"Creative Class" May Help Themselves, But Not The Secret to Urban Success


Urban policy mavens Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida have been mixing it up at the Daily Beast over the key to urban success and growth. Florida is known for the thesis that, very roughly, appealing to a "creative class" is the way to urban growth for all.

Cabrini Green Housing Project
Photo credit: / Foter.com / Public domain

Kotkin yesterday said:

Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the "creative class" strategy, he notes, "flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers," since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see "disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account." His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: "On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits."…

Kotkin says that rust belt cities trying to emulate a San Francisco/Seattle model are failing:

The most risible example of this may have been former Michigan Jennifer Granholm's "cool cities" campaign of the mid-oughts, that sought to cultivate the "creative class" by subsidizing the arts in Detroit and across the state. It didn't exactly work. "You can put mag wheels on a Gremlin," comments one long-time Michigan observer. "but that doesn't make it a Mustang."

Alec MacGillis, writing at The American Prospect in 2009, noted that after collecting large fees from down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford, Rochester, and Elmira, New York over the years, Florida himself asserted that we can't "stop the decline of some places" and urged the country to focus instead on his high-ranked "creative" enclaves. "So, got that, Rust Belt denizens?" MacGillis noted wryly in afollow-up story last year at the New Republic.  Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check."

Kotkin hat-tips to what is true in a "creative class" model:

Perhaps the best that can be said about the creative-class idea is that it follows a real, if overhyped, phenomenon: the movement of young, largely single, childless and sometimes gay people into urban neighborhoods. This Soho-ization—the transformation of older, often industrial urban areas into hip enclaves—is evident in scores of cities. It can legitimately can be credited for boosting real estate values from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Wicker Park in Chicago and Belltown in Seattle to Portland's Pearl District as well as much of San Francisco.

Yet this footprint of such "cool" districts that appeal to largely childless, young urbanistas in the core is far smaller in most cities than commonly reported. Between 2000 and 2010, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the urban core areas of the 51 largest metropolitan areas—within two miles of the city's center—added a total of 206,000 residents. But the surrounding rings, between two and five miles from the core, actually lost 272,000. In contrast to those small gains and losses, the suburban areas—between 10 and 20 miles from the center —experienced a growth of roughly 15 million people.

The smallness of the potentially "hip" core is particularly pronounced in Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and St. Louis, where these core districts are rarely home to more than 1 or 2 percent of the city's shrinking population. Yet the subsidy money for developers is often justified in the name of "reviving" the entire city, most of which has continued to deteriorate…..

And yet:

The sad truth is that even in the more plausible "creative class" cities such as New York and San Francisco, the emphasis on "hip cool" and high-end service industries has corresponded with a decline in their middle class and a growing gap between rich and poor. Washington D.C. and San Francisco, perennial poster children for "cool cities," also have among the highest percentages of poverty of any major urban center—roughly 20 percent—once cost of living is figured in.

Kotkin's long and detailed piece goes on to explain that creative class enclaves are still hotbeds of poverty and/or are becoming less ethnically diverse, and less-family oriented, despite Florida's celebration of diversity. And if you want fast job growth, "the fastest job growth has taken place in regions—Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Omaha—whose economies are based not on "creative" industries but on less fashionable pursuits such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing."

Florida came back today with a long response, also at Daily Beast, with a lot of irrelevant political labeling of Kotkin's financial supporters meant to get a typical "creative class" reader suspicious of Kotkin.

Florida's response largely seems to be not about debunking the specifics of Kotkin's analysis, but questioning Kotkin's framing of that analysis as saying that Florida has backed down from his belief in the wonders of creative class urban planning.

To the contrary, Florida says he's always known that when housing prices are factored in creative class thinking is not enough to lift all boats comparatively.

Florida's conclusion, which I will point out is convenient for someone in Florida's business of advising cities on planning and scheming, is:

We need to leverage density, skill, and knowledge to propel further innovation, economic growth and development (lord knows our economy needs it), and at the same time we have to build new institutions, new strategies, and a new urban social compact to improve the lot of those at the bottom.

Which means figuring out public policy ways to raise working class wages and make housing more affordable and increasing mass transit. And hooray for urban planners, because:

the invisible hand of the market can only take us so far. The rest is up to us. This is not a time to complain about or belittle this shift, or, as with Kotkin, to pretend that it is not even taking place. We need to build the new institutions and the new social compact that can harness its power and extend its benefits to everyone….

Enough already with this tired and divisive debate about families versus hipsters, cities versus suburbs. We know that cities and skills power growth and we know that we're facing real divides and real inequalities. Let's get on with the critical task of drafting the new social compact that our urban age requires. Now that's a debate worth having.

For those needing a new social compact written, Richard Florida can help with that. Please call or write to discuss his reasonable rates.

Reason and Drew Carey offered our own dynamic libertarian urban renewal plan for Cleveland in 2010.

A Reason.TV double-feature, starting with Kotkin:

And now Richard Florida on Reason.TV: