Thursday, April 4, 2013

Don't Weep for Richard Florida

I was not going to write on the recent spate of critical articles targeting Richard Florida and his creative class theory/evangelism because, frankly, the arguments are not very compelling and they recycle (poorly) the critiques of economic geographers and planning scholars from the early 2000s. I have always been clear on my distaste for Florida's creative class thesis and its perverse politics, but a recent article at Rustwire has forced me to respond.

The gist of the Rustwire post is that current attacks on Florida are overblown for the following reasons:

1. Florida never claimed to be a poverty researcher therefore we should not attack his theory if it doesn't alleviate poverty.

2. There is only one recent study that challenges the benefits of creative class development and it does not focus on the other potential benefits of "talent agglomeration" on the poor and that the empirical evidence on “talent agglomeration” is well supported.

3. Economic development policy was largely restricted to ineffective industrial attraction schemes and Florida changed the game up (a policy disruptive or paradigm shifting argument)

4. Florida's detractors are playing a cynical "class resentment" game

5. Florida's ideas are based on the benign wish to make cities "inviting" places to live.

I shall try to respond to these reasons in a relatively concise fashion in order to show why these reasons are not only foolish, but just an apologia for current urban development trends that many scholars and commenters, including yours truly on this blog and in other outlets, have critiqued harshly for exacerbating the worst excesses of American social inequity.

Florida never claimed to be a poverty researcher...

This may be the weakest argument of the list because it is the least accurate and relevant. I say least accurate because it would be rude to call it dishonest. Yes, if we take Richard Florida's direct quotes as gospel, then MAYBE you can claim that he has never positioned himself as a “poverty researcher” but this would favor a narrow set of statements against a decade of actions that clearly demonstrate the opposite.

Florida has spent the better part of a decade traveling around the country, and the world, advising city leaders on the benefits of a “talent attraction” strategy. A unique sub-class of cities he's visited, at least in the US? Declining Rust Belt cities. This 2009 article from the American Prospect gives only a very small sample of cities Florida advised: Baltimore, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, Des Moines, Roanoke etc...Florida may not sell himself as a “poverty researcher” but many of the cities that he has consulted, at great personal profit, have huge impoverished populations and economic development policy is poverty alleviation policy. Claiming Florida never willingly took on the formal title is absurd on the face of it. You do not go to Youngstown or comment on Detroit or any number of smaller, declining cities and pretend that you aren't talking about poverty because these cities are largely defined by entrenched poverty.

 Evidence on “Talent Agglomeration” and its Benefits

This critique is more subtle, and potentially legitimate, but it rests upon an ignorance of the body of work that not only precedes Florida's creative class thesis (itself a repackaging of human capital economic theory) but the large body of theoretical and empirical work developed in the past decade that support and challenge Florida's conclusions. This is largely academic, but this is an example where academic arguments and social science processes are incredibly important because Florida's approach to urban policy is the dominant policy framing of the day.

Empirically there is still an open question as to whether Florida's creative class thesis is correct (some recent papers here, here, and here demonstrate the rather mixed results of the thesis). I'm gonna get a little in the weeds here but only to demonstrate that the evidence for the creative class thesis is decidedly mixed and that part of the reason for the mixed results is that the creative class is a sub-theory of human capital theory and is not well operationalized. Simply put, human capital theory states that long term economic growth is possible thanks to the increasing returns of scale due to human knowledge. Knowledge is unique in that is inexhaustible and can combined and recombined in an infinite array. Policies built around human capital theory include subsidies for R&D, subsidizing eduation for city or regional residents, or even technological outreach programs and extension programs.

