Richard Florida’s top-down urbanism

Tom Borrup discusses why Richard Florida’s prescriptions for today’s urban ills don’t get at the real problems

Tom Borrup

A decade and a half ago Richard Florida’s “creative class” research became a sensation and opened new avenues of dialogue among city leaders around the world. At the same time, his emphasis on shaping cities in the interests of that privileged subset of citizens has had a very mixed legacy.

If you’ve heard Florida speak, you’ll recognize the tone of the preface of his most recent book, The New Urban Crisis, where he establishes working-class credibility via his roots in multiethnic Newark, New Jersey. He endeavors to redeem himself for some unintended consequences of his earlier work—namely, growing economic inequity and gentrification, especially in cities, seemingly fueled by the strategies he advocated for attracting the creative class. His confession begins: “I realized I had been overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism.” In other words, he takes personally what he brands as the new urban crisis.

While relying on hard data for most of his argument, Florida writes in this personal vein throughout, and his stories unfold in a compelling way. However, he may not be as much at fault for these inequities as he claims. Nor are his “new” ideas, which in many cases are decades old, likely to save the day. He spins numbers, interesting in themselves, to illustrate what most observers of urban trends already see—the shocking, upward concentration of wealth, economic segregation, and profound changes in patterns of urban/suburban populations: what he calls “winner-take-all urbanism.”

Despite its good points, the book reveals the one-dimensional nature of Florida’s work. Creativity is measured in terms of service to a capitalist economy—patents, copyrights, and the application of intellectual property to grow the economies of increasingly inequitable cities. He positions this brand of creativity as having greater value than human well-being and economic equity. He laments its side effects yet offers solutions that fall far short of real remedies.

What Florida doesn’t say (or barely hints at) may provide more important takeaways than what he asserts. His analysis says nothing, for example, about rural communities, which are as creative, complex, inequitable, and relevant as urban ones. Nor does he make clear who is really coming out ahead in the contemporary urban sweepstakes. He anoints a handful of international “superstar cities” as “winners,” as if the entire entity called “the city” can win or lose. An economic geographer, he focuses on places, not people; patterns rather than pain, power, or politics. Nor does he see the passion people have at the grassroots level for their communities. Other than blaming himself, Florida doesn’t look below the surface as he lays out what is essentially a no-fault inequity scenario: nobody is really to blame for the widening gaps between haves and have-nots in our communities.

Perhaps the biggest missing factor in Florida’s equation is a definition of what constitutes a successful city. He writes: “Inequality is an ironic and troubling attribute of urban success.” But what are his criteria for success? The answer seems to be: aggregate economic growth regardless of how it’s distributed.

He describes Baltimore, Maryland, as being on the upswing, citing bustling tourism and convention-going, and points to some neighborhoods that are drawing affluent and educated people. He then acknowledges that most Baltimore neighborhoods are rife with poverty, skyrocketing inequality, and worsening economic segregation. How is this an upswing? In another example he describes the “creative economies” of New York and Los Angeles as far stronger than in the 1970s or ’80s, and he asks whether anyone really (his emphasis) would want to trade today’s economy for that of 40 years ago. But with income inequality vastly steeper today, would going back really be bad for most people?

Some of his data can be eye-opening. For the cost of a median-priced apartment in New York’s SoHo district, one could buy 18 median-priced homes in Las Vegas, Nevada; 38 in Memphis, Tennessee; 50 in parts of Toledo, Ohio; 70 in parts of Detroit, Michigan; or over 100 in a neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio. The most likely group of people to move to dense urban areas between 2000 and 2014, he says, were the richest 10 percent; those most likely to leave cities during those years (mostly to suburbs) were the poorest 10 percent. He notes that density makes for liberalism—“Places tip from red to blue, from Republican to Democrat, when their density reaches about 800 people per square mile,” he writes—but with his “Overall Economic Segregation Index” and recent election data, he shows that the greatest economic inequality positively correlates with politically liberal places and negatively correlates with conservative places.

