07/07/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

EcoDistricts As Incubators of Innovation Too

Last month, eight cities gathered in Portland, Oregon for an "EcoDistricts Incubator."

The Incubator is a "three-day intensive workshop designed to accelerate the speed at which North American cities are revitalized from the neighborhood up."

Few endeavors to reinvent our cities are so vital to meeting the challenges of our time and fostering an innovation region. Such places usually have highly intensive sustainable housing units, community gardens, open green spaces, native vegetation and farmers' markets catering to people who live and work in the area. The districts might also have forward-thinking transit connections with ample bicycle racks and storage, innovative bike and car-sharing programs and unlimited access to various bus and light rail connections.

But the new architecture of cities also requires that we encourage Art and Culture Districts to flourish too. These districts which are seen as increasingly important to economic development with their critical mass of art galleries, cinemas, music venues, public squares for performances, restaurants, cafes and retail shops, all help to attract, retain and nurture the creative workforce our cities need to succeed in the new economy.

American for the Arts, has researched the emergence of Art and Culture Districts in which the arts were used as part of a strategy for revitalizing cities. Theresa Cameron, Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager of AFTA is now producing an update of the earlier report, and more importantly, has launched a three-year effort to involve mayors and other city executives in the discussion, including webinars, conferences and inactive media to help cities across America reinvent their city for the age of "creativity and innovation."

This fall an EcoDistricts Summit will convene in Boston to pick up the pace and invite even more cities to share ideas about how to meet the challenges to our environment "from climate change to neighborhood degradation."

Like the Incubator, the organizers (formerly known as The Portland Sustainability Institute) of the upcoming Summit are promoting the EcoDistrict as a:

Powerful way to address many of their pressing challenges, from climate change to neighborhood degradation. In response, we're creating a convening, advocacy, technical assistance and research platform to inform and drive ... innovation -- strategic in nature, collaborative in approach and practical in application.

The EcoDistrict and the Art and Culture District leaders need to work together and indeed, add others who share the same urgent need to rethink the important role of cities such as representatives of the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Urban Land Institute.

We can and should be working collaboratively -- art and culture organizations, environmental experts, policymakers and city planners, architects and developers, mayors and city councils -- to nurture and attract the best and brightest, as author Richard Florida calls them, "The Creative Class."

All these efforts are to be applauded particularly because cities -- not states, or nations -- have become the engines of economic growth and development in the new, truly global economy. So-called "devolution" has given the cities new roles as incubators of creativity and innovation, the benchmarks of the most successful cities and as Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, coauthors of The Metropolitan Revolution, told Judy Woodruff of PBS recently, local officials are searching for new ways to innovate and make urban centers more livable.

The underlying message is simply that the city requires total reinvention and renewal.

It is not only the place where people live and work; it is the place where America can reinvent itself for the new, global economy. As Economist Edward Glaeser once said, "Cities are so fascinating because they play to mankind's greatest gift, which is our ability to learn from other people." They are places also where you raise your children, develop your sense of right and wrong, learn about yourself and your fellow man. Importantly, they are the places where attitudes about life, and values and politics converge and where new ideas take root. Now, perhaps more than ever, cities are places where the crucial incubators of innovation are formed.

At the Federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have joined together creating a Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Partnership works to coordinate federal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments but it could much more to empower cities. It sees it mission as:

• Providing more transportation choices.

• Promoting equitable, affordable housing.

• Enhancing economic competitiveness.

• Supporting existing communities.

• Coordinating and leveraging federal policies and investment. and,

• Valuing communities and neighborhoods.

Clearly the Partnership would support more local -- city driven -- initiatives.

Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal treatise on cities, told Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog: "Cities are the chief motors of economies. You can't talk about economies without talking, at least obliquely, about cities."

We know this. We know, too, that cities have been not only been the centers of commerce, they have been the centers of all culture and innovation, and the birthplace for some of humankind's greatest ideas. At this critical crossroads in time, we need the ideas that cities can create more than ever.

We need, too, to make our cities smart and sustainable; magnets to attract, nurture and retain the best and the brightest of our citizens.

Cities are the only hope we have of creating the Incubators of Innovation America so badly needs.