About Jason Luger

I am an urban theorist, practitioner, researcher, and lecturer. All opinions are my own.

The End of Public Space (Redux?)

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Don Mitchell (1995, 2016) has debated the nature public space, and why under late capitalism, public space has a tendency to both ‘end’ and be produced again. Mitchell suggests that on one hand, capitalism (under neoliberal urbanism) destroys ‘real’ public space due to market pressure, while producing ‘abstract space’ (such as digital space). On the other hand though, and simultaneously, contestations and teritorrial struggles surrounding the ‘death’ of public space produce new ‘real’ public space (for example, as local governments are pressured into reaching agreements with developers to develop new public parks or urban plazas, or are forced to scrap development plans completely). So, as a space for publics is destroyed in the name of market-led development, a new space for publics is often born out of resistance to the destruction.

For Mitchell, there is no substitute for tangible, physical public space. The ‘homeless cannot live in the internet’ (1995), and therefore, Mitchell is somewhat disparaging of extending public space into the digital, or into the many hybrids formed by neoliberal partnerships and state-society-market interstices. Geographers like David Harvey (2012) are quick to note that resurgent activism around the world continues to be anchored to urban squares, parks and plazas, despite (and due) to the advent of a networked digital public.

Peoples’ Park, Berkeley (above) is a frequent referent for Mitchell, who has portrayed Peoples’ Park as both embodying what a true public space must – an open place for encounter, occupation and representation – but also, as a recurring site of struggle. Peoples’ Park is a 2-plus acre urban green in Berkeley that is technically owned by the University of California, but since the 1960s has been a site of homeless assembly (during the day) and also a symbol of the American free speech movement, which has its origins in 1960s Berkeley radicalism. Therefore, the site has taken on a larger-than-life meaning for free speech advocates, homeless advocates, and for anyone mythologizing the Berkeley ideal (and 1960s activism in general). Mitchell has argued that Peoples’ Park has faced challenges on several occasions over its 50-year lifetime (various threats and plans to develop and secure the site), but each time has generated activism in one form or another which has (until now) saved the park and retained its ‘public’ status. Some of these tensions have been dramatic, such as the riots in the 1990s when renovations (including more lighting and volleyball courts) were proposed for the park. These plans were scrapped.

However, faced with a severe housing shortage for students and with lingering (and growing) complaints over drug use and antisocial behavior in the park, the University of California decided in May 2018 to develop the park into student housing (1000 units) and also, permanent supportive housing for the homeless. A small amount of green space would be preserved. This decision came after extensive consultation between the U.C. Regents and the local community, and is viewed by some as a compromise – addressing the needs of both the student community, increasingly priced out of Berkeley – and also, providing supportive care for the homeless residents who use the park.

If Peoples’ Park – which has symbolized for decades the true nature of public space – is developed, then is public space truly dead? Was it ever a public space at all? Is there, or can there be, a definition and theoretical understanding of the nature, texture, scales, and forms of public space, suited to both the residual neoliberal urban era and the age in which digital technology has re-shaped socio-spatial relations? Is the dominant understanding of public space too tempered by dominant / Western frames of what constitutes the ‘public’ v. ‘private’ spheres? And whose / which public, anyway? Public space, even in its truest and most democratic form, has never been equally produced or accessible (for example, by women; people of color; the disabled or elderly; LGBTQ persons, the homeless; the poor; other peripheralized groups over time).

These questions do not have a quick answer, but certainly deserve further discussion by spatial theorists who often fall back upon Lefebvrian and neo-Marxist interpretations of the nature of ‘space’ under late capitalism and time-space compression. These explanations and arguments have done little to produce new space for the marginalized.