Florida is no fan of suburbs, delivering copious data on their energy inefficiency, traffic congestion, and, in comparison to more densely populated areas, excessive infrastructure costs, which, he says, dig a $1 trillion-a-year hole in the U.S. economy. Health costs, accidents, time lost in commuting, and other side effects dig that hole deeper. Following on his 2010 book, The Great Reset, he observes the onset of “slumburbia,” where 53 percent of Americans now live and where poverty is growing the fastest. Between 2000 and 2013, he points out, suburban poverty increased 29 percent. The murder rate in the suburbs rose 16.9 percent between 2000 and 2010, while in cities it declined 16.7 percent. Slumburbanization, he suggests, will soon accelerate a reverse white flight, this time from the suburbs to cities.

Florida’s constant refrain, that “clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth,” points to the fact that with him, every problem seems to be an economic problem and every solution an economic one.

He spends considerable effort denying that gentrification is as bad as the media and activists claim. His data support that, and maybe he’s right to say that the fuss about gentrification could be a red herring, deflecting attention from more serious ways in which the poor are hurt. However, given his no-fault inequality scenario, he makes no further examination of the issue.

It’s hard to disagree with his assertion that “poverty occurs in the absence of institutions that unleash the creative energy of people and neighborhoods, or, even more so, when there are dysfunctional structures that stymie and squelch it.” This serves as his lead-in to three pages devoted to grassroots community economic development. “Empirical studies document the potential of such bottom-up approaches to boost the development of very poor places,” he concludes. But when outlining solutions, he dismisses grassroots efforts as drops in the bucket. His solutions for the new urban crisis are all top-down.

Florida describes seven “pillars” on which to build “a more productive urbanism for all.” Ridding cities of overly restrictive zoning and building codes that limit density and restrict the supply of housing tops his list. To do this, he advocates overcoming NIMBYs (residents’ reactions of “not in my back yard”) and countering pro-zoning neighborhood activists he labels “new urban luddites.” He may not be entirely wrong about increasing density, but it is not productive to demonize planners and community activists who have a long history of working to protect things they cherish in their neighborhoods, or for him to make sweeping generalizations applied to every city and neighborhood.

None of Florida’s seven prescriptions are new, but they are consistent with his outside-in or top-down way of seeing communities. Progressive urbanists, community development practitioners, and unions have been at this for decades. He calls for reforming local property tax codes and federal mortgage subsidies, and building infrastructure to support dense, walkable communities and affordable housing. He calls for increasing wages (an “idea” he attributes to Henry Ford, not the labor movement!) and for investing in people and places via education, social services, and other avenues, including a guaranteed minimum income. He praises Nordic countries for having found a balance between equality and creativity, but nowhere does he dare to use the word socialism or even social democracy. Finally, he calls for creation of a Presidential Council of Cities, on the model of the National Security Council, to coordinate his program. He describes HUD as out of step, a product of the old urban crisis.

One chapter is devoted to the global urban crisis with data far more alarming than that coming from the United States. Quality of life is vastly worse and worsening for billions of people—reminding us that American problems are truly First World problems. To cope with the global crisis, he proposes something out of a dystopian film (or Trump foreign policy paper): “The United States should also consider underwriting and assisting in the development of ‘refugee cities’ that could take advantage of the skills and talents of the displaced.” These would be permanent labor camps in “third countries” willing to take in enormous numbers of refugees, thus keeping those yearning to breathe free away from our shores.

In short, Florida doesn’t go below the surface of the data and the patterns to explore the whys of contemporary urban crises or to question the forces propelling, and benefiting from, the alarming trends he documents. However, though his solutions ring hollow and feel inadequate, he does succeed in illuminating those trends. In this way, he actually helps strategists and interdisciplinary teams who are developing scenarios for improving the human condition—scenarios based on more than fueling economic growth at any cost.

Tom Borrup, Ph.D.consults with cities, foundations, and nonprofits integrating arts, economic development, urban planning, and design. He serves as Director of Graduate Studies for the University of Minnesota’s Masters in Arts and Cultural Leadership and teaches Cultural Planning for Drexel University.

Featured in Public Art Review #56.