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John Petro

A New Urban Landscape

Writing in the American Prospect, Alec MacGillis takes a critical look at the work of Richard Florida, author of global best-seller The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida has a new book due out in April called The Great Reset, which MacGillis reports will examine how the recession has affected cities and regions across the country.

While MacGillis uses a lot of ink questioning Florida's motives, casting the urban development guru's lecture tours as just a hair shy of disingenuous hucksterism, the strength of MacGillis' piece is pointing out the limits of Florida's "creative class" urban development strategy. Florida convinced cities across the country that if they took certain steps with the goal of attracting the young, hip creative class, it would spark a renaissance in their city just as it had done in New York, Washington, Boston, and Chicago.

But it was one line in particular, from Florida's March 2009 Atlantic piece "How the Crash Will Reshape America," that seemed to enrage MacGillis. In the Atlantic piece, Florida lays out what he believes is the new American urban geography, in which talented individuals continue to move from relatively unproductive areas of the country into the country's growing mega-regions (with really fun names like Char-Lanta and Tor-Buff-Chester). In this case, the unproductive regions include both former manufacturing cities, like Detroit, and Sunbelt boomtowns like Las Vegas and Phoenix. Florida writes, "We need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try."

MacGillis responds by pointing out that only a few years ago, Florida was promoting his "creative class" urban renewal strategy in the very places that he is now writing off. MacGillis argues that Florida is "declaring, from his high-profile perch, that many of these same cities are not part of the country's strategy for future growth simply because their prospects as creative magnets are too daunting."

The last bit may be too harsh. It seems that Florida makes his pronouncement not because of certain cities' inability to attract creative types, but because the economic order under which they became successful is no longer as viable as it once was. In the case of the Rustbelt, Florida argues that it was the decline of American manufacturing in the face of global competition. For the Sunbelt, it was a period of unabashed consumer spending and unsustainable home building: development for development's sake.

Whether or not Florida really suggests that we write off Detroit and Cape Coral is uncertain. When MacGillis presses Florida on this point, Florida responds, "I'm not saying abandon these places. I'm saying, number one, invest in their assets, number two, invest in their connective fiber [to other cities]."

Florida was also directly responding to the federal responses to the recession that were being debated at that time: the automaker bailout and policies that would prevent the housing market from dropping further. "Neither auto-company rescue packages nor policies designed to artificially prop up housing prices will position the country for renewed growth," argued Florida.

While Florida's claim that we can't save Detroit, Rochester, or Phoenix--if that is what he really meant--wasn't the smoking gun that MacGillis made it out to be, MacGillis is right in pointing out that Florida's creative magnet development strategy was never much of a strategy to begin with. Cities were basically instructed to attract highly educated, highly skilled professionals with urban tastes by creating cool urban places.

Making improvements in a city's urban fabric is good advice, but the potential of some cities to attract hip web designers will be limited by factors such as a city's size. Obviously, not every city can sit at the cool kid table.

But even more troubling is how Florida's development model ignores the implications of what happens to those who are not part of the creative class. In "How the Crash Will Reshape America," Florida argues for increasing the mobility of the creative class, to allow them to move freely into the cities and regions that are the most productive, leaving the less productive behind.

But mobility has always been the privilege of the rich, and has consequently led to increased inequality and a lack of economic opportunity for the less rich and mobile. Mobility allowed upper-class whites to move out of the dirty, crowded central cities of the early 20th Century, leaving those without the means to do so behind. Then the jobs moved to the suburbs as well, and low-income city dwellers found themselves cut off from the jobs and skills necessary to participate in regional and global economies. Ironically, it is this mobility that allowed the symptoms of urban decay to take such a firm hold in central cities, a decay that Florida is now trying to undo.

It seems that from Florida's perspective, the inequality that will result from his new urban geography is only a peripheral concern, or a consequence that is inevitable because of new economic realities. In declining cities, disadvantaged residents without mobility will be faced with declining city services and fewer employment opportunities. Soon, only the poorest will remain, and the city and its residents will be off of the country's radar until a Katrina-type disaster reminds us that, yes, people live here and they are not doing very well.

Even in New York City, a winner under Florida's scenario, the consequences of this new urban geography are troubling. In New York, members of the creative class are producing the types of high-end services that Florida imagines will dominate the global economy in the 21st Century, earning high wages, and driving up the cost of goods and services. But those that are not part of the club, low-income workers who provide services to the creative class, have seen their real wages fall, leading to economic hardship, lower levels of happiness, and shorter life expectancies.


But is there nothing that can be done for residents of cities in decline other than buying them a one-way ticket to San Jose or Char-Lanta? Should we follow Florida's advice and "let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography"?

From a federal perspective, Florida gives some good advice. We should scale back the subsidies that are given out to homeowners in the form of the mortgage interest rate deduction, which only encourages consumers to over leverage themselves in the housing market. Florida points out that federal subsidies and spending that encourage homeownership also funnel growth to suburban fringes, leading to unsustainable patterns of development.

But from this point on, Florida's suggestions become increasingly vague. He suggests channeling growth into productive mega-regions, but offers not thoughts on how to do this. Then, in his only admission of the incredibly inequitable landscape that is being carved, Florida writes, "Just as important, we need to make elite cities and key mega-regions more attractive and affordable for all of America's classes, not just the upper crust." But again, no concrete ideas on how to do this.

But there is more that the federal government can and should do. Instead of taking the decline of American manufacturing as a given, the U.S. should strategically pursue industrial sectors where U.S. companies could be competitive. Transportation costs for manufactured goods will only increase as oil becomes more scarce and expensive, and manufacturing certain high value-added goods close to home will begin to make more economic sense.

Other priorities, such as access to higher education, skills training, health care, and affordable housing are unquestionably important roles for the federal government. Unfortunately, these issues are not always a priority with Congress, and it is low-income families that suffer as a result.

In many cases, cities will have to turn inward and explore local-level policies that will both give low-income individuals increased economic opportunity and create the physical landscape necessary for success. Boston has taken an innovative approach to abandoned housing in the city to create affordable housing opportunities for residents. San Francisco and Santa Fe have citywide minimum wage laws that help elevate the working poor out of poverty. By investing in mass transit, Charlotte is making it possible for individuals to get around the city without the cost of owning a car.

Cities must also be taking steps to become more sustainable and energy efficient. Again, energy costs are going to increase, and those cities that create sustainable communities will be better positioned than those dependent on fossil fuels.

But even if Florida's strategy of attracting creative types is not the type of solution that will unfailingly propel a declining city into a period of renaissance, his principles of good urbanism should be followed by both Rustbelt cities with decaying inner-city neighborhoods and Sunbelt cities that never had a true urban, public realm to begin with. Vibrant urban neighborhoods, with a mix of income levels, good public transit, and flourishing neighborhood retailers, gives residents access to more opportunity and can lower household costs. They can also provide an environment ripe for innovation and entrepreneurial activity. But this doesn't happen automatically. It requires that local, state, and federal governments make the right investments in affordable housing and public transit. And it requires government to consider the needs of residents before corporate interests.

Long-term economic trends will constantly be changing the relative importance, power, and prosperity of cities and regions. However, there is much that cities can do to control their own destiny. But it takes proactive and engaged local government to make this possible.

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Posted at 4:38 PM, Jan 07, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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