Richard Florida has been a dominant figure in urban studies for quite a while now, and like many of the authorities on our political and economic culture over the last twenty years, he’s desperately trying to stay relevant while the world as he thought it existed collapses around him.
For those outside the field, Richard Florida is a big-name academic who rose to fame with his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. If you’ve taken an urban studies course or read a little planning literature in the last fifteen years, chances are you’ve come across his name. And even if you haven’t heard Dick’s name, you may have seen the term “creative class” in some inane business or tech publication at some point.
Put simply, “creative class” was a rebranding of tech workers and the professional class. It was a view of the world that was enamored with the tech-savvy and all their cool habits, like their affinity for hip cities, diverse locales, gay-friendly neighborhoods, and happenin’ art scenes. Combined with the traditional class of knowledge-based workers (bankers, educators, lawyers, doctors, etc.), this was a group of people who would use their creativity and knowledge to solve the problems of the world. In postindustrial America, Dick explained, the key to economic prosperity would be to cater to this “innovative” group of people, who, with the right incentives, could be drawn to your city and boost your local economy by making apps, artwork, entertainment, better schools, new pharmaceuticals, complex financial instruments with the potential to sink the global economy… you know, creative stuff.
My critiquing of Richard Florida is hardly novel. Since he rose to fame, there have been many, many voices from the field of urban studies (and some outside it) who have challenged his theories. A lot of solid academic work has been done showing that the trends Dick was pointing to as evidence of a creative class could actually be better explained by larger social and economic forces. I recall some of my college professors discussing his ideas with obvious skepticism. But many civic leaders took Dick’s ideas to heart and set about trying to attract these creative types to their cities through a variety of means, among them tax credits for certain industries, pumping money into tech infrastructure, start-up incubators, and universities, and building the amenities that these savvy millennials all supposedly craved (stadiums, rail lines, bike paths, arts districts, zoning for dense urban living, etc.).
This was the thing about the creative class theory that seemed acceptable−albeit gimmicky−to me when I was in college. On the surface of it all, Richard Florida was telling cities they should invest in the arts, in education, in civic amenities, and in new industries. What could be so bad about that?
But beneath all of that was a very serious and fundamental problem underlying Dick’s theories, one that reflects a troublesome neoliberal view of the role of cities. When you take up the idea that the key to your city’s success is to appeal to some abstract group of outsiders, you stop thinking of the people who live in your city as citizens and you start thinking of them as customers. Rather than a large and wildly diverse mass of human beings who all have different needs that must be met but who collectively make up the dynamic entity that is your city, they become patrons who will take their business elsewhere (i.e., move to another city) if their particular desires aren’t met. In short, you’re not investing in civic amenities because you want to improve the livelihoods of those who live in your city; you’re doing it because you’re running a business.
There are an awful lot of problems with thinking of your city−or your local government, for that matter−as a business. But for the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on one: when you have limited resources (as all cities do) and you spend your time focusing on attracting people who have the resources to move to your city, the neediest people already in your city lose.
I got to see this dynamic firsthand when my family briefly lived in Pittsburgh. The Steel City has often been held up as an example to the country: a Rust Belt city whose economy crashed during the period of deindustrialization which revitalized itself thanks to the presence of two noted universities and attracting the tech and finance industries. Pittsburgh was the perfect example of the virtues of appealing to the creative class; within the last twenty years, the city has invested heavily in new civic amenities, including three large sports stadiums, a sparkling convention center, waterfront parks, an extension of the city’s subway line, arts districts, new museums, and even a fancy new casino.
But there are two Pittsburghs, and the difference between them is stark. My family lived in Beechview, a working-class neighborhood just within the city limits. Beechview is an old streetcar suburb with steep hills, staircase walkways, and Victorian houses set closely together, like some sort of ungentrified version of San Francisco. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood by any means, and it had the enviable privilege of being directly served by one of the city’s two light rail lines, which are essentially the sole survivors of the city’s former streetcar network.
But it was definitely a neglected neighborhood. The sidewalks were crumbling, the staircases often had huge chunks of concrete missing from their steps, the streets would develop potholes so deep it would expose the old brick paving beneath the asphalt, and the playgrounds were minimally cared for. The local branch of the library system was constantly in danger of closing down due to lack of funding, and the neighborhood’s sole grocery store shut down while my family lived there, effectively turning Beechview into a food desert. Fortunately, it seems like things have turned around a little bit since my family left: the library was renovated a couple of years ago and a new grocery has moved into the space vacated by the old one. But Beechview was one of the lucky neighborhoods; other neighborhoods saw projects stopped, bus service cut, and needed infrastructural repairs that never happened, all while city leaders pumped massive amounts of money into shiny new amenities for the downtown area to raise the city’s prestige.
This is a dynamic experienced in many American cities. Richard Florida didn’t create any of these problems, but he certainly didn’t do anything to help, and the popularization of his theories exasperated some of these problems. The theory of the creative class had nothing to offer in terms of addressing social inequality, but is one that fundamentally leads to winners and losers. This became readily apparent with the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession, but there were warning signs before, when people started noticing that the very cities that Dick ranked as the most attractive to this supposed creative class were also the ones experiencing the worst inequality and segregation.
Richard Florida has somewhat fallen out of favor in the field, his ideas emblematic of a naive time that hadn’t come to terms with the fact that its supposed prosperity was a facade built on an unstable foundation. Or that the collapse of that facade would trigger a backlash that would give rise to repulsive demagogues. Dick is trying to rehabilitate his image with the release of a new book later this year, The New Urban Crisis, which appears to be an attempt to reconcile his optimistic vision of a tech-savvy knowledge class that will revitalize our cities with the grim reality of extreme social inequality.
I give Richard Florida a lot of credit for acknowledging that his theories were severely flawed, and it’s good to see him preaching the need to address societal inequalities. But he’s ill-suited to be a spokesperson for these times, where it seems all but certain that crucial resources will be stripped from cities by an unsympathetic federal government. Cities are increasingly going to have to fend for themselves, and civic leaders can’t count on a bunch of techies or artists moving to their city and propping up the local economy. Rather than looking outward, cities are going to have to look within. And as citizens, it will ultimately be up to us to make our cities better.