Cool v. Uncool Cities: The Battle For The Soul Of Economic Development

 

To succeed in the 21st Century, do cities really have to be cool, as Richard Florida argues? Or do they have to be uncool, as Joel Kotkin insists? Maybe they have to be both.

A few years ago, a little-known academic named Richard Florida turned the economic development world upside down by publishing a book called The Rise of the Creative Class. In a nutshell, Florida’s argument was that to be successful today, cities have to be cool.

The engine of the American economy, he claimed, was creativity. The United States had produced a “creative class” of close to 40 million highly educated professionals who focus on researching and creating innovative products. In his followup book, Cities and the Creative Class, he argued those professionals were increasingly concentrated in cities with certain “cool” attributes, including an arts and culture scene, bohemian enclaves and even large gay populations.

Economic development is a field susceptible to “panacea” thinking. The latest hot idea, whether it’s the sports stadium, the convention center, the downtown multiplex or the auto assembly plant, is often trumpeted as a panacea and pretty soon every city starts craving it. There is no economic development panacea, of course. (For many years as the economic development correspondent for Governing magazine I was nicknamed the “panacea editor,” because my job was to write a long article every few months concluding that the latest hot idea was not a panacea). Even so, most of these ideas – Florida’s included – have at least some value.

The minute Florida declared that cities had to be cool, however, it was only a matter of time before Joel Kotkin starting writing that cities wouldn’t succeed unless they were un-cool. Kotkin had long been a fan of what he calls “nerdistans” – boring suburbs (he always seems to mention Irvine) that nevertheless house some of the most powerful drivers of the American economy, especially in the tech sectors. But Florida’s work really revved him up. In a typical article for the Manhattan Institute last year, Kotkin called the cool cities idea “shtick” and suggested that the creative class “by the time they get into their 30s, may be more interested in economic opportunity, a single family house and procreation than remaining ‘hip and cool’ urbanites.”

The question of how to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina gave Kotkin a special opportunity to wave the flag for uncool cities. Less than a week after the hurricane, he drew a line in the sand. “The wrong approach would be to preserve a chimera of the past, producing a touristic faux New Orleans, a Cajun Disneyland,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Rather, the city should follow Houston’s model. “Houston has succeeded by sticking to the basics, by focusing on the practical aspects of urbanism rather than the glamorous.”

The powers that be in New Orleans have not listened to Kotkin and he has continued squawking. On the second anniversary of the hurricane last week, Kotkin wrote in the Wall Street Journal that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was about to make a big mistake by committing to the $1 billion Riverfront development in order to lure “the much ballyhooed ‘creative class’.” He frequently calls this approach “the ephemeral city”.

Is Kotkin really just being a contrarian? Or does he have a point?

On this one, he’s got a point – and a pretty good one. But just as he is prone to being a contrarian, he tends toward creating straw men in order to win an argument. In this case, he has set up Florida and the creative class in just this way. Over and over again, Kotkin has reduced Florida’s “creative class” argument to nothing more than tourism and entertainment – in other words, bread and circuses. Kotkin has repeated it so frequently that nowadays even politicians and economic development experts tout the value of tourism and entertainment and claim they are following Florida’s philosophy. This is a fundamental misreading of Florida’s argument.

Which is too bad, because it forces people in the world of economic development to take sides, rather than do what they should do – understand the value each of these combatants bring to the table with their arguments. In other words, by reducing Florida to a straw man, Kotkin forces us to treat Florida’s ideas in an either/or way. It's either a panacea – or a worthless argument.

In his book, The City: A Global History, Kotkin argues that cities serve three basic functions: religion, safety, and commerce. His view of cities as centers of commerce is nothing new; from time immemorial, cities have served as the geographical focus of commerce in general and trading in particular. Creating a safe zone goes hand-in-hand with commerce, obviously. But Kotkin’s deepest conviction seems to concern the role of religion in shaping cities. And he seems to want to place himself and Florida on opposite sides of the culture wars in the U.S. today.

“The sacred place” is so important to Kotkin that he ends his book with it. He decries the fact that New Urbanists, for example, “rarely refer to the need for a powerful moral vision to hold cities together.” He ascribes much of Singapore’s recent success to neo-Confusianism. And he decries the modern urban environment, “with its emphasis on faddishness, stylistic issues, and the celebration of the individual over the family or stable community.”

This last is clearly a frontal attack on Florida’s ideas, with their emphasis on bohemian aspects of urban life, arts and culture, and the presence of a gay community. It’s also, in a way, an attack on the idea of the city as a place of diversity.

But there is more to Florida than art galleries and gay bars, no matter what Kotkin says. In identifying the creative class, he’s not just talking about artists and actors. Indeed, if that were all he was talking about, he’d have gotten a lot of play on the Westside of L.A. and in Greenwich Village but nowhere else. To Florida, the creative class includes architects, software developers, medical researchers, scientists, engineers – anybody and everybody who is involved in the high-value-added process of conducting basic research and converting that research into new products. And Florida’s argument is not that art galleries and gay bars by themselves are economic bonanzas, but that a wide variety of urban amenities are required to attract and retain the key members of the “creative class” to specific locations.

Kotkin – who has long positioned himself as “Mr. Nerdistan” – would undoubtedly disagree. But I think, by and large, Florida is right about what the creative class wants. Not long ago I was giving a speech in just about the most blue-collar city you can imagine – Buffalo – and I made the Florida argument. New York State was investing hundreds of millions of dollars in life sciences research in Buffalo in an effort to compete with Georgia, Arizona, and California in this sector of huge economic opportunity. But I pointed out that the prevalent new development pattern in Buffalo was the creation of three-acre suburban lots. I suggested that research scientists trying to cure cancer did not want to spend all weekend on a riding mower.

Afterwards, one woman came up to me and told me – in the broadest, flat-a Upstate accent you can imagine -- that she works at a cancer research institute. “You’re right,” she said of the scientists. “At the end of the day all they want is a restaurant, a gym, and a loft.”

It’s worth noting as well that some businesses associated with the ephemeral city actually do represent enormous economic sectors. As Florida protégé Elizabeth Currid points out in her new book about New York, The Warhol Economy, art galleries aren’t very big business, but the fashion industry is a huge industry of worldwide significance. You’d think Kotkin would acknowledge this every once in a while, considering how many times he’s told the story, in speeches, about the Lower East Side and the economic miracle of the needle trade a century ago. And in Kotkin’s own adopted hometown of Los Angeles, one of the biggest industries is the most ephemeral of all – entertainment, which has a long history of providing well-paying middle-class craft jobs that have provided a path for upward mobility for generations of families who have lived in Kotkin’s own neighborhood.

You won’t read much about these subtleties in Kotkin’s columns because they fit don’t in with the straw-man argument he’s usually making. And that’s too bad, because Kotkin makes an important point that we all should bear in mind: Coolness alone will not make American cities work in the 21st Century. In other words, as I might put it in Governing magazine, coolness is not a panacea.

But neither is uncoolness. This is the point that Kotkin does not allow for. Successful economic development in the 21st Century will require that American cities understand the creative class and how to attract and retain them just as Florida suggests. At the same time, obviously, cities cannot ignore basic infrastructure while subsidizing art galleries and gay bars. As I concluded in every Governing article I ever wrote, no one thing – no one structure, no one theory -- will guarantee a city’s long-term economic success. The more those of us in the business of commentary communicate this message -- rather than the straw man, either/or argument that Joel Kotkin typically makes -- the more likely cities are to dig deeper, search harder, and find the real keys to success.

- Bill Fulton

Third of three blogs. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.