Friday, February 20, 2009

The future of our cities .. and two perspectives …

  How will land use and law change in our collapsed economy?  In March's Atlantic Monthly, commentators Richard Florida and Sandra Tsing Loh offer opinions - and, provocatively, offer far different conclusions.

Detroit_3   Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class," argues that the economic crash signals the end of the half-century suburban era and a revival of dense, urban living.  He predicts the final collapse of industrial cites such as Detroit; meanwhile, boomtowns in the desert such as Phoenix, he argues, will likewise suffer as their real-estate-fueled growth ends.  (But I ask: Aren't sunny retirement destinations such as Phoenix (which was a boom city long before the real-estate bubble) posed to remain popular regardless of the economic climate?)      

    Which places will prosper?  Florida suggests further concentration in a handful of hip and diversified "dense ecosystems" such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as a few smaller "innovation centers" such as Austin and Boulder.  He calls for changes in land use law to foster more density, more public transportation, and more investment in vibrant and appealing central cities.  The places that will succeed, he concludes, are "those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism."  Success, he write, belongs to "a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation …."

   What does this mean?  What is the "velocity" of a place or the "landscape of … invention"?  And why do these factors favor New York and Los Angeles?  To the extent that our economy moves fully away from manufacture (and real estate) and towards the creativity of the Internet world, why can't creativity thrive on laptops in Spokane, Omaha, or Birmingham?  Doesn't the Internet hold the same "velocity" in these smaller cities as it does in the big ones?  At the same time that Florida predicts the near-complete abandonment of cities such as Detroit, he also notes, in somewhat of a contradiction, that the economic downtown has made labor markets and housing movement far more rigid. 

   Perhaps Florida means to suggest that "creative" people still need a real-life human community and that creative people need and wish to flock together in the flesh.  (Although whenever I see people "creating" intently at Starbucks, they don't seem to be interacting in any way other then online.)  Perhaps only a handful of hip urban centers offer this opportunity.   

   Tsing Loh suggests some manifestations of this community in Los Angeles.  Grimy Boston Red Sox baseball caps are popular among hip young entertainment people, she jokes (?), because it signifies that they have the unparalleled pedigree of having worked at the Harvard Lampoon.

   She also gets the final word.  Tsing Loh faults Florida for ignoring the concerns that families with children have over the central cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, which are both expensive and have poor public schools.  (Interestingly, Florida hardly mentions issues of race and immigration.  See my post of earlier this week about popular cities.)   And finally, Tsing Loh suggests that our economic catastrophe might not favor Florida's hip creative class but instead may favor "staid and stolid values of the bourgeoisie: industry, sobriety, moderation, self-discipline and avoidance of debt."  In this sort of world, places such as Spokane, Omaha, and Birmingham may have as hopeful a future as do New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco ….

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Interesting post. I think what all this (the current times) tells us about cities is that they are complex adaptive systems. Trendology efforts like Florida's to make sweeping generalizations and predictions are ludicrous and basing policy on them is folly. Sure, maybe the New Urbanist love affair with density makes sense in some contexts, but not for the reasons given. And what in the world does he mean by "the half-century suburban era"? Did suburbs not exist before 1959?

When I moved to Austin from D.C. in 1986 my east coast friends asked why we would move to a cow town? Now Austin is an "innovation center." Who predicted that? Anyone who was there at the time knows the truth--nobody did. Austin got to where it is because of a few visionaries in the late 1980s who, with a great deal of work, luck, and timing, pulled off the improbable to get some federal semiconductor research labs plopped into town, which meant we had to hire skilled people from California, who liked the Hill Country, who moved there permanently, which attracted other companies, etc. It became electric, Dell found his garage, Whole Foods decided to expand (yes, the original WF is in Austin), etc. Find me one trendologist who predicted all that!

The more we observe about cites, the less we know about how they behave over long time frames. They are the ultimate complex adaptive social organism. It's fun to speculate, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking we've got them figured out.

J.B. Ruhl

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Posted by: Miriam | Feb 23, 2009 5:43:02 AM