In the early 1960s, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looked much like the many old industrial cities across the country of the present that are drawing the curtain on the evocative past and wondering what the next act holds. The 43-acre (17.4-ha) district, once dense with factories that churned out soap, vulcanized rubber, and dozens of other products, had become a collection of forlorn, rickety structures that blighted the landscape.

“Kendall Square was a moribund 19th-century district,” said Robert Simha, director of planning emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which abuts the area. Simha represented MIT’s interests in Kendall Square during planning discussions from the 1960s to the 1990s. “Companies were sliding away. People were losing jobs. The city was losing income. The few plants that remained, like the vulcanized rubber plant, were smelly and polluted the air.”

A half-century later, Kendall Square is almost unrecognizable. The old economy is a rapidly fading memory and the new one is in full swing. Today, Kendall Square is arguably the most robust innovation-based cluster in the country, if not the world. More than 150 biotechnology, life sciences, and information technology firms have a presence there and others are clamoring to get a foothold. Google, Microsoft, Merck, Pfizer, and Samsung are just a small number of the global firms with facilities in Kendall Square, and they are surrounded by hundreds of startup companies focused on clean-energy and new technologies. Recently, MIT announced a plan to invest $700 million to redevelop eight parcels it owns in Kendall Square. This will be added to the more than 5 million square feet (465,000 sq m) of laboratory and office space either under construction or deep in the planning stage.

The story of Kendall Square’s evolution is interesting from a historical and an urban planning perspective. But the question is: Does the district’s success yield useful lessons for urban areas across the country? Can old-industry cities in search of new economic engines benefit from Kendall Square’s experience?

Those closely involved with Kendall Square’s development say yes, while at the same time acknowledging the district’s many unique advantages. Among those advantages are Kendall Square’s proximity to two of the country’s most prestigious universities, Harvard and MIT, and an international airport approximately ten minutes away by car (only a little longer by public transportation). Kendall Square is connected to downtown Boston by the ornate Longfellow Bridge, which spans the Charles River. A subway train rumbles over the bridge and stops at the Kendall Square station before moving on to Harvard Square. The Boston metropolitan area is home to more than 63 public and private colleges and universities.

Although these advantages are crystal clear today, before the shift to a knowledge-based economy took hold—no more than 15 years ago—only a few farsighted developers were willing to take a chance on Kendall Square. One of the earliest was Boston Properties, a private development company that in 1997 became a publicly traded real estate investment trust. The company built its first office building in Kendall Square in 1979 on spec. Such foresight has been rewarded.

“We’ve been involved in Kendall Square since the late 1970s and have watched as the area has grown and expanded,” says Bryan Koop, senior vice president and regional manager, in an e-mail response to questions. “The constants that have played a role in all the changes have been innovation and the proximity to MIT,” Koop adds. Today, Boston Properties’ Kendall Square holdings include nine office and laboratory buildings, a full-service hotel, and three parking garages—and the company has two additional office/lab buildings under construction.

Multinational corporations—many of them direct competitors in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries—are opening offices side by side in Kendall Square. They are making that choice because of the pool of highly educated talent the area attracts and because innovative thinking is contagious. “The companies that choose to locate and grow in Kendall Square are looking for the best talent and ideas that the tech and biotech worlds have to offer,” says Koop. “This talent is overwhelmingly located in Kendall Square and at MIT.”

Moreover, the speed at which science and technology are advancing requires a new, more open model of interaction—even with competitors. “Fifteen years ago, a pharmaceutical company did not want its staff talking to other scientists. That’s over,” says David Dixon, principal of Boston-based Goody Clancy, an architecture and urban planning firm commissioned to study Kendall Square. “Now they want to talk to each other. They attend forums, meet at lunch and after work to exchange ideas, and they can do that because they are close together.” Dixon heads his firm’s planning and urban design division.

In addition, the highly concentrated cluster of industries facilitates—rather than inhibits—the development of startup companies. Researchers with good ideas can find incubator space from which to launch a commercial enterprise. Venture capital firms hover about. Law firms that specialize in intellectual property rights and public relations firms that know how to market promising innovations are easily accessible. But most of all, the area’s reputation among scientists and engineers as the place where innovation happens attracts talent from around the world.

Today, the challenge for urban planners in Kendall Square is to build on the opportunities that proximity of scientists, engineers, and academics affords. And the lessons from Kendall Square’s evolution, urban planners say, are transferrable. Dixon, of Goody Clancy, reports that cities around the country are designing innovative clusters anchored by urban universities. They want to know how to design an incubator building, a place where good ideas from the university can be brought to market. “Two-thirds of incubator space should be for meeting places with white boards,” he says. “It must be easy to circulate and meet people.”

Planners agree that the most important lesson from Kendall Square is the importance of creating a pleasant, vibrant environment. “Focus not just on the buildings, but on the mix of uses,” advises Koop of Boston Properties. “Try to create opportunities for 24/7 use to create lively and welcoming public spaces. It takes time to create a destination. The transformation of Kendall Square began in the late 1970s and continues today. Everyone wants instant success, but nothing truly great happens overnight.”

“One of the things driving our work in Kendall Square is a universal flex lab,” says Jim Batchelor, president and CEO of Arrowstreet, a Somerville, Massachusetts–based architecture firm. “The target of this space is companies larger than an incubator, companies going after venture capital. They have a short time fuse. Flex labs are designed for the generic life science companies that can jump in and get going.”

The emphasis for both planners and companies, says Dixon, should be on employees. “People want to work in a good urban environment where they can walk to work or take public transportation,” he says. Diversity in both the company and the area is important. “A focus on lifestyle, authenticity, diversity, and tolerance is a good economic strategy.”

Kendall Square is still evolving, however, and concerns about housing—especially affordable housing that enables economic diversity in the community—are ongoing challenges. But no one can deny that over the past 50 years, Kendall Square has successfully managed the transition from the old economy to the innovative future.

ULI–the Urban Land Institute