When Richard Florida coined the term “creative class” in 2002, he painted a very clear picture for urban revitalization. His book The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life, almost reads like a textbook for mayors. All cities had to do was lure a few artists into live-work lofts in an old warehouse district, maybe convince a startup—they weren’t even called startups then, were they?—to set up shop in a post-industrial neighborhood. Voila! Florida’s prescription for city success.
A decade and a half later, as the cities that creatives embraced became inaccessible havens for the superrich, Florida’s new book The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It looks at how the decisions of that creative class ended up affecting everyone else—especially the Americans who were forced out of those cities.
In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida used dizzying mathematical equations to slot cities into maps and megalists that allowed readers to compare one metropolitan region to another in ways that feel unbelievably accurate but also reassuringly tidy. If anything, Florida’s books, and the consulting empire he built around them, have emphasized the importance of specific success metrics—the “Creativity Index”—for cities.
These metrics also gave us an easy way to pick the “good” cities. City leaders leveraged their standing on Florida’s Creativity Index to promote themselves to potential residents, and potential residents could learn if a city excelled at the ability to lure talent or quality of life. I remember as a newbie Angeleno that Los Angeles’s generally positive rankings in The Rise of the Creative Class always gave me a bizarre sense of pride. (The new book has plenty of these rankings as well, but now they’re focused on economic segregation and housing affordability.)
By the time The Rise of the Creative Class was updated in 2012, Florida had already started to take some heat for his thinking. The most desirable cities like San Francisco and New York—Florida dubs these “superstar” cities—were gaining reputations as unaffordable playgrounds for part-time residents, and critics were outright blaming Florida for causing the rampant gentrification of the American cities he championed.
The New Urban Crisis might be seen as Florida’s attempt to explain himself, and in fact, he admits right away that he was “overly optimistic,” encouraging a particular paradigm without anticipating the consequences of his ideas. But it turns out that looking at what happened to the creative class after they urbanized is actually a very good way to roadmap rising inequality.
The best explanation for how we got into this mess is a chapter that traces the history of the NIMBY. A few decades ago, NIMBYism was a good thing for cities—it used to mean stopping freeways from pummeling through neighborhoods. In today’s cities, however, people cry “not in my backyard” to prevent both good and bad changes to cities, and their reasoning is not necessarily ideologically aligned. Instead of using a blanket phrase that’s been rendered meaningless, Florida proposes a new name just for the people who have become successful in cities and now use their power to suppress more inclusive development: “winner-take-all urbanism.” I found this a useful way to sum up just about everything that’s wrong with our cities today, from wealth disparity to the housing crisis.
The rest of the book looks at strategies for tackling the issues that superstar cities are facing. One of the most intriguing ideas put forth by Florida is the establishment of a Council on Cities, or maybe a Department of Cities and Urban Development, a federal agency that addresses the unique challenges of U.S. cities. Similar departments have already been created in Canada and Australia with great success, argues Florida, because shifting more decision-making to the local level is always better for a city’s economy. The book—or at least, my advance uncorrected proof—closes with this hopeful recommendation, one that Florida says felt practically tangible when he finished writing in the months before the presidential election.
Instead, Florida spent November 2016 feverishly rewriting the end of the book as a call to action for cities to organize in the face of a notoriously anti-city administration. So it was quite fitting that Florida was tapped to deliver the keynote for an annual journalism forum held last month by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. This year’s theme: “Cities and Equity in the Era of the Trump Presidency.”
Hearing Florida talk about what cities should do next should have been a poignant moment in a room of urbanist writers who had each reckoned with their role in the wake of the election (myself included). But Florida said the real enemy is a federal government that’s “not only dysfunctional, it’s far too big” and that cities need to concentrate on localized action. “What I hope to devote the next stage of my career to, what we need, is a massive devolution of power,” he said. “It’s the only way out of our divide.”
In fact, Florida’s dream, he said, was that a pair of mayors would run in the next presidential election, a Democratic mayor and a Republican mayor on the same ticket, he mused. This would not only show the power of localism, it would highlight the effectiveness of mayors as leaders and show how aligned cities are in their values.
I thought about this a lot as I absorbed two days of programming at the Lincoln Institute forum. Listening to the impressive pro-city lineup of speakers—all invited Trump administration officials had declined to attend—it seemed they also felt the tug of Florida’s call. In one of the most applauded moments of the event, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared 2017 as the year of the “United Cities of America.” Maybe it was time for cities to have their own political party. I tried to envision this. The Urbans? The Bubbles? The Liberal Elites?
For the last few months, this idea of urban isolationism has felt appealing, as mayors have formed their own climate accords and announced defiant sanctuary city policies. Scanning a story to see if Los Angeles was on the list of cities which had made an ambitious clean energy commitment gave me the same weird sense of pride I felt when first paging through The Rise of the Creative Class.
Yet even the traditional idea of “city” is being replaced—by a new structure that Florida dubs the “patchwork metropolis.” This acknowledges the regional distribution of Americans to the “urban burbs” and beyond. Just after his book came out, in an attempt to prove his allegiance to this New Regionalism, Florida penned an op-ed with Joel Kotkin, a writer with whom Florida has been at odds in the past (you might call Kotkin a suburbanist). Florida and Kotkin argue that a nationwide movement for local engagement would be better for the residents of both cities and suburbs—and for diffusing the growing red-blue divide. (Although Kotkin more recently wrote his own op-ed accusing city-dwellers of “blue snobbery,” which forces their way of life upon the rest of a country that doesn’t want anything to do with them.)
But if we’re talking inequality—or, perhaps, snobbery—it’s important to remember that the most affluent, inaccessible neighborhoods in the country are not in superstar cities but suburban communities. In many big cities, the suburbs are now absorbing both the populations of people who can’t afford urban life and the big-city problems of homelessness, poverty, and crime. Complicating everything, the suburbs are also exceptionally skilled at the exclusionary development tactics of winner-take-all urbanism. The disparity of wealth just seems like it’s going to get worse and worse when there’s nowhere left for anyone to go.
Back in 2002, when I was still trying to make it as an advertising copywriter, before I even wrote about cities or knew what urbanism was, I learned about The Rise of the Creative Class from a fellow advertising copywriter. As a suburban St. Louis native searching for jobs just as the dot-com bubble burst, I ended up landing somewhat randomly in Los Angeles. I was suddenly both a creative and an urban dweller, and, to be honest, was feeling a bit lost.
I read The Rise of the Creative Class because I wanted some kind of confirmation—affirmation?—that I had made the right choice, and I’m sure I was not alone. The subsequent Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, which Florida wrote in 2009, was almost a direct outgrowth of the self-help nature of his writing.
It’s easy to forget that even 15 years ago, the conversation about urbanism was largely confined to the realm of academia. Florida has had such an enduring, mainstream appeal that his ideas have defined the way many Americans think about cities, including where many of them moved.
In a beautifully written piece in New York Magazine, author and architecture critic Justin Davidson—who was also at the Lincoln Cities forum—talks about his own perception of the growing urban-rural divide, crystallized by the election. He addresses the reality that many cities weren’t always the liberal bastions they are today; in fact, as Davidson notes, some became liberal only in recent years as they experienced a great influx of residents and wealth. Cue The Rise of the Creative Class theme music.
“Rural America is the new inner city,” Steven Conn, the author of Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century, tells Davidson. If that’s true, if the disenfranchised countryside is at the same place as the blighted industrial core was 15 years ago, then maybe the next Richard Florida needs to write a textbook for rural mayors to bring the residents of these communities the same type of prosperity, empowerment, and pride.