There is a dearth of literature (though it is now emerging), on urban ‘gray’ spaces – those informal spaces neither public nor private, with use that is pop-up and informal, away from institutions, structures, and policy (see for example Kimberly Kinder’s ‘DIY Detroit’, 2016, or Gordon Douglas’s ‘Help Yourself City’, 2018). There deserves to be a more cohesive and central ontology of black public space, given the absence of black bodies from literal public spaces but also from spatial theoretical discussion; on queer public space, given the oft-foretold ‘death’ of queer space (really?); a better and more humanist discussion on homelessness in contemporary public space and different forms/understandings of ‘home’ and belonging; and finally, a more fully-linked discussion on scale and the networked nature of contemporary public space as imminently local and fixed while also global, fluid, and temporal.

These tensions and debates have long existed, but are as of yet, unresolved.

Meanwhile, the standoff at Peoples’ Park continues – reactions to the university’s May 2018 announcement have been mixed, but in true Berkeley style, there is unlikely to be decisive action soon. Until the bulldozers arrive (or even after), public space lives.

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‘Disagreeable Mirrors’: Reflecting (and Complicating) the Urban in Uncomfortable Ways

 

“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another. I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see… People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (James Baldwin, in Ebony, 1965).

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Scene 1: ‘Walking Backwards’ in Singapore (Singapore Art Biennale, 2009) 

The artist (Amanda Heng, pictured), walks backwards against the tableau of Singapore’s glassy, neo-gothic and modernist towers of finance. She walks past the colonial-era churches and administration buildings; some re-purposed as posh hotels and museums. She walks past the tropical landscape and the taxis passing, passengers inquisitive. She holds her shoe in her mouth, biting and eating her high-heel, occasionally drooling. She is barefoot. In her hand, she holds a mirror: the mirror reflects the cityscape and at once Singapore is elongated and shrunk; bent and refracted; reversed and upended. An alternative city is presented; another path is traveled, another script is written.

The authoritarian city and its designated imaginaries are interrupted, reconstructed.

A crowd of observers follows Heng. Some drift away, others join. The crowd is at times confused, enthused, perplexed, bored. The reflected Singapore, barefoot and backwards, shoe in mouth rather than bought at the mall, is an uncomfortable and disorienting place. The hyper-planned City-State is unplanned, unlearned, unfocused. What does this other Singapore look like – the upside down; one in which the racial hierarchy (CMIO, or “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other), long convenient for colonial rulers and now entrenched in daily life – is scrambled and re-framed?

For more on Heng’s intervention, and theoretical linkages to De Certeau, Walter Benjamin and Debord / Situationist Internationals, see Goh (2014), Luger (2016).

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Scene 2: The Story Told by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC, March 24th, 2018

I stand in front of the memorial on a sunny Spring day in Washington. I see in front of me the names of thousands lost to this vain war, fought in the name of someone’s ‘Domino Theory’ and the promise of American export markets. I see myself, reflected. Who am I, this visitor to Washington? I see the city reflected. The masonic monolith to Washington in front and behind me; the trees a duplicate of themselves.

Being at the Vietnam memorial, designed by artist Maya Lin, is a process of becoming. Its reflective nature differentiates it from, say, the World War II memorial nearby, grandiose and monumental in scale. As Cheryl Krause-Knight (2011:27) explains, ‘Viewer reactions to the memorial, even beyond the artist’s intent, attest to its ‘publicness’.” Miles (2004:103) notes that the memorial, as a mirror of collective mourning and imaginary, was quickly embraced “by an unusually diverse public.” Lin’s own impulses, in which she stated that her goals in the design were to avoid sensationalism, invite personal interaction, and trust the viewer to “think without leading her to specific conclusions” (Lin, quoted in Finkelpearl 2001:116 ,119), are, according to Krause-Knight (2011), “consummately populist ones.” Young (1993:6-7) observed that “in the absence of shared beliefs of common interests [memorials such as this] can lend a common spatial frame to otherwise disparate experiences and understandings of a fragmented populace.”

But what of this fragmented populace, and its populist voices? I look again at the mirror / monument, and see reflected a different kind of image – a visiting school group, numbering at least 50, waiting behind me in the queue to process past the memorial. They hold flowers, reverent facial expressions, and each wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hat. Populism reflects populism, and the memorial continues its becoming.

