The cover story in Atlantic Monthly’s March issue is asking and answering some interesting questions. Namely, where, not who, are the big winners and losers of today’s economic meltdown?
The article, by Richard Florida, another of The Rise of the Creative Class , forecasts which regions, cities, and development patterns are likely to be strengthened and weekend by this recession. Much of it recontextualizes his ideas about how creative professionals (scientists, educators, writers, artists, entertainers, and of course architects) have become the driving force in today’s economy and are reshaping its demographics. Such professionals are concentrated in large cities and the expanding mega-regions fed by big cities nationwide, and feed off the interaction with other creative class members that can only come with dynamic urban and quasi-urban environments. For Florida, the urban mixing pot ideas and chance encounters that result from a teacher chatting with a linguist on a city bus are the fuel that runs our economy.
There’s plenty of populist disgust at New York bankers and their tax payer-funded golden parachutes, and there are plenty of laid off and dazed ex-day traders haunting Wall St. these days, but Florida suspects that their home town will get a net benefit from the crash. The idea of New York as a city dominated by bankers and investors is largely a myth. Only 8 percent of its workforce is in the financial sector. In my native city of Des Moines, 13 percent of the workforce is in finance. New York’s economy is far more diverse, and likely to become even more creative class-heavy, and Florida says that’ll be the key to its continued growth.
Essentially, Florida argues that the connections offered by the Internet and the emergence of global marketplaces have not negated or replaced the need to be around lots of smart, innovative people to bounce ideas around with. “The competitive advantage of the world’s most successful city regions seems to be growing, not shrinking,” he writes. This is the antithesis of Thomas Freidman’s The World Is Flat globalization tract. (Florida called his original rebuttal “The World is Spiky”).
Another mitigating factor for New York and cities like it is that the shifts from one financial capital to another tend to be measured in generations, not years, no matter the market cataclysms. It helps that the typically diverse economies in these places are better able to adapt to these changes quickly.
And it’s not like those bankers and short sellers were making New York such a great, livable city anyway. If anything, Florida says, these captains of finance were driving up real estate prices which prohibited more creative class professionals from moving in. If the financial sector loses jobs in New York, its economy is likely to be even more balanced and diverse.
“When I asked [Jane] Jacobs some years ago about the effects of escalating real-estate prices on creativity, she told me, ‘When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave,’” observes Florida.
No young person I know well (most of them vaguely conforming to Florida’s definition of the creative class) would even consider living in Manhattan, even if they could afford it, which they can’t. Brooklyn is now the default residential destination for upwardly mobile Midwestern ex-pat strivers.
Florida predicts that the market crash will also accelerate deindustrialization in already dwindling Rust Belt cities. He also offers this frightening statistic: cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Raleigh, and Boston have two to three times more college graduates that Akron or Buffalo. If the cultural capital that comes with educational achievement is really the life blood of cities and our nation, we should look at these kinds of stats with the same focus we put on unemployment rates.
Sun Belt cities (Phoenix, Las Vegas) that rapidly developed their economies through little more than construction and development will be especially hard hit, Florida writes. When the housing bubble burst, people realized that these economies’ hadn’t produced much more than appreciating home values. When these dropped so dramatically, there became less and less reason to live in an exurban Arizona desert.
None of this is a call to demand Times Square density in every city, town, and village. There’s a lot more nuance here than that, much of which is found somewhere in the AIA’s Rebuild and Renew advocacy plan, a kindred document to Florida’s work, I think. A good start towards creating the urban dynamism that feeds the creative class would be to do a better job of connecting cities and their suburbs. Maybe a few high-speed bus lanes, so that teacher and linguist can meet up. . .