Cities in Crisis

Matthew Robinson Matthew Robinson Event Director, Acuris

In the past decade, few doctrines have inspired city leaders and local politicians more than Richard Florida’s “creative class” designation and theory. You know it well: in order to spruce up an irrelevant industrial neighborhood, all a city had to do was offer discounted rents to knowledge workers and their burgeoning enterprises. Cafes, flower shops and real estate offices would follow.

And pour in they did—to the point of displacing residents who’ve been there before the innovation districts and designer condos.

Florida’s new book, The New Urban Crisis, explores the forces of inequality that are fraying the fibres of places from Seattle to South Beach, with urban real estate being gobbled up by the global wealthy while children of long-time locals are unable to get into the market. This is a new blueprint for cities who are victims of their own success, and just as pertinent as Rise of the Creative Class was more than a decade ago.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, you argued that luring talented members of the “creative class” was the key to reviving cities. You now reject that optimism you once had in The New Urban Crisis. Why?

I haven’t altogether rejected my optimism, though it has been tempered, both by what I’ve learned in the course of researching and writing this book and by the election of Donald Trump, which is a product of the huge divides I identify in The New Urban Crisis. My work has been a progression. The Rise of the Creative Class was one of the very first books to recognize the stunning revival of our cities and the new class of knowledge workers and professionals and creatives that are driving it. But as that urban revival has progressed, it has generated deeper divides, more expensive housing, greater segregation and a host of deep and distressing challenges.

So have cities lost their ability to generate opportunity and wealth?

Cities are still the most powerful economic engines the world has ever seen, and they are bastions of diversity, tolerance, and progress. But the very same force that drives the growth of our cities and economy broadly also generates the divides that separate us and the contradictions that hold us back.

What has caused this battle for urban existence?

It all comes down to the competition for scarce urban land, which drives up housing prices, creating vast geographical as well as economic inequalities within cities and widening the gaps between them. It’s hard to sustain a functional urban economy when teachers, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and restaurant and service workers can’t afford to live in it. When no one but the rich live in a city, it loses its innovative capacities. As Jane Jacobs once told me, “When a place gets boring, even the rich leave.” I do believe that with sufficient will and focus, and the right institutions, policies, and investments, it is still possible to forge a more inclusive urbanism. But cities are going to have to fix their problems on their own. The federal government is not coming to their rescue. In fact, it’s likely to stand in their way.

What served as a wake-up call for you that citizens were feeling excluded in their own cities?

I had two “a-ha” moments. The first was when I moved to Toronto to run the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School at the University of Toronto. Toronto is the most diverse city in North America. It is a model of progressive urbanism, and was praised as such by Jane Jacobs, who lived there in the last decades of her life. Yet it elected Rob Ford as its mayor, on a platform that was not just reactionary, but explicitly anti-urban. If as progressive and creative a city as Toronto could experience such a powerful backlash against the engine of its prosperity, then what might we be in for elsewhere?

And the second wake-up call?

When a colleague and I decided to look at what happens to the economic situation of the three major classes—the advantaged creative class and the less advantaged working and service classes—when we take housing costs into account. The creative class has more than enough left over to live well, but the blue-collar working class and especially the service class—which together account for more about two thirds of the workforce—got killed. You can see the numbers in Chapter 2 of the book. They are staggering. The average creative-class worker in San Jose has $80,503 left over after paying for housing annually, while the average service-class worker ends up with just $14,372. In New York, it’s $71,245, compared to just $17,861.

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