Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

Happy National Train Day everybody.

CEO’s for Cities points us at an anti-Richard Florida screed written by Sean Safford. Safford is the sociologist who wrote the seminal paper “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown“, which I discussed in my post, “The Importance of Social Structures for Urban Success“. Per Safford,

The flirtation with Richard Florida has to stop. We are worried about our cities, I know. And, in the Obama-era, I know we appreciate empirical evidence. Richard Florida tugs on both of these heart strings. He’s an endorphin producer for nerdy urban planning lovers. But Richard Florida is like intellectual cotton candy. He looks so good, you want to keep going back for more. But in the end, its empty calories. And it will rot your teeth.

The Atlantic produces a cover story which must have been forwarded to me 25 times (by people, I’ll admit, who know I have such a strong reaction to him). It gets in to the zeitgeist. But in the end, what is he really saying? What are the implications of his research? It’s all correlations. There’s no mechanism driving us from point A to point B. There’s nothing which sheds light into the darkness. And more practically, nothing that a mayor could actually use to revive her city. There’s nothing there, there. But, as long as people feel like their assumptions are being supported, it will sell. That’s just no way to run things.

Reminds me a bit of this more serious critique of Florida by Steven Malanga, a long time Florida foil.

I think these conflate two different things, Florida as an academic attempting to draw conclusions about cities, and Florida as popularizer. There seems to be enormous resentment against Florida in the academic community, possibly because his ideas have become so popular. But I think miscontrues him. The best people to compare Florida to aren’t academics like Ed Glaeser or Sean Safford or anyone else, but other popularizers like Tom Friedman.

My view is that for people like this, you have to first and foremost look at them as businessmen, with their theories and oversized personalities being the products they are selling. They have found a key to making lots of money, which is to posit a single, primal force that provides an easily intuitive explanatory function for the uncertain world around us. It comforts people and reduces their angst by making sense of what is going on. For Tom Friedman, it is “The World is Flat”. For Florida, it is “The Creative Class”. (Other popular business books like those by Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Taleb probably have some of this to them as well).

You’ve got to admit this is a winning formula. They have sold tons of books, made lots of money speaking, and in Florida’s case he seems to have started a nice consultancy as well. While viewing these guys as charismatic pitchmen for overly-simplified, overly-hyped products designed to save our cities or whatever lends itself immediately to the analogy of the snake-oil salesman – and not totally unfairly – I think these guys should be admired as entrepreneurs, much as the people who are telling us how to get rich in real estate should be. They are extremely successful businessmen and part of the entrepreneurial energy that keeps our economy growing.

Guys like Florida inevitably rub people like Safford and me the wrong way in some respects. As you know, I’m all about viewing cities as complex phenomena, not simple ones. To say that a formula like the “creative class” and the “three T'” explains everything you need to know is a clear error, what Dietrich Dörner would have called reductivism in his excellent tract “The Logic of Failure“.

But I think this misses the point. The vast majority of people have no interest in wallowing in dense research papers or blog posts. They don’t have the time or interest. There is a very valid and important function being performed in taking aspects of complex problems and presenting them to people in a readily digestible format. And you know what? Florida’s notion that talent matters, and that attracting the labor force of the 21st century is critical to urban success is right on. In the short run people follow jobs, but in the long run jobs follow people. You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists. While it might seem like a truism that businesses won’t locate in your city unless you have a qualified labor force, what Florida does is talk about how the in the 21st century the skill profile of that labor force will be quite different than in the past. I happen to agree completely on that point.

To the extent that Florida has put this on the radar of civic leaders across America, that’s probably a good thing. Whether or not is it nuanced or real enough to truly inform a public policy is debateable, but I think it shows us something important and shouldn’t be dismissed.

My advice to Florida would be to find the next big idea he can popularize. He’s clearly getting past the point of over-exposure on creative class, and the hype is going to crash down on him at some point. His marketing machine cranks out a non-stop stream of blog posts, articles, books, speeches, etc., all as rigorously on message and dismissive or ignoring of anything that isn’t confirming to his world view as any corporate branding campaign. I already see significant evidence that the bloom is off the rose on his ideas as people realize no one idea could possibly be so all powerful. Take a page from Friedman or Gladwell on this and expand the message or move on to the next big thing. There are any number of big, important ideas out there in urban affairs that could use a talent like Florida to bring them to the fore.

Jim Russell also offers his take on Safford’s blog post. And speaking of Florida, here is his latest piece on mega-regions and high speed rail.

Forbes is running a major special report called “The State of the City“. Among the articles is one with some nice coverage of the George Rickey public art installation in Indianapolis.

