire neighborhoods? Some of the plans – call them neighborhood industrial policies – can be quite elaborate. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, for example, calls for a “technology centre” with a “food processing enterprise incubator.”
But how often does this sort of government urban-industrial planning work out? Silicon Valley (computer technology) and Singapore (biotech) both had their genesis in state-funded universities, though Singapore’s biotech sector was much more intentional than Silicon Valley’s tech industry. Financial hubs like London and Delaware and trade hubs like Hong Kong also required a certain amount of government foresight, in the form of good – i.e., laissez-faire – financial regulations and trade policies.
But Vancouver isn’t a city-state, and Mayor Robertson can’t found a university or opt out of Canada’s federal patent laws. Most of these sorts of zones are implemented solely on the local level, which generally means targeted tax breaks, subsidies, and zoning set-asides. But while these might make great ribbon-cuttings and talking points, they are tepid policy tools at best, and I don’t believe any major agglomeration has ever been borne out of these methods. Can any readers think of any examples?