Richard Florida, the man credited with popularizing the belief that the “creative class” drives economic development, was in Ann Arbor yesterday to address a regional economic forum hosted by Ann Arbor Spark. As I didn’t take very good notes, and don’t have the time this evening to provide anything even remotely approaching comprehensive coverage, I know I should probably just keep quiet on the subject, but, as I thought it might be of interest to you, and since I haven’t seen anyone else post about it, I wanted to pass along a few brief notes. Here, in no particular order, are a few thoughts.
1. The Ann Arbor stop was just one of many for Florida, who is touring the country in support of his new book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. Florida said he’d pretty much finished writing the book this past fall, but rewrote it in the wake of this past November’s election, when it became clear to him that Trump won because of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots, which, according to Florida, is largely geographic in nature, as those with resources are gravitating toward cities, while those without resources are being driven out. Maybe it was just the table I was at, but my sense was that his anti-Trump sentiments weren’t shared by many in the audience. He did, however, get some applause when he told the crowd that his wife is from Birmingham, and that, every Thanksgiving, they come down from Toronto to watch the Lions play in Detroit. It wasn’t clear, but it sounded like Florida chose to move to Toronto, where he’s the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, at least in part due to a desire on his part to pick up the mantle of urban research pioneer Jane Jacobs, the author of 1961’s groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who lived there until her death in 2006. Speaking of Jacobs, he says he asked her once what she thought her greatest contribution was to society. According to Florida, she said it was the idea that economic growth didn’t come from companies, but from people, who become something greater than themselves when they come together in cities. When you bring together large numbers of people with ambition and knowledge, Florida says, you create something powerful, an engine for change. But, he says, they also carve deep divides. And, it was at this point, he started talking about the poplulist backlash that gave us Trump and Brexit.
2. It’s probably worth noting that not everyone loves Florida’s work. He has his critics, many of whom, it would appear, see him as more of a self-promoter than a legitimate heir to Jacobs. But his influence over the urban planning field is unquestionable, as a generation of city planners have made their careers echoing his mantra that our cities, if we’re to see them revitalized, need to be more tolerant of, and welcoming to, creative types. And, for what it’s worth, Florida now acknowledges at least some of the criticism that’s been directed his way. Recently, while in Houston, Florida said the following. “I got wrong that the creative class could magically restore our cities, become a new middle class like my father’s, and we were going to live happily forever after,” he said. “I could not have anticipated among all this urban growth and revival that there was a dark side to the urban creative revolution, a very deep dark side.” And that, it seems, is the narrative that drives the new book, which, by the way, I’ve yet to read. Here’s a clip from the Houston Chronicle.
…Through books and magazine cover stories, pricey speeches and consultations, the TED-talking University of Toronto professor popularized the early-aughts idea that faded cities could revitalize themselves by attracting the talented, intellectual types who made up what he called the “creative class.” Lure some hip coffeeshops, create an “arts district,” play up your gay friendliness, and watch the laptopping masses pour in.
Sixteen years after Florida published his first book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” that theory has proved half true. For many small, post-industrial cities without assets like big tech companies and universities, no amount of creative-class marketing would turn things around. Elmira, N.Y., for example, saw little return on its investment in the Florida program, as a 2009 story in the American Prospect detailed…
But it wasn’t just that the creative class wasn’t a silver bullet. There was also the “dark side” Florida alluded to earlier… “The urban pessimists have a point,” Florida told the Houston Chronicle. “We neglected their point, which is that cities are gentrifying, people are being priced out, displaced from their homes. I think we need a new vision for cities that combines an optimistic viewpoint with an understanding of the challenges that re-urbanization brings.”
So, he preached to the masses that our salvation lay in luring artists and the like back to our cities, but, in doing so, he let the gentrification genie out of the bottle. And this new book, it seems, is his attempt to make amends (and sell more books).
3. I was waiting for Florida to claim some of Michael Shuman’s territory, and start talking about the importance of small, locally owned businesses and cooperatives, but he never quite got there. He did, however, share a few ideas about how we might achieve what he called “inclusive urbanism.” We have to build affordable housing, especially affordable rental housing, in our cities, he said. We have to invest in mass transit, so that the people on the periphery, who have been forced out of cities, are still able to participate. And, we have to “upgrade” service jobs, the same way we did with manufacturing jobs after World War II. We need to make it possible for people working service jobs to actually make a living wage that allows them to exist within in our cities, he said.
4. If we do nothing to address these issues, he said, we risk losing our cities. And it was at this point that Florida made his most profound statement. “When places get boring,” he said, “even the rich leave.”
5. Regardless of what you think about Florida, I think you’ll probably agree that it’s a good message for the people of Ann Arbor to hear. With the prices of homes in the city rising 6.3% in the last year alone, and the median price of a single-family unit reaching $334,800, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that, according to Florida, ours is the 8th most economically segregated community in the United States, with fewer and fewer places for the non-wealthy to live. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that no one seems to have the political will to follow through on the findings of the County’s Affordable Housing & Economic Equity Analysis report and build new affordable housing in Ann Arbor… I don’t know to what extent Florida’s speech might have sunk in, but I know I’ll be repeating the phrase, “When places get boring, even the rich leave,” in my head for a while. [Will someone remind me to create a Maynard Boring Index?]
6. Florida said that this rift we’re seeing in America, the one that resulted in Trump being elected, is the biggest one we’ve seen since the Civil War. Not only, he said, do we have to contend with the people who have been left behind, who are susceptible to the populist propaganda, but, he added, we have a “new urban luddism” on the left, with people fighting against growth and change. And he seems to think that things are going to get worse, especially for those of us at universities, who, in his opinion, are going to get the brunt of the anti-intellectualism, anti-creative class, anti-growth attack. “The Backlash to the universities,” he warned, “will be enormous.”
7. For what it’s worth, he added that he knew, when Rob Ford, the crack smoking mayor of Toronto, was elected, that bad things were likely going to start happening elsewhere.
8. We need to stop looking to the federal government for answers, Florida said. Under Trump, he said, the federal government won’t fix anything. And they likely wouldn’t have come to our rescue under Clinton either, he added. He ends by saying that he hopes two mayors, a Democrat and a Republican, run together on a ticket for the Oval Office in 2020 with a message of “inclusive prosperity,” promising to return control to local communities.
[If you were in the audience for Florida’s keynote, and I either missed something significant, or got something wrong, please leave a comment. I’d appreciate it.]