Fifteen years ago, urbanist Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. Much to his surprise, it became a bestseller. But it was also heavily criticized by academics and professionals from a number of disciplines. Florida has now published The New Urban Crisis, which to an extent belongs in that rarest of genres, the mea culpa. After this many years, he is now willing to formally address his critics, and to demonstrate how his thinking has continued to evolve. It’s a surprising turn for this polarizing figure, but at his recent book launch at the London School of Economics, he deftly explained his choices.
Florida began by launching into an incredibly cohesive personal mythology, emphasizing his personal connection to his field and the fact that he only wrote Rise after around 20 years of study. He stated that the first book was an attempt to create a new empirical assessment of class structure, and said he still considers himself part of the neo-Marxist movement that conceives of mental labor as the means of production. He initially intended to focus solely on the 3 Ts: technology, talent, and trade, but once he began investigating quality of place, the concept of the “creative class” was born (interestingly, he emphasized several times that his editor came up with that now-famous term, and that he has little attachment to the label).
Florida then began to discuss the extent to which he underestimated the scale of the urban revival that began around 2000. He also pointed to the election of Rob Ford as the mayor of Toronto (where he lives) as a wake up call, a sign of a backlash against tolerant, creative communities that he didn’t anticipate. In searching for an explanation for this political phenomenon, he calculated the amount each class (knowledge workers, blue collar workers, service workers) had leftover after paying for housing, and discovered that the service class was really suffering. This research insight prompted the new book.
Florida stated that he tries to marry Marx/Schumpeter to Jane Jacobs, in a framework where the city is the platform for new capitalism. He noted that the clustering effect in cities discussed in Rise also causes the deep inequalities that result in backlash. Winner-take-all urbanism, in which super cities control a disproportionate share of the 3 Ts, creates a highly problematic divide. Spatial inequality entrenches financial inequality, leading to the concept that the new urban crisis is a crisis of success. The reality he failed to notice in his first book is that the very things that increase economic dynamism also result in the decline of the middle class, and place limits on upward mobility. In a number of cities, there are now higher levels of poverty in the suburbs than inner cities, although more broadly, there are always concentrations of poverty, just not in the same place in every city.
He chose to close by talking through some of his thoughts on solutions. One key point was that cities must convince anchor institutions (universities, hospitals, major corporations) to buy in on a local level. Ultimately, Florida stated that he now sees the nation-state itself as the problem because of how much authority is invested in a central figure. He also emphasized that cities ought to be experimenting with many different solutions to housing issues, with transit and job upgrading integrated as part of the strategy. He believes advances in transportation are going to increase clustering, and that the concentration of wealth and space is going to get worse. Florida then tried to end on a positive, admonishing the audience to look for ways to merge growth and equity, and work toward inclusive prosperity.
Overall, the evening produced an very interesting conversation. Dallas, too, is affected by many of the issues Florida’s work touches on, so the new book is highly recommended. On a final note, when asked about the Amazon HQ2 competition (a recent hot topic across the metroplex), Florida had nothing but disdain for the process and anger over the way it pits cities against each other. These days, he’s much more focused on unifying communities, and perhaps we should be too.