Photo by Rick Barrett.
Richard Florida is famous for popularizing the theory that creativity helps spur urban development: Artists and other bohemian types make places fun and attractive, and knowledge workers cluster in open-minded, tolerant communities with culture and the amenities that generally come with it. These advantages can compound over time, creating super-cities like New York, London, and Los Angeles, where rents are high but productivity and incomes are even higher.
In his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida considers the downside of the last two decades of the type of urban renewal he has championed. Thriving cities—many of which developed along the lines of his theory—have become victims of their own success, as breathtaking inequality has risen alongside prosperity and innovation, reaching its peaks, perversely, in the most liberal and creative cities.
That’s because the rush of educated, upwardly mobile people to land-strapped cities creates housing scarcity, pushing up prices and leaving the most vulnerable workers behind, particularly over the past two decades. Artists and creativity play a significant role in this process: A vibrant cultural scene, measured by the population of working artists, musicians, designers, and other full-time creative workers, is a key component for urban growth. Creatives function both as a desirable amenity and as sources of the intellectual and creative ferment that drives innovation, particularly in the technology sector.
“Between the year 2000 and now, we begin to see hyper-gentrification and the real transformation,” Florida told Artsy. “The artistic, cultural creative has been so successful.…It’s a crisis of the success of this very revival.”
In addition to his academic work (he directs the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto), Florida, as a paid consultant, goes from city to city prescribing a magic brew for urban development that he describes as the “Three Ts of economic development: technology, talent, and tolerance,” another way of saying “educated, smart workers in a socially liberal environment.”
“Great cities are creative and innovative across the board,” he writes, nodding to San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene of the 1960s, Seattle’s alternative music scene, and the diverse arts scenes of New York and London. “In fact, my research shows empirically that artistic and cultural creativity acts alongside the high-tech industry and business and finance to power economic growth.”
Florida also draws on his experience as a former professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, when he saw graduates fleeing to cities like Austin and Seattle, drawn not just by jobs but also their robust cultural scenes. Lycos, then a prominent web company, relocated to Boston from Pittsburgh, where it had a better chance of retaining talented workers in a city with more going for it. Florida joined the boards of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and Mattress Factory in the late 1990s, betting that beefing up the city’s cultural institutions would help keep its talented graduates in situ.
“It’s almost become trite,” he acknowledged. “Artists sometimes blanch because they’ve become overly commodified. It’s not what I intended, but it’s part of the reality: Everyone wants to hire artists, to put art on the wall, to have an art walk.”
The flip side of artist-led gentrification, according to the standard narrative, is rising rents that drive artists out of their own neighborhoods. But Florida’s in-depth examination of gentrification turns up little evidence of mass displacement. While he acknowledges that the high cost of real estate in cities like New York, London, and San Francisco have made it harder for young and struggling artists to live in central locations, he notes that the concentration of creative professionals in those cities is as high as ever.
New York, he writes, had, as of 2013, 8.4 million people, or roughly 2.6% of the country’s population, but 8.6% of its creative jobs, including 28% of the nation’s fashion designers and 14% of its television and film producers and directors, “by far the nation’s preeminent creative center.” These cities “are at least as artistically creative as they ever were, and…even more technologically innovative” than they were 20 years ago, he writes, and arguably more economically strong and stable than ever.
Instead, he says, the people hit hardest by gentrification aren’t so much artists and middle-class professionals pushed out by bankers, but rather the poorest people with the fewest options.
One study found the richest 10 percent of U.S. households were the most likely to move to dense urban neighborhoods between 2000 and 2014, while the poorest 10 percent were the most likely to leave cities over the same period. Another study of Philadelphia neighborhoods over a similar time frame found a similar effect, with those who did leave gentrifying neighborhoods (“the least advantaged and most economically vulnerable”) ending up in higher-poverty neighborhoods marked by higher crime rates and worse schools, and often with higher rent burdens. By contrast, those in the middle- or working-class tended to benefit slightly from gentrification, cashing out on rising property prices to buy into other “decent” neighborhoods in the city or the suburbs.
Artists are more likely to fall into that latter category of those reap gentrification’s benefits. As Florida points out, they typically have more social capital and human capital to fall back on than low-wage workers, or those without the education or resources to secure a footing in today’s knowledge economy, such as fast-food servers, home health aides, or retail workers.
“As much as artists may be getting squeezed to some degree, they have skills, a whole range of skills—business skills, intellectual skills, artistic skills—that enable them to survive,” he said. “It’s not that artists aren’t being hurt, it’s that other people are being hurt to a far greater degree.”
So how does Florida propose addressing this growing divide, and creating more inclusive urban growth?
The “way forward” chapter of his book is heavy on solutions that rely on local empowerment and decision-making, as well as a laundry list of the kinds of policies liberal think tanks have been praying for unsuccessfully for years, such as investment in urban transit, updated zoning laws, more affordable housing, and higher minimum wages.
But Florida’s municipal focus ignores some of the structural factors that shape the urban inequality he describes. For example, lower taxes on top earners and deregulation of the financial sector, two phenomena widely considered to have helped contribute to the spike in income inequality over recent decades, are federal matters. Statewide pre-emption bills, which ban cities from setting their own agendas on issues such as minimum wages, benefits or LGBT rights, also stand squarely in the way of achieving his city-led agenda.
And Florida acknowledges that those policy solutions won’t go far in bridging the perhaps more serious challenge facing the country: the gaping cultural divide between upwardly mobile Democratic urbanites and rural and suburban Trump voters revealed in the recent election. Cities have become qualitatively different from rural and suburban areas in ways that don’t show up in the metrics Florida tracks. It’s a problem he doesn’t address directly in the book, but has thought about for years.
“It’s not just a class war, it really is a values war,” he said, marveling that Trump, “a product of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s,” when the city was arguably at its creative peak, had become “this anti-urban, anti-art, anti-creative, ‘back-to-the-working-class’ but really line my pockets kind of guy,” a turn Florida attributed to Trump’s having been shunned over the years by New York’s more progressive, intellectual and interesting “tastemakers.”
His solution for the moment is mutual accommodation, an uneasy coexistence at least for the short term.
“We’ve been in the face of red America, saying essentially ‘You’re a bunch of lazy yahoos who don’t appreciate art, who don’t appreciate all these great things and are uncultured and uncivilized,’ and people just got mad and said ‘screw you!’” he said. “Too many of us on the left want to impose our values on people who want no part of them.”
“We’re divided,” he said. “Look at the map.”