Get in the zone: How to parcel a city into creative, business and tech districts

Organising cities into zones lifts the economic and creative charisma of Dubai, Shenzhen and Krusevac, says Sara Khan

The Serbian city Krusevac faced many challenges in the early 2000s. Its main street, Zakiceva, was rife with crime, and infrastructure in the city was crumbling, according to a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) report in 2007. 

With the help of USAID and private investment, as well as funds from the local government, the street began to blossom after a business improvement district (BID) project was implemented in 2003. 

The BID used its investment in myriad ways. Town squares were revitalised in preparation for the traditional Harvest and Wine Festival, bridges were reconstructed so that once-popular cycling trails could be reopened and a competition to find a unique tourist package resulted in ‘Three days in Nova Varos’, where visitors could visit a white-headed eagle reservation. 

These projects had powerful implications across economic and community growth. Not only did businesses report increased sales and property prices increase, the creation of Community Fairs – interactive events aimed at increasing citizen participation in urban areas – strove to address the wellbeing and social cohesion of residents, showing that zoning has interests that stretch beyond economic growth. 

Where it all began

The BID is a concept that first originated in the Canadian city of Toronto in 1970, where businesses paid a levy to fund projects within a district. Usually formed through partnerships among different stake- holders in a business community, the BID seeks to refurbish an area, improve its image and make it safe for businesses and people to flourish. 

Cities all over the world are embracing different concepts of zones to boost their economic output, in the hope that their formation will encourage artistic or personal growth, ultimately creating a liveable area that goes far beyond a particular zone. 

The BID concept has spread to several cities, from Cape Town in South Africa to Liverpool in England. Besides BIDs, governments have helped induce prosperity in cities by creating special economic zones. 

“Special economic zones could be a good interim solution for certain countries that are looking to give companies a good place to operate,” says Martin Norman, a senior private sector development specialist in the competitive industries practice of the World Bank. 

“Many [special economic zones] are located in or near urban areas where they find the infrastructure that they need to function, and these tend to be more successful.” 

For example, the quiet Chinese fishing village of Shenzhen was transformed into a buzzing industrial city near Hong Kong after being designated a special economic zone in 1980, attracting foreign direct investment and triggering a wave of exports to the world. 

Now the city has become the hardware capital of China, with several companies having bases there, such as Lenovo Group, one of the world’s largest personal computer makers and smartphone vendors, and TCL Corp, one of the world’s biggest mobile handset and television manufacturers. 

This economic growth had a knock-on effect for the city’s liveability. As FDI and big companies owed in, so did the startups and with them, a creative spirit. 

Success story

The city was named in 2008 as a member of the Creative Cities Network by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, which gave Shenzhen the title ‘City of Design’. And growth was not limited to artistic endeavours – the China Cup International Regatta, a four-day boat race from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, has now been running for 10 years and attracted teams from 36 different countries last year. 

The city was named in 2008 as a member of the Creative Cities Network by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO, which gave Shenzhen the title, City of Design. 

Zones or districts in a city can be an essential tool to carve out a new prosperous neighbourhood that is capable of lifting the economic and creative potential of a city, or even a whole country. 

The parcelling of cities helps the business community and decision- makers to implement policies that lead to economic development, job creation and ultimately a better standard of living. 

Creating Dubai Design District

In Dubai, zones or districts have sprouted up both organically and as part of specific governmental reform. Dubai Design District, or d3, is a purpose-built community that has commercial, residential, hospitality and retail space, creating a holistic area for designers to thrive. The free zone, set up in mid-2013 and currently housing more than 220 business, has also given companies the option to apply for an on-shore licence to trade, a step that would help them export and import products and supplies. 

“At d3, we studied the design industry closely before launching this project and our research showed a clear industry need and a compelling commercial case for establishing a creative community like d3,” says Mohammad Saeed Al Shehhi, Chief Operating Officer of d3. 

“The emirate has already established itself as a global hub for retail and tourism, and d3 was created to provide a platform to ensure the design industry is able to reach its full creative potential, and to support the development of a homegrown design industry in the Middle East and internationally.” 

Alserkal Avenue is a creative zone in the emirate that has come about more spontaneously. Says its developer, Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal: “Alserkal Avenue’s growth has come about very organically, with the first gallery opening up its doors in 2007. Now we are home to over 15 prominent, contemporary galleries.” 

But, he insists, growth is growth – whether it be organic or not. “There is no set formula for launching or growing an arts district. We endeavoured to create a platform that brought creative talent and inquisitive minds together; a place where artistic ingenuity would be nurtured and celebrated.” 

The Cluster Model

Another zoning formula in cities is the ‘cluster model’, whereby different zones house specific types of business that can flourish among one another. TECOM Investments, the parent company of d3, has visualised 10 zones that are different from one another, from Dubai Media City to Dubai Internet City, or Dubai International Academic City. 

“Cluster models provide thriving communities where businesses can be in the company of their peers, network and promote the development of their industry together –business partners, from multinationals to local startups, have been given the opportunity to thrive in this model, and exchange knowledge, and we have created real synergy among business partners,” says Al Shehhi. 

“Another component for successful free zones is the provision of industry- specific infrastructure and facilities that are designed to suit the needs of different industries.” 

Dubai has an array of economic zones that have created prosperity and attracted investments and talent by clustering industry-specific businesses together. 

The Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is a vibrant financial free zone housing 1,445 registered companies that employ about 20,000 people. The zone is eyeing trebling in size by 2024, by attracting at least 1,000 financial firms and a workforce of 50,000. This increase will lead to members’ combined balance sheet reaching US$400bn compared with US$65bn in mid 2015. 

Ripple effect

A second but equally vital component of this economic growth is what it does for the community. In the DIFC, various art nights and events have transformed the area into something far beyond a mere business centre. Scott Cain, the Chief Business Officer of Future Cities Catapult, said in the introduction to this feature that zones must be always first prioritised by their human aspect, an argument with which bin Eisa Alserkal agrees. 

“We have transformed an industrial area of Dubai into a centre of creativity where pioneers take risks and exchange ideas. The concept of community is imperative for sustainable growth and supporting homegrown initiatives, and local talent remains one of our core values.” 

Whether spontaneous or government-endorsed, clustered or adjacent, zoning has, and will continue to be, a unique way of stimulating both a city and its residents.