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Scene 3: The City Yet to Come? (Berlin 1931 or Anywhere, Anytime)

Berlin, 1931, as reflected at the Kit Kat Club in the imagination of author Christopher Isherwood; later adapted into John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I am a Camera”, and later, the critically-acclaimed musical and film “Cabaret”. The film’s final scene is one in which, rather than the audience viewing the cabaret stage, the viewpoint is reflected in a mirror to the audience. No longer the bohemian and libertine Weimar-era party-goers: the audience reflected is now a blurred representation of the Nazism that would consume Germany and the 1930s in fascist fire.

As always, the mirror reflects the city that is, and the city yet to come.

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Theater of the Oppressed: A Generative Method for an [Authoritarian / Populist] Paradigm?

This week, the renowned ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (ToTO) practitioner Jiwon Chung generously led a workshop in my UC Berkeley ‘Populism, Art, and the City’ course. Chung has had a long career studying and applying Agosto Boal’s methods of  ToTO / ‘forum theater’, in which the human body embodies power and oppressor / oppressed through movement, dialogue, and metaphor.

Through several curated exercises, Chung illustrated different power geometries – some that were physical, some emotional, and some more situational and dialogue-based. Through the practice of assuming certain shapes, uttering single words and making sounds, participants were able to embody and perform interpretations of power dynamics and different tactics / methods for resistance, subversion, and co-opting.

20180319_164538In the exercise above, Chung (pictured) asked participants to arrange the chairs (pictured) in ways in which one chair was more powerful than the others. Hinting at Foucault’s (1980) ‘circular’, rather than hierarchical view of how power operates, Chung noted the multiple ways of reading power in any given architecture. If one chair is placed ahead; it has all the power and yet none. If the chair is placed on top of the others, it has power that can be removed if the base becomes precarious.

20180319_161552In another activity, (pictured above), participants played the roles of student (facing) and teacher (back turned). The student was asking for an extension on an assignment; the teacher was attempting to stand firm on “no”. The difficult negotiation of playing (even non-deliberately) the role of ‘oppressor’, and the many contradictions inherent, made this challenging for both players.

20180319_161138Other activities involved movement only:  a participant in the center of a circle, hands outward, led two others, who then led two others, and so on, until the whole room became a swirling mass of human movement which was more chaotic at the circle’s outer edges. This, explained Chung, represents the power dynamic of a society, an institution, a capitalist economy, or a State (a school of fish? A complex adaptive system? a digital network?). The point being that the individual at the center can dictate a mass of related actions / reactions by relatively small movements; those at the outer edges must fight harder to stay with the circle.

Where, within these power dynamics, are the spaces for resistance – for upending, for changing the dynamics and erasing the boundary between oppressor, oppressed? Participants had differing ideas and creative visions, from slight variations in movement, to ‘tickling’ to induce laughter, empathy to disarm, strength to make weak, taking photos to expose (Wikileaks exposes tyranny!). Through the 3 hours of activities and conversation, the group of participants came to understand not only Foucault; but the nature of power; institutions; and resistance in practical and applicable ways not possible in a normal theoretical discussion.

The afternoon left me thinking about the tremendous generative potential of such theater in today’s divided paradigm; one that is increasingly re-shaped and re-framed along both authoritarian and populist lines. Digital networks circle around the guiding hand of powerful ‘tech’ titans. Yet, micro-interactions online are capable to ricocheting upwards to transform the tech companies themselves.

Groups divided along partisan lines – red state, blue state, green state – come together in populist fervor around shared sentiments of oppression, even if “the oppressor” is not always tangible (globalization? the EU? immigrants? the police? the gun lobby? the tax collector?). The ways that solidarity can both unite – and liberate – deserve broader exploration in the age of identity politics and neoliberalism’s fetishizing of the individual.

