A New Urban Crisis

A New Urban Crisis

It has been 15 years since Richard Florida published his seminal work The Rise of the Creative Class. The book was an overnight successes and its author quickly became a regular on the op-ed, TED talk, and consulting circuit.

Florida argued that the most prosperous cities in the 21st century would be the ones with “creative class” industries. That term is broadly defined to encompass science, technology, education, arts, media, and culture as well as traditional knowledge occupations such as finance, law, and health care. Florida’s view was that members of this class are attracted to places that are hip, socially tolerant, and culturally diverse. His message to City Hall was clear: Entice the espresso-sipping, smartphone-addicted creatives and then sit back and watch your city’s tax receipts soar. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to 2017, and The Rise of the Creative Class has lost some of its sheen. For creative-class friendly metros like the Bay Area, New York, Austin, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., Florida’s prescription delivered results, but they are now reeling from the side effects: soaring income inequality, social displacement, and sky-high costs of living.

Florida has a new book coming out this spring, and the title, The New Urban Crisis, says it all. He now concedes that major policy changes are needed to address cities’ rising inequality, displacement, and unaffordability. This is more than a little ironic coming from the man who once promised that the creative class would revitalize America’s cities. In a revealing interview with the Houston Chronicle’s Lydia DePillis, Florida answered some of his critics, acknowledging that he could not have anticipated the “urban creative revolution’s deep dark side.”

Of course, this is not the first time Florida’s embrace of the creative class has drawn fire. Over the years, he’s been attacked by the Right for promoting socially liberal values, by the Left as a “neoliberal dressed in black,” and by his fellow economists for his lack of empirical evidence. But the criticism that seems to bother him most comes from the urban geographer and pundit Joel Kotkin.

Though he has made a career studying urban centers, Kotkin has to insist surprisingly often that he doesn’t hate cities. He is a champion of sprawl, fewer zoning regulations, and expansive single-family housing construction in the exurbs — an ethos he callsurbanism for the rest of us.” His latest project is a glowing report called “The Texas Way of Urbanism,” which should tell you a lot about the kinds of cities he prefers. 

Florida and Kotkin are natural foils. New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a column comparing the relative strengths of “the Richard Florida cities,” mostly dense, coastal innovation hubs, and “Joel Kotkin cities,” sprawling high-growth boomtowns in the Sunbelt. 

The two men, themselves, have not always been friendly. They traded barbs back in 2013 when Kotkin accused Florida of peddling public-spending proposals to attract the creative class to struggling cities only to admit later that doing so “provide[s] little in the way of trickle down benefits.” Florida fired back, blasting Kotkin’s “backward-looking sensibilities” and for “play[ing] to class and other prejudices,” pitting “young sophistos, trendoids, and gays” in cities against “real families” in the suburbs.

Lately, these tensions have thawed. The two men embraced when they shared the stage in Kansas City last November for a debate hosted by the Kansas City Area Development Council. Florida even declared to applause that there’s no other urbanist from whom he’s learned more than Joel Kotkin.

Learned what exactly? In his interview with DePillis, Florida previewed some of the policy ideas put forward in The New Urban Crisis. Many of them seem to reaffirm what smart-growth advocates have been saying for years: redirect federal highway funds to mass transit; increase density along transit lines; and boost public investment in affordable housing. That’s certainly not embracing Kotkin’s dream of laissez-faire sprawl.

So what might a left-leaning person who cares about cities like Florida learn from Kotkin?

Kotkin’s own proposals leave a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to environmental sustainability and, in particular, lowering carbon emissions. But there’s value in the contrarian orientation he brings to the debate. Most urbanists in America have a bias towards “smart growth;” they like density, walkability, and rail-based public transit and point to cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., as successful examples. The problem, Kotkin points out, is that these tend to be the most expensive places to live in the country.

Kotkin doesn’t have this smart-growth bias. On the contrary, he argues that the “livable” cities that inspired the back-to-the-city movement have become unlivable for anyone making less than a six-figure income. He proposes some radical solutions to alter this paradigm such as zoning policies that favor sprawl and promoting telecommuting and ride sharing as alternatives to mass transit. Progressive urbanists may not like these solutions, but they would do well to follow Florida’s lead and take Kotkin’s criticisms seriously.

So what is the solution? A truly inclusive urbanism must not mandate a one-size-fits-all approach and, instead, recognize that different types of cities — Richard Florida hubs no less than Joel Kotkin boomtowns — can be livable and fair. To take just one example, if you categorize metro areas where low-income kids have the highest rates of upward mobility by age 26, you get a very diverse sampling among the top five. Dense, transit-friendly Seattle is there alongside sprawling Salt Lake City and medium-sized Madison, Wisconsin.

Rather than dogmatically pushing a particular brand of urbanism at all costs, we should recognize that each approach has its merits and demerits and ultimately cannot be universally applied to all cities. A dense, coastal city with numerous legacy railroad tracks will need a different set of affordable housing policies than a sprawling Sunbelt metro surrounded by raw land. Urban policies must be local and adaptive, responding to the specific needs and character of each community. It is a maxim in business and politics that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. The same should be said for urbanism.

Max Heninger is Special Assistant to the President at The Boston Foundation. He is a graduate of Williams College and has worked in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

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