Fast Company magazine unveiled its list of the 13 Most Creative Cities in the World. Two Midwest cities were on it, Cleveland and Chicago.

Career Builder listed its top cities for new college grads and several Midwest places were on the list.

  • #1 – Indianapolis
  • #4 – Cincinnati
  • #5 – Cleveland
  • #9 – Chicago

Here’s an interesting article about Austin, Texas. Despite a booming core and no “white flight” type issues, it is still rapidly suburbanizing. Worth a read.

Metropolis is running a Q&A with William Saunders, editor of Harvard Design Magazine, about his new book “Urban Design“. If you didn’t see it, you might want to read my piece on the “New Discipline of True Urban Design” for more context.

A reader sent me a link to this piece on Bogota’s bus system. The mayor responsible for this, Enrique Peñalosa, is now a pretty inspirational speaker on urban issues. I’m sure there is another side to this story, however, since my understanding is that the reason he’s on the lecture circuit today is because he lost a re-election bid. Nevertheless, if you get a chance to see him speak, please take advantage of it. Great stuff.

National Journal carries an in-depth interview with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Could he be positioning for a run for President? Plenty of advice dispensed for the national party.

The European Design Show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art received a prominent review in the Wall Street Journal recently. The Journal called it a “tour de force”. You may recall that I cited the IMA as an example of strategy done right, and this coverage, along with the NYT coverage of Art Babble, are showing some of the fruits of that. These examples also illustrate a few key points. One, that a smaller city can play in the big leagues, if it focuses on the right things. Two, that it isn’t just about money. While I’m sure they weren’t totally free to put on, both this exhibit and Art Babble are certainly very affordable as urban projects go, but they got the city national coverage it would never get apart from sports otherwise. Contrast with the expansion of the IMA, which cost far more but landed with a thud. It’s not just about money, it’s about spending it on the right things. There’s an awful lot we can do with a comparatively small sum.

Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, says a small Mies van der Rohe brick building that would be demolished for a new Metra stop near IIT doesn’t need to be saved. Some preservationists are complaining, of course. I don’t know the building that well, but i looks like a tiny windowless shack to me. Probably won’t be missed. Preservationists, like all single-issue activists, are the least likely to balance the needs and goals that they care about versus the other needs and goals that our society has. The best argument in favor of saving it would seem to be that there is some semi-painless way to build around it. If you don’t have to destroy a Mies building, why do it? It’s probably worth a look, but Kamin nails it that activists should spend their capital on the things that really matter, not make themselves look like unreasonable extremists by sounding the alarm bells on questionable matters.

Russell also pointed us at a Regional Visioning Project being undertaken by Pittsburgh. This sounds a heckuva lot like the Agenda 360 project that Cincinnati undertook, so I’d suggest that they pay attention to what I wrote about Agenda 360. The Pittsburgh Business Times also has coverage of this.

Here is one I found interesting in Columbus. A referendum on a new metro parks tax levy passed. I’ve noticed that Columbus, though having big problems in its municipal operating budget – to the extent that they’ve even been cutting police officers – nevertheless seems to have a population that is willing to vote in favor of funding for increased government services and capital. There have been a number of bonds passed in recent years and the fact that this passed in the teeth of a recession is notable. The one major failure I recall was a light rail levy, and arguably that was a dubious project to begin with.

Cincinnati is holding an innovation contest, with lots of prizes to be won.

Rust Wire points us at two great videos about Detroit, as seen from of perspective of residents and neighborhood activists. They start out with a rap intro, then go to some interviews.

Speaking of videos, The Overhead Wire sends us this video someone made to tout the virtues of light rail in Kansas City:

Imagine KC from Arnold Imaging on Vimeo.

And the CTA Tattler points us at this rap video about the CTA:

My “What’s Wrong with Cleveland” article certainly struck a nerve. There are now 128 comments and counting, by far a record, and a local online publication called the Cleveland Leader decided to post an extensive rebuttal.

More Midwest

May architectural events calendar (Lynn Becker)

Streetcars would have many benefits (Enquirer) – via Urban Cincy

Subsidies for movies don’t pay, state told (Free Press) – well surprise, surprise.
Detroit’s entitlement culture withers a bright, blue dream (Nolan Finley @ Detroit News)

F-1 team picks Charlotte for headquarters (IBJ)

Kansas City
Tools for highway work: An easier pill to swallow? (KC Star)

State delays bond sale for bridges project (C-J)

Twin Cities
Biotech’s third wave (Star Tribune)

Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Indianapolis

23 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You certainly didn’t help the fate of your Cleveland post by suggesting that nobody from Cleveland was even going to notice it. Why make a loaded claim like that in the first place?

