Whither the Creative City? The Comeuppance of Richard Florida

Talent, Technology, and Tolerance, said Florida (2002), were the pre-conditions for a successful urban economy. Florida’s ‘creative class’ theory, much copied, emulated and critically maligned, delineated urban regions with ‘talent’ (PhDs); ‘technology’ (things like patents granted); and ‘tolerance’ (represented by a rather arbitrary ‘gay index’ of same-sex households in census data).

This combination, according to Florida’s interpretation of his data, indicated urban creative ‘winners’ versus urban ‘losers’: blue collar cities with more traditional economies and traditional worldviews. Creative people want to be around other creative people, wrote Florida, so failing to provide an ideal urban environment for them will result in their ‘flight’ (2005) and the loss of all the benefits of the creative economy. Therefore, to win in the ‘new economy’ (Harvey, 1989), cities need to compete for, and win the affections of, the ‘creative class’. Or so Florida then-believed.

Policymakers were keen to spread the ‘gospel’ of the ‘creative city’ (Peck, 2005) and despite its methodological question marks, the idea has found traction in both North American/European and Non-Western contexts. Florida’s books were ‘required reading’ for urban policy officials in Singapore, for example – one direct quote given to me during my doctoral research on cultural policy in the City-State (2012-2013). The rather awkward linkage between Florida’s North-American theoretical perspective and Singapore’s loosening restrictions on ‘table top dancing’ (in the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) is just one of many examples of the haphazard yet fervent application of policies geared toward an envisioned (and mythologized) ‘creative’ elite.

The elite nature of the ‘creatives’ that Florida conjured into being, and the sharp delineation between urban ‘winners’ (creative) and ‘losers’ (non-creative), were not lost on Florida’s critics (among them, Peck 2005; McCann, 2007; Zimmerman, 2008), who quickly equated these ideas as neoliberal economics wrapped in a one-size-fits-all disguise.

This division, however, has become especially prescient since the 2008 financial crash, and in light of the sweeping socio-political movements that swept populist leaders like Donald Trump into power. What unifies populist movements from ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Brexit’ are reactions against urban elites and globally-focused cosmopolitan ideas. In other words, the very things Florida suggested cities needed to win.

Map of ‘Brexit’ Voting Patterns, with London inset 

It seems that Florida himself, who has made a (successful) career out of the ‘creative city’ thesis, has now come full circle and has re-thought, critically, his own theories (having sold enough copies of his books to enable him the luxury of such a self-critique).

His recent 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’ (2017), recognizes the problems in the increasing gap between elite, cosmopolitan cities and more traditional / conservative hinterlands. Indeed, Florida recognizes this gap is tearing apart the fabric of society, a fair and just observation.

Florida’s new argument is a sort of conceptual throat-clearing of why this gap is problematic and he adopts a much more left-wing approach than he has taken previously in suggesting some ways to combat the divide (solutions like affordable housing built on a mass scale, to make it easier for people of all incomes to live and remain in ‘winning’ cities where they are now priced out and displaced). The achievability of these solutions are left for urban policy officials to figure out, but the sentiment, at least, mirrors the growing and urgent call for housing equity in the world’s most expensive (and unequal) cities.

So, perhaps the new book represents the self-imposed end of the ‘creative city’ paradigm (which had a lifespan from 2002 to 2017, a healthy 15 years). The ‘creative city’ is dead, even if still dominant (to re-phrase Neil Smith’s 2008 musings on neoliberalism’s demise and and paradoxical resilience). If, as critics attested, the ‘creative city’ is inherently a neoliberal concept, then, as neoliberalism collapses under its own crisis-prone weight, so must the ‘creative city’. So what comes next?

What I find remarkable about this shift is the rapid speed at which the discourse has changed. Florida was not the only voice in the 2000-2017 time period arguing for the dominance of ‘winning’ cities: see also Edward Glaeser’s book ‘The Triumph of the City’, (2011) which in a slightly different yet similar vein, outlines a winning model of a city that has ‘made us richer, smarter, greener’ (with Manhattan portrayed on the book’s cover). And associated policy – pieces on ‘super-mayors’, and the potential for individual cities to change the world, released by urban think tanks (based in some of Florida’s ‘winners’).

From Silicon Valley’s homeless camps to London’s tragic Grenfell fire and the rejection of that city by Brexit voters, it now seems that the world’s dominant (economically, anyway) cities have emerged into the post-neoliberal age as highly vulnerable (rather than simply ‘winners’) and rife with problems. Furthermore, the resilience of deep poverty, and a falling standard of living in cities in the Global South (and North), pose difficult questions for urbanists who have long considered the ‘city’ as the ideal form of human settlement. If the city isn’t making us richer, smarter, or greener – and by extension, if the city is causing dangerous socio-cultural-political divides that threaten to topple longstanding stable world governments and institutions – then is the way forward anti-urban, decentralized and bucolic, as envisioned by earlier urbanists such as Frank Lloyd Wright (in his vision for ‘Broadacre City’, 1935?).

Wright’s ‘Broadacre City’, 1935

As new technologies like driverless cars and IT infrastructure continue to shrink distances and re-shape settlement and labor patterns, and as anti-urban movements re-shape the political landscape in dramatic and paradigmatic ways,  it remains to be seen which cities will ‘win’ or ‘lose’ in the future;  or even if the city will remain the prototype for human co-habitation at all. Indeed, the future might be a rural one: will Florida’s next book be entitled ‘The Creative Hinterland,’ written from the comfort of a self-sustaining 40-acre exurban ranch?

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3 thoughts on “Whither the Creative City? The Comeuppance of Richard Florida

  1. Pingback: Reblog> Whither the Creative City? The Comeuppance of Richard Florida – Spatial Machinations

  2. Pingback: The unapologetic ‘rockstar of regeneration’ – Spatial Machinations

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