Beyond the Creative Class

Our last print issue included an article on Richard Florida, urban-planning guru and author of the 2002 bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida's ideas about what drives economic growth -- particularly the presence of a vibrant artistic community, the means to incubate technology, and a large gay community -- were embraced by cities around the country, many of whom paid Florida as much as $40,000 to speak.

These days, Florida is saying that many of those cities are beyond hope. Reeling from the effects of the recession, local governments are now struggling to find a path toward sustained prosperity. I spoke about the present and future of American cities with Christopher Carrick, an urban planner with the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board in Syracuse.

I suppose what was so attractive about Richard Florida was the idea that he had uncovered a foolproof path to economic and cultural vitality. What is the current thinking about what cities can, and should, do?

After many years of debate among economic-development theorists between those who argued that "people follow jobs" and those (Florida among them) who claimed "jobs follow people," the current consensus is that cities have to build local production systems and train their local labor force at the same time as they try to attract the "creative class." Unfortunately, Florida's ideas have been used to justify using scarce public resources to provide urban amenities that cater to the presumed needs of a very limited part of the work force.

Cities should focus on "the basics" -- the essential needs of middle-class workers such as civil servants, nurses, teachers, and other service workers and the displaced manufacturing workers who want to remain in the area where they grew up rather than migrate to the South or West in search of work. Rather than catering to the desires of downtown developers by subsidizing luxury lofts, cities should address their crumbling infrastructure (especially in transportation), dysfunctional schools, city/suburban inequality, crime, and the needs of small businesses.

Are smaller cities, like Syracuse, having any success in attracting "creative class" employers?

As a matter of demography, there are not enough yuppies to go around for cities like Syracuse or even Cleveland to ever compete with San Francisco, Boston, or Seattle. And the much hyped, and hoped-for, return of "empty nesters" to the city has not yet materialized. But Syracuse, which has some 1,500 vacant residential properties, has seen more hotel rooms and luxury condominiums built than affordable housing units redeveloped over the last 10 years.

But there are some positive developments. If the federal loan guarantees can be secured, a plant in Syracuse will be producing electric cars for the Indian company Reva. This didn't happen because of the research and report on the Syracuse economy that Richard Florida was paid to do. What attracted Reva was the existence of an idle manufacturing plant, an underutilized work force with manufacturing skills and experience, and generous public subsidies.

Another interesting local example of a traditional development approach that is likely to pay dividends involves the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce and its business incubator program at the Syracuse Tech Garden, which recently won an award from the state energy office to establish the Clean Tech Center, which offers business support services to start-ups in clean energy, which has a supportive public sector and higher-education infrastructure in Central New York.

The interests of one city -- or one neighborhood -- may not line up perfectly with those of the next town over. Are cities and towns able to work together to raise living standards?

There are initiatives designed to promote "regional equity" by encouraging growth into the urban core and areas that have been plagued by disinvestment for decades and redirecting them away from exurbs and the metropolitan fringe. One example would be the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles, which successfully organized for a $1 billion investment to increase bus service to inner-city neighborhoods in the face of a suburban-serving light-rail system.

An entire infrastructure of grass-roots organizations, think tanks, policy shops, consultants, and foundations has emerged to support this fledgling movement for regional equity (it's described in the recent book This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Reshaping Metropolitan America). The regional-equity movement has a sometimes uneasy relationship with the so-called smart-growth movement, which has primarily focused on issues of sustainability. There is some evidence to suggest, for example, [that the smart-growth promoted urban growth boundaries implemented by Portland, Oregon, may have resulted in higher metro-area housing costs. Those higher costs can hurt the working poor and even large sections of the middle class.

Regional-equity movements, on the other hand, have put the concerns of these groups at the forefront. Local community-development corporations have played a central role in many of these campaigns, such as the Spanish Speaking Unity Council's successful effort to force the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to redesign its Transit Village project in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland to increase the positive spillovers between the redeveloped rail station and the surrounding neighborhood.

So where is the place to start when addressing this kind of regional inequality?

There are reasons to believe that metropolitan leaders and policy-makers must do what smart-growth advocates typically do not do: address the ongoing challenges of racial segregation and its relationship to regional inequality, particularly in education. Everyone knows that urban school systems are a mess and that they must be fixed in order to attract the middle class back to the city and to provide stable employment opportunities for the children of working-class families.

A recently published book by Syracuse University professor Gerald Grant, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, compares racially segregated Syracuse metropolitan-area school systems with the consolidated countywide Wake County school system serving the Raleigh, North Carolina, metropolitan area. He demonstrates that students in Raleigh perform much better on standardized tests and argues that economically and racially balanced schools are the key to providing a better education for urban children and turning around struggling cities like Syracuse.

Community-development organizations have long understood that healthy, stable neighborhoods have a diverse mix of housing types and residents. The federal government has spent millions to address concentrated urban poverty and provide public-housing residents with the educational and job opportunities taken for granted by suburbanites. The same argument can be made for metropolitan regions as a whole: for urban economies to thrive, the dramatic income, wealth, and educational disparities between central cities (and increasingly their inner-ring suburbs) and their suburban and exurban fringes must be reduced. It is difficult to see how this can be done by catering to the presumed lifestyle amenity choices of the fickle and highly mobile creative class.

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