Florida goes beyond the basic human growth theory and traditional policy programs built around human capital theory. His defintion of “creatives” as those who add economic value to a city is a large step from human capital theory and he goes even further by focusing upon a set of occupations he dubs “creative” as essential to economic growth. Human capital theory is relatively agnostic on certain occupations and certainly does not posit direct growth measures to a specific set of occupations or attempts to link growth due to “creativity”. In addition, Florida also posits that the co-location of “creatives” is adequate to enable economic growth. This differs from other innovation or human capital theories that focus upon the interplay of the co-location of educated people and institutional forms necessary to convert their ideas into products. This is a little nitpicky, but it is important because it frames the decisions city leaders make and the infrastructure they decide to invest in. Basically, the creative class is an extension (some would say an overly ambitious extension) of human capital theory but it is empirically ambiguous due to the fact that there is a large overlap between variables used to measure traditional human capital variables and those that measure the creative class. This is an important point because the policy implications between following a more traditional human capital approach and a creative attraction approach are drastically different. Again, and I can't repeat this enough, human capital theory is a largely recognized and tested theoretical approach but the evidence for economic growth due to the co-location of “creatives” and basic policy around attracting these creatives through forming a portfolio of attractive urban amenities is not remotely settled. (For more on this please read this excellent review by Scott and Storper).

 Economic Development was only concerned with industrial attraction before Florida showed us the light

This observation is one that is simply incorrect. Economic development policy has indeed by dominated by industrial attraction (and it still goes on, much to my chagrin) but industrial attraction and convention center construction are considered pretty old school economic development techniques that practicing economic developers. I won't go into deep detail on the history of economic development but there is an absolutely essential paper on by Bradshaw and Blakely. This paper (from 1999, by the way) talked about current economic development policy, at the time, being focused not on industrial attraction but the use of public-private partnerships, industrial clusters, human resources and human capital strategies, and is characterized by state governments moving away from expensive incentive programs and focusing uponbuilding strategic advantages within industrial clusters. This is a paper from 1999 and shows economic development practice, even then, was dynamic, imaginative and had moved beyond industry and convention center attraction as a primary form of economic development policy. Florida certainly helped to switch the economic development game up but to say economic development policy was still primarily promoting policies that were largely sidelined over a decade ago is either incredibly sloppy or dishonest.


Frankly, this argument is pure neoliberal, trickled-down economics. Thirty years of local, state and federal policies that have favored the interests of economic and political elites have shown us that simply assuming that the success of one group will help others is wrong. Amenity-based development, “placemaking” projects, the varied accoutrements of the sustainable city like farmers markets and bike infrastructure, the intense redevelopment of central cities, the conversion of industrial land, and any other array of city or regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations.. Let me repeat: city and regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations. The way many of these policies have been rolled out in American cities have seeded and exacerbated displacement, gentrification, housing affordability crises, and increased income inequality. To say that the interests of “creatives” and the poor or communities of color implies an overlap that in many cities simply does not exist. There are legitimate trad off decisions and real winners and losers when it comes to policy and planning decisions and we should honestly interrogate the disparate impacts of amenity-based planning strategies instead of effacing the real conflicts and decisions that undergird creative class policy.

 He wants livable cities, though!

This argument is a good intentions argument. I'll be honest, I don't care if Richard Florida wants livable cities. If his concept of the livable city is synonomous with the creative city, then he can have it. Livability, like his own version of creativity, are not immune from political challenge or analytical critique. If livability is dependent upon the displacement of poor people and communities of color, then I will fight livability as it is presented with every fiber of my being and any planner or urbanist who is concered with social justice should be skeptical of livability discourse claims that do not deal with poverty or social inequality explicitly. The risk of perpetuating already incredibly unequal social relations is simply to great.

 Don't weep...

Richard Florida is still one of the most influential urban thinkers in the world. Whether you agree with his theories and policy recommendations or not, his influence is absolutely undeniable. He dramatically changed how planners and economic developers plan and set policy and has made an ungodly amount of money from consulting, writing multiple bestsellers, and his own research center at the University of Toronto. This current “backlash” may be unfair or biased in some instances (Kotkin's critique is based on a visceral hatred of cities and astrong aversion to planning), but Florida's work needs to be tested and critiqued. The empirical weakness of his conclusions should be shouted from the rooftops because planners set their policies based on unfounded claims. The political questions around creative class planning should be challenged because they have helped to accelerate displacement of poor communities around the country and shift city government priorities away from poverty alleviation to amenity development. So, don't weep for Richard Florida. Ask wy there's such a backlash in the first place.

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