Richard Florida: Creative Critic

In my February 15, 2009 post I commented on the Creative Class ideas generated by Richard Florida and how they may impact Detroit.  I also indicated that the theories of Richard Florida are not without there critics.  In a March 10, 2009 article in the National Post (a newspaper in Richard Florida’s “home” city of Toronto) written by Johnathan Kay, the author provides a critic of a recent article by Florida in which he prophecises that a new urban movement has been ushered in by the economic and social crisis griping the nation.  Kay asks, “Where exactly are all these new arrivals going to live? In most downtown areas, spaces available for infill development are minimal.” Sounds like an opportunity for Detroit!  I have posted the article below along with a link to the original. Enjoy!

The Problem with Richard Florida

Jonathan Kay, National Post  Published: Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Richard Florida — an American born scholar who now pontificates from a well-endowed perch at the University of Toronto — may well be the world’s most influential living urban theorist. But he should also be regarded as an expert on another subject: the art of becoming famous. His critically acclaimed theory about the rejuvenation of American cities is not only clever and original; by a wonderful coincidence, it also holds inherent appeal for the arty cultural gatekeepers who anoint public intellectuals.

To become economically and sociologically successful, Florida argues, cities must amp up their “urban metabolism” by attracting a “creative class.” (The latter phrase — Florida‘s version of Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point” — appears in the titles of no fewer than three of the man’s books.) Members of this class include artists, Internet types, writers, academics, business visionaries, medical researchers, tech super-nerds and “high bohemians” (let your imagination run wild).

Gays and lesbians figure heavily in Florida‘s thesis: To the extent creatives aren’t gay themselves, they tend to be so gay-friendly they view the rainbow flag as a proxy for general enlightenment and livability. One of the best ways for cities to attract the best and the brightest, Florida therefore argues, is to promote a vibrant gay presence — something the scholar measures with his self-created (and slightly creepy-sounding) “gay index.”

Skeptical as I am about the power of Florida‘s army of laptop-wielding theatre directors and Web-commerce consultants to transform our cities, there seems to be a germ of truth to his theory. The most desirable cities in North America (from my point of view, at least) — Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, Montreal — are all teeming with people who’d look very much at home opposite John Hodgman in one of those annoying/ hilarious Macads.

Then again, since I’mexactly the sort of smug “creative” whom Florida fawningly sets up as the lynchpin of urban civilization, I confess to divided loyalties –as should all the other media types who have collectively declared Florida the second coming of Jane Jacobs. By writing books for upscale, overeducated, downtown-dwelling, gay-friendly urbanites about how upscale, overeducated, downtown-dwelling, gay-friendly urbanites are the most important people on the planet, Richard Florida has brilliantly merged subject and audience into one.

But this month’s issue of The Atlantic, in which Florida has the cover story, set me wondering: Has the man gone too far — even for snobs like me?

In his 8,000-word manifesto, How the crash will reshape America, Florida burbles in eschatological tones, arguing that the current recession marks nothing less than “the end of a whole way of life.” Just as the Great Depression led to the rise of suburbs, and the malaise of the 1970s sowed the seeds of the Sun Belt, he argues, the crash of 2008-09 must yield a new high-density urban landscape designed to Florida‘s own revolutionary specifications.

“Every phase or epoch of capitalism has its own distinct geography,” writes Florida, summoning a curiously

Marxist tone. The suburbs and the highway may have been well-suited to the industrial economy of the post-war era. But in this “next chapter of American economic history,” they will be seen as embarrassing relics.

Like any true revolutionary, Florida sees the sunny side of upheaval and cataclysm. “The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity,” he writes. “The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its ‘sell-by’ date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy.”

Florida‘s policy prescription: shrunken suburbs, smaller houses, denser urban cores, less home-ownership and more renting. “In short,” he concludes, “it will be a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities.”

That sort of electric writing sounds wonderful at first blush: Who doesn’t crave cities that are “innovative,” “free,” “efficient,” “creative” and “mega”?

But once the revolutionary thrill of Florida’s prose wears off, take a sober look around any big city worth living in and ask yourself this: Where exactly are all these new arrivals going to live? In most downtown areas, spaces available for infill development are minimal. Match Florida’s ideology to reality, and it dawns on you that what he’s really getting at is boosting population density by knocking over single-family dwellings and putting up apartment blocks to warehouse foreclosed-upon suburban refugees.

Again — this is the sort of plan that folks like me can be expected to instinctively embrace: I’ve been living this sort of overpriced, cheek-by-jowl, 1,500-square-foot dollhouse urban life in Toronto and New York for the last 15 years. Why shouldn’t everyone else go in for big city life, too?

But then the realization hits me that it isn’t for love of traffic that so many millions of North Americans have moved out to the suburbs: They’re looking for big houses, little leagues, decent schools and an opportunity to raise large families. And yes, they know all about the wonderful creative people (gay or otherwise) they could be rubbing elbows with if only they slapped down half-a-million for a charming downtown row house, put their kids in bunk beds and commuted by bike to their dot-com ad agency. It just so happens that this isn’t the life they want.

All around North America, millions of bankrupt families are surrendering their homes and moving into cramped apartments. But pace Richard Florida, these aren’t revolutionaries; and this isn’t a revolution, just a series of personal financial tragedies — tragedies that will be reversed, I suspect, as soon as Florida‘s unwilling conscripts can scratch together enough money for a fresh down payment on the American dream.



~ by rmkasak on March 10, 2009.

One Response to “Richard Florida: Creative Critic”

  1. Interesting point of view. I think any ‘expert’s’ predictions, or opinions needs to be taken for what they are: predictions and opinions, not fact. That said, I do believe there’s a lot of truth to what Florida says. The proof is out there…in cities such as D.C., Chicago, N.Y., and San Francisco.

    I, personally moved from Detroit to D.C., and then on to Denver. There simply was not enough to keep me in Detroit. The opportunities in D.C., and Denver were so much greater than in Detroit. Since leaving, I’ve had several good contracts and jobs, learned more in one year than I did in the past four years in Detroit, and met more people in my industry in the first few months in my new city, than I knew in Detroit.

    Detroit’s got plenty of possibilities, but it’s a long way from offering even a portion of what most of the major ‘creative’ hubs in the rest of the country have had for years.

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