Creative Cities and Inequality: The conversion of Richard Florida to critical urbanism?

Richard Florida is more than just a famous urbanist, he is a sign of the shift in thinking for mainstream urbanism pointing toward the need for an equity lens in city building and local economic development. In 2002 Florida released his famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class, where he observes that prosperous cities are driven by the clustering of creative industries and diversity in lifestyle values and as such cities should invest in their cultural and lifestyle features to stimulate economic development. The key to urban success, Florida argued, “was to attract and retain talent, not just to draw in companies” (Florida 2017, p. xii).

From this book cities across the world have taken up various forms of the ‘creative cities agenda’ in different ways working in arts, culture, and lifestyle as areas for public investment and drivers of economic development. London has been part of the Creative City Network of Canada, publishing 'The Creative City Task Force Report' in 2005 and the Cultural Prosperity Plan in 2013.

Florida enjoyed years of ‘optimistic urbanism’, running a speaking tour and research centre embedding the creative cities ideology across municipalities and governments. However, in 2017 he released a follow up book titled The New Urban Crisis where he realizes that he had been “overly optimistic to believe that cities and the creative class could, by themselves, bring forth a better and more inclusive kind of urbanism” (Florida 2017, p.xiii). The places and neighbourhoods where Florida originally saw the creative class emerge, such as SoHo in New York, were becoming the centres of urban inequality, characterised by “a new kind of homogeneity of wealthy people, high-end restaurants, and luxury shops” (Florida 2017, p.xiii).    

What Florida came to find was that his creative cities agenda would come to be a driver of inequality in and across cities, and that cities and prosperity were becoming less inclusive and more polarized. Examining the rise and fall of American cities, it became clear that there were ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and the that the distribution of the benefits were concentrated in a small class and leaving others behind. Florida (2017, p. xiv) states:

The implications were deeply disturbing to me. The greatest driver of innovation, economic growth, and urban prosperity—the clustering of talent and other economic assets in cities—conferred the lion’s share of its benefits on the already privileged, leaving a staggering 66 percent of the population behind. 

And this was the conversion moment for Florida. The moment when economic development was not only about creating prosperity, but rather asking the question: prosperity for whom? Florida is almost joining the choir of critical urbanists such as Peter Marcuse, Neil Brenner, and Margit Mayer who have championed the slogan ‘cities for people not for profit’.  Once we begin to ask such questions our concept of what good growth is and how we should track it becomes disrupted. No longer does the refurbishment of buildings, branding of neighbourhoods and localist entrepreneurial activity imply successful development; rather we begin to ask questions about how our actions, policies, and programs generate inequality and is this inequality appropriate?

Another way to approach this is to start asking questions about how we can leverage policy and economic development programs to ensure a more equitable distribution of the benefit. When governments give grants, interest free loans, and award procurement contracts these are all areas to start to measure equitable development. Who is receiving the subsidy/contract? Is that group/company/organization structured in such a way as to result in the increased concentration of wealth or do they distribute wealth equitably? Is the subsidy provided for affordable housing resulting in economically better off inhabitants or is money filtering upward toward the already privileged? Do our actions create the conditions for a sustainable future or are we chasing the Amazon ghost?

Florida’s conversion toward critical urbanism is important as an indication that economic justice is coming front and centre to urban policy and community organizing within cities. While I would not recommend The New Urban Crisis for helping to understand the drivers of the crisis, nonetheless the sign is clear and from the point of view of poverty reduction, this is a promising conversion. Governments, politicians, and urbanists are becoming increasingly concerned with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, it is not only an issue of polarization and insecurity generally created under such conditions, but an ethical calling to bring forth a new urbanism, new ways of living together, and potentially a new economy. The traditional tools of economic development are being exposed for driving economic and social inequality in cities. How will we respond? Do we have the tools and imagination to do something different?