What potential is there to use ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ – long treasured by activists, mostly on the left, as a mainstream tool to bridge these divides and further conversation, facilitation, cooperation, transformation? The power of such theater has been recognized by governments such as Singapore, who first banned the practice after it was associated with Latin American Marxists but later re-instated the practice as a useful tool of nation-building. This brings up further questions – can ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ be used to coerce, to solidify, to divide, and to reify oppressive power systems and structures?

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Above – Forum Theater in Singapore (Courtesy of the TheOnlineCitizen). 

What is the implication of a center-right, authoritarian government like Singapore frequently deploying forum theater to help build nation and national harmony – is a fascist state a sort of macro-scale performance of Boal’s theater? Can the ‘Alt-Right’ use such methods to gain solidarity around white nationalist causes, twisting conceptions of oppressed / oppressor?

Larger questions such as these generate intrigue for further study, or further performance-based dialogues as we (as a society) continue to reckon with, and struggle to define, a global landscape of power that is rapidly shifting in both emancipatory and repressive directions. *

Dreaming of Japan’s Urbanscape

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I had the pleasure of making a first visit to Japan over the holiday break – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Kobe, and the small mountain town of Takayama. Japan and its somewhat mythologized urbanscapes are one of the places often represented, symbolized, and stereotyped in film and popular imagination – the great economic competitor to America’s post-war boom; generator of ‘better’ cars, electronics, games, and cartoons; and succumbing to the nuclear-monster Godzilla’s destructive whims. The disconnections, contradictions and synergies between US and Japan have been perhaps carelessly portrayed in films like ‘Mr Baseball’ (the failed USA baseball player finds fame in Japan, and a love interest to boot); or more recently, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’, featuring the actor-playing-the-actor Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (wife of a travelling businessman), largely cloistered in their Western-enclave Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking a vast city they lack the skills (or desire) to engage with.

These, and many other portrayals, have a somewhat imperial / colonial bent – the United States was, after all, an occupier of Japan from the end of World War II to 1952 and still maintains a heavy military presence. And follows in the older tradition of orientalist portrayals of ‘the East’, which typically feature Western-male (macho) characters interacting in a subjegative and misogynistic manner with feminized and passive Asian characters (both male and female) (see ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’, among others).

In approaching Japan – the world’s third (nearly second) largest economy, and Tokyo – the world’s largest urban region, at approximately 37 million people – I was conscious of my own formative views of Japan partly based on these tropes; and of the urban literature on Asian cities and ‘comparative urbanism’ which both falls back upon, and departs from, myths, stereotypes, and assumptions.

Rem Koolhaas mused that ‘A skyline rises… in the East’ (in Roy and Ong, 2011), a fairly common ‘otherized’ view of the unapproachable, vast, and super-scaled East Asian metropolis, a place of envisioned strange, hyper-modern processes; buildings too-tall to scale; populations too vast to count.

However, Roy and Ong (2011) caution that “the vagaries of urban fate cannot be reduced to the workings of universal laws established by capitalism or colonial history” (2011, introduction). Aihwa Ong suggests moving away from an assumed comparison of cities like Tokyo with any one model or trajectory toward / through modernity, proposing that:

“alternative modernity,”…suggests the kinds of modernity that are (1) constituted by different sets of relations between the developmental and the post-developmental
state, its population and global capital; and (2) constructed by political
and social elites who appropriate “Western” knowledges and represent
them as truth claims about their own countries.’ (Ong, 1999: 35).

In our 2015 paper (Ren and Luger, IJURR, 2015) we navigated the ways that approaching Asian urbanism through a ‘cosmopolitan’, comparative lens is a necessary, but fraught process: how to chart and define observations from places like Tokyo without reference to parallel modernities, patterns, systems? How to engage across language and cultural barriers, looking down at a city from a hotel room, without remaining trapped in the ‘observer, outsider’ lens – is there in fact value of reconciling ‘outsider’ perspective in making valid observations, connections, assumptions? How to talk about a place like Japan without exoticism, orientalism, imperialism, tokenism?

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Am I therefore wrong to say that Tokyo’s neon canyons – vast, confusing and beautiful; the trains, gliding like ice dancers with perfect precision; the food, universally outstanding and artistic; and the general pace of life I observed – measured, methodical, process-oriented, are unique and inherently “Japanese?”

Must we always speak of alternative, multiple modernities, or can there be a sort of middle-ground between a distinctive ‘Japanese’ urban modernity (a unique blend of ancient Japanese textures, 20th-century destruction and reconstruction, largely American-financed; and 21st century Pan-Asian blends) and a global, urban, 21st century modern form?

This seems to remain the key tension between urban theorists striving to form a unified urban ‘model’ in which urbansim assumes a ‘planetary’, modern form and exists at once, in all places – (see Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Scott and Storper, 2015) and those who reject this, proposing that site-specificity may be incomparable, incommensurable, impossible to reduce or universalize. Logan, 2011 asked, ‘to what do we compare China?’

My observations were complicated further by living where I do, in the polyglot and cosmopolitan California Bay Area, home to not only one of the largest Japanese diaspora populations, but huge Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Taiwanese communities as well. The food I eat on a regular basis, and elements of daily culture in San Francisco, take on bits and pieces of traditional ‘Japanese’ characteristics, blended uniquely with the broader Northern California melting pot. It is not, therefore, foreign to encounter those who do not speak English; to be asked to remove shoes when entering a home or business; to eat green tea ice cream; or queue for 2 hours for sushi or ramen (as is common in Tokyo).

Perhaps, it is the land itself – the earth, mountains, soil – that are incomparable and most uniquely situated to a place, most uniquely Japanese. People, ideas, foods, cultures, religions and technologies move, blend, and replicate; mountains like Fuji (holy in the Shinto religion) do not. It was in the zen gardens of Buddhist/Shinto temples that surround Kyoto that Japan seemed to present itself in its purest form; unique formations of rock, trees, moss and soil charged with spiritual and symbolic significance. At one garden, pebbles formed the shape of Mount Fuji itself. This was, I thought to myself, Japan, and nothing is lost to translation. 

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Brenner, N. and Schmid, C., 2015. Towards a new epistemology of the urban?. City19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Logan, J. ed., 2011. Urban China in transition (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, A., 1999. Flexible Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press

Ren, J. and Luger, J., 2015. Comparative urbanism and the ‘Asian City’: Implications for research and theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.145-156.

Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds., 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.

Scott, A.J. and Storper, M., 2015. The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.1-15.

 

Envisioning Cities in an Authoritarian Age

Is there such a thing as an ‘authoritarian city?’ If so, where is this city,  what does it look like, how does it operate, and what are the textures of the power flows within, across, and beyond it?

Foucault (1980) envisioned a circular, rather than top-down flow of power, in a similar vein to the way that Arendt (1958) complicated extant understandings of power flows from, and across, the grassroots.

 

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Indeed, if urbanism is global in scale and planetary in operations (as Brenner and Schmid, 2015 propose), then perhaps authoritarianism is likewise planetary. And if this is so, then all cities are, by extension, comprised of the full range of authoritarian flows, processes, structures, and institutions. Such a reality would necessitate a huge broadening of the approach to authoritarianism, urban studies, and the geographies of power, which often sit cloistered in area studies or political science research. If there is no ‘Global East’, ‘Global West’, or territorial delineation between ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ – which is a fair argument, given the rise of dictators in the United States and the rise of liberal arts colleges in places such as Singapore – then how to expand and deepen the understanding of power, place, and the urban? I propose that such an expansion is necessary as we continue the paradigmatic shift into a new planetary authoritarian age.

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, N. and Schmid, C. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City, 19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977. Pantheon Books, New York, NY.

The Amazon-Race: Are we Edgy, Real, and Urban Enough for Jeff Bezos?

At the time of this writing, 238 cities have submitted official bids to Amazon in order to be considered for Amazon’s second headquarters, supplementing their base in Seattle.

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There is a long and ongoing debate within economic geography (and related fields) about the costs and benefits of such competitions for major corporate expansions and relocations. Literature can be found that is supportive of intra-urban competition, tax incentives, and boasts of the intangible economic multipliers and dividends that these companies can bring (sometimes academic, but often led by think-tanks and consultancies). More critical literature (from geographers such as David Harvey, and many others who have critiqued the neoliberal urban economy) questions whether awarding companies such as Amazon tax and other incentives really pays off, especially in addressing structural problems and societal injustices. To be fair, a nuanced exploration can find examples where incentives might be judged to have succeeded, and others where they have clearly failed.

Regardless of this ongoing debate, one thing that is fascinating to me (and relatively unexplored) is the way that cities (and regions) present themselves during these processes, culminating in the 5-minute “bid videos” that are hand-crafted by local officials to showcase certain aspects that the courted company (in this case, Amazon), might find appealing. “Bid videos” are perhaps more famous when used for mega-events such as the Olympics, but are often featured in economic development efforts of the corporate type. For the viewer, they run the spectrum from inspiring to cringeworthy.

The psychology of the city bid video could be a sub-field within urban cultural studies, and I think would make a pretty interesting research sub-agenda (and a really fun conference session or two). From this topic, a series of questions emerge that deserve exploration:

Who is involved in these efforts, and what informs their worldviews?

Why are certain subjects, images, themes, symbols, sounds, and text chosen – and what are the meanings (or attempted meanings) attached to them?

Who ‘owns’ a city’s self-identity – and at what point is this agreed upon, or in a state of constant negotiation and formation, what are the competing conceptions of identity?

Where are the misunderstandings and disconnects between what local groups ‘think’ a company like Amazon wants, and what Amazon’s decision makers are really looking for?

To what degree do notions of ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’ (referring to Bourdieu) deliberately or non-deliberately enter these processes; the subtle spoken and unspoken cues and clues meant to reach and connect with certain audiences?

What power relationships, power geometries, and uneven / exploitative structures are reinforced, questioned, or challenged in these efforts and marketing materials? Are there opportunities for subversions; for resistances; for progressive transformations – or must this be an (and caught within) inherently unjust neoliberal process / processes?

I link here (below) two similar, and yet so different, videos in the AMAZON-RACE: Charlotte’s (cringeworthy) effort to be seen as an edgy, hip, urban Millennial hotspot (count how many times the word “millennial” is mentioned in the video) and Detroit’s (somewhat more inspirational) showcase of its unique identity.

Both, interestingly, are written / performed in “spoken word” – the urban poetry form that is often associated with contemporary intellectual African-American-hipster communities. For Detroit, a city that has been majority African-American for decades, and is a national and international center of African-American music, culture and history – this representation seems somewhat natural (even given Amazon’s relative whiteness, coming from Seattle, a city in the least African-American part of the country). For Charlotte, however, there is a bigger question mark: is it to appease Pacific Northwesterners who might be wary of lasting racial attitudes in a Southern city? An effort to seem culturally relevant, offering the sort of culture that so-called Millennials are deemed to want and crave? Or a badly-disguised and unapologetic appropriation of an urban African-American art form for a corporate relocation largely planned by and benefiting affluent whites? Or, is it simply an example of what local critics have previously called Charlotte’s “Pinocchio” syndrome – the incessant need to say, “look, papa, I’m a REAL city!?” (with “Papa” in this case being Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man).

Perhaps these conclusions are best left to the eye and interpretation of the viewer, or a researcher interested in further exploring these questions. And the conclusions may be informed by whichever city Amazon picks, if indeed, their exercise is not just illusory.

Detroit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO4J_PC1b5M

Charlotte: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s1-0khtLps&t=6s

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?