You know magical thinking about cities is fading when one of the gurus says stuff like this:
“My optimism has been tempered and I’ve become more of a realist.”
That’s Richard Florida, the guy who inspired a (mostly unsuccessful) stampede to hipness 15 years ago with the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.
Florida’s latest is The New Urban Crisis. And get a load of the subtitle: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — And What We Can Do About It.
To be fair, Florida never promised every place could become cool and prosperous by simply tweaking its strategies to appear more welcoming to creative, entrepreneurial types. But he was okay with letting the inference inspire a mini-industry.
Mired in post-industrial woes, mayors and economic development directors were understandably attracted to the notion they could become the next Silicon Valley, or at least the next Austin. So Florida had a ready-made itinerary for a Go Creative road show.
The eazy-peezy assumptions began eroding, first of all, when researchers — including Florida — began pointing out that places had to have a lot more going for them than a couple craft beer joints and a community theater if they were going to rise with the creative class.
Cities most likely to fit Florida’s criteria have broad-based institutional infrastructures that support vigorous social and economic ecosystems. Most are big cities, diverse enough to sustain small hits to segments of their economies and still inspire replacement start-ups and expansions. Many were home to world-class research universities. (No Stanford, no Silicon Valley.)
The more recent critique has to do with the one Florida owned up to: Reality bites. And that biting is coming from both the right and the left.
The cultural conservative wing of the Republican Party was always suspicious of the evils that come from having too many anything-goes types in one place. (A conservative official in western North Carolina once branded Asheville as a “cesspool of sin.” Asheville entrepreneurs put it on T-shirts.) Then, as the Big Sort gathered steam — in many ways demonstrating Florida’s core arguments about where college-educated, entrepreneurial young people were likely to live or migrate to — Republicans in general saw opportunity in the exurbs and rural areas. No characterization of America’s polarized politics is more easily depicted than in maps of blue urban areas and red most everywhere else.
But as Florida’s most recent book subtitle suggests, if cities were good at giving lots of citizens opportunities for happier, more prosperous lives, they were also good at making more obvious a widening gap between those with sufficient wealth to make the most of city life and those who were priced out. Demand for the best urban environments — those with a range of housing options, with transit and with an abundance of walkable and bikeable destinations — outstrips supply. Which means those with the means to secure what they want bid up the costs of living in those kinds of places, particularly the costs of housing. In the most desirable places, prices strain the budgets of even the young, Creative Classmates who are stuck in low-paying jobs and struggling to pay off student loans. People who’ve endured generations of disadvantage, isolated in pockets of poverty underserved by city services? For them, urban life was and is anything but paradise.
As the inequality gap widens, resentment grows. Notably from those who, in other contexts, consider themselves progressives. They sense their positions in the urban hierarchy eroding. They feel invaded by developers and their enablers — high-wealth transplants, corporations and politicians more concerned about the tax base than the welfare of those struggling to protect community character and culture. They want to put the brakes on, slow or stop growth, un-elect politicians who seem overly friendly to developers.
In an interview with Malcolm Burnley in the April 11 Next City blog, Florida says he realizes he may have been too glass-half-full in his original thinking to allow for the glass-half-empty points of his critics:
What went off in my head was that I had been studying the locations of concentrated advantage. They had been studying the locations of concentrated disadvantage — and they were almost the flip sides of each other. I was trying to look at concentrated advantage to try to think about what would make cities come back. This other group of scholars was looking at this equally concentrated disadvantage. That’s what led me on the research mission of the book.
Okay, so we have these two data-supported positions to reconcile. We know that cities are engines of opportunity, at least for some. And we know that, at least for some, cities suck at relieving persistent, growing inequality. How do we make the engine work better for everybody?
Here’s where it gets hard, especially for academics. And maybe even more especially for planners and designers who want to draw their way out of the dilemma. Here’s what Florida said on the “what we can do about it” topic in his interview with Burnley:
Cities can use their taxes more aggressively. They could force developers to provide affordable housing, to provide better jobs. And I think they can use land use policy to make sure our cities don’t become homogeneously segregated neighborhoods.
And there you have the problem.
Each of those sentences display assumptions that vastly underestimate the monumental political battles required to achieve what they propose. All you have to do to tidy things up is tax more aggressively, force developers to provide what the marketplace won’t support and make it harder for citizens to live where they want. There’s pretty good reason to believe that those strategies might actually help. Even more reason to believe, however, that none of those ideas will find much traction in a place where people get to vote. At least not now.
Better, I’m thinking, to get ready for what happens next. Which is reality.
The preference for political paralysis over problem solving, whether among the America Firsters in Washington or the NIMBYs at home, will get increasingly wearisome. Global trade and the turbulence it creates in local and regional markets are not going away. Jobs that can be done by robots are. Slowing or stopping infill development in cities will only aggravate the supply/demand problem and drive up housing prices. Desire for the varieties of human connectivity delivered in urban places will continue to be more powerful than cities’ capacities to provide them. Over time, some of the slack will be taken up by savvy leaders beyond the city limits, who see the advantage in adapting urban land use and transportation planning approaches to “build a better ‘burb.” Change happens.
At some point, it will become clear that the required adaptations cannot be accommodated by market-based strategies alone. So we’ll finally have to reassess the delusion that “government is the problem.” To get anything important done, we’ll be nudged toward cobbling together some made-in-America framework for dealing with challenges. That’s likely to require a new relationship between a private sector unlikely to provide enough jobs at high enough wages to sustain enough people and public and non-profit sectors capable of assuring basic levels of safety and security for all. And somewhere along the line, we’ll reluctantly conclude that if we want all this to work, we’ll have to pay for it.
What do we do while reality slowly forces the hands of policy-makers?
Keep the faith. Cities are now and will continue to be where ideas are tested and where good ones can be scaled up for broader successes. Let’s keep identifying strategies that seem to work, especially when it comes to including underserved populations in the opportunities and benefits of urban life. If big and bold are too tough to take on, let’s go for incrementalism. Let’s look for little projects that contribute to solutions and, at the same time, suggest models worth replicating.
Think of current disappointments as stages in a transition. Surely there’s a limit to how many humiliations our communities will endure before we take a shot at linking lofty ambitions with strategies that might have a chance of success. And we want to be ready when that happens.
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