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Ever heard of reverse psychology? My judo technique seemed to work. I should try that more often.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalization are so simplistic and faddy that they provide strawman fodder for every anti-globalist on the planet.

    Friedman and Florida have a lot of things in common, but none of them is good. I’m planning a whole article about their mentality, which boils down to unreconstructed boosterism for the values they like. In both cases, academics seem embarrassed by what they say: economists who defend globalization, like Bhagwati and Williamson, don’t even mention Friedman’s name; sociology professors either ignore or criticize Florida. The comparison with Malcolm Gladwell, who the experts in behavioral science have positive reactions to, is apt.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    On another note, I’m not sure how seriously to take the City Journal critique of Florida, which complains that as of 2004 Las Vegas is the fastest growing metro area in the country while San Francisco is stagnating…

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Alon, as you probably know, City Journal is a the publication of the Manhattan Institute, a center-right, free market think tank. So the Vegas-SF thing is in line with their institutional PoV.

    Be sure to send us a link on your writeup re:Florida. Whether guys like Friedman or Florida are purely accurate is only part of the equation. Both of them put important concepts – globalization and talent – into the national consciousness, both of which were issues that people really hadn’t fully considered. I think it’s useful.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Globalization was very much in the zeitgeist before Friedman, what with superstar CEOs telling people how to get rich, leftists attacking the CEOs, and economists attacking the leftists. Cities were hot, too – Friends and Seinfeld didn’t need Richard Florida to succeed in showing urban hipness.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Reverse psychology? Are you really that desperate for the web traffic? You, sir, are shameful.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “Cities were hot, too – Friends and Seinfeld didn’t need Richard Florida to succeed in showing urban hipness.”

    This is a little too flippant. The people who have embraced Florida’s talking points are not the people you saw on Friends and it isn’t in cities that are success stories like NYC where Friends was set. Places like Detroit or Cleveland or any other struggling urban center is looking for answers on how to turns things around.

    One reason for Florida’s popularity that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is that many of his solutions are relatively low-cost. They don’t necessarily require massive investments in infrastructure or buildings. Instead, he tells us to focus on people as a resource and that you can draw people in with relatively low-cost initiatives. That equation is incredibly attractive to cities who can’t afford to take a Robert Moses approach to urban renewal.

  9. The Urban Politician says:

    Wow, that Cleveland Leader guy wasn’t too thrilled about your post, eh?

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Anon at 5:24: usually, city leaders like high-cost solutions because they generate more political power. This is a recurrent problem in high-corruption areas, where infrastructure construction exists to provide patronage jobs more than a usable finished project.

    As far as I can tell, the most buzz about the creative class idea comes from people who are part of the creative class or would like to be. I for one first heard of the idea in a discussion among the 20-something hipsters on Pandagon (which is run by a woman who lives in Austin) and Feministe (which is run by a woman who lives in New York). It’s always reassuring to be told that your lifestyle is the harbinger of the future and that your values are precisely those that promote growth.

  11. JG says:

    I typically enjoy your posts. You categorize Richard Florida as somewhat myopic to use my own word. Otherwise stated, guilty of making data fit his theories, as opposed to correctly doing so the other way around. You may very well be correct about him. And so I am troubled that if you do believe Richard Florida to be on par with snake oil salesmen or those who pitch ‘long shot get rich quick real estate programs’, your petition that others ought to offer admiration for being a good entrepreneur is itself not to be admired. There is nothing admirable about making money when integrity is strongly in question.

    I did appreciate the distinction between the “academic” and the “popularizer.” I don’t think these two have to exist independent for one to retain integrity, though when popularity becomes more important than adherence to logic and reason, integrity is in dire straits. Cable news, talk radio, and political blogs are full of once well educated personalities who have lost loyalty to facts and even beliefs – and are now only popular.

    Cheers to the IMA for their reivew in NYT and our host for the Midwest Miscellany – lots of good articles.

  12. Economic Sociologist says:

    Glad you picked up on the post… It was something I wrote in a fit a few months back, but has been revived due to a post I have on… that post is directly relevant to your point… its speaking to sociologists and asking just what we should do about the Tom Friedmans, Malcolm Gladwells and Richard Floridas of the world.

    But more to your point, I dont think that I’m conflating rigor and relevance. I am saying–pretty explicitly–that i think Richard Florida confuses them and, indeed, i do think that that is dangerous when it leaves readers — and more importantly, policy makers–with the wrong conclusions. I’m fine with popularizing, but the underlying substance needs to be right.

    Finally, my book is out! Brazen plug but the readers of this blog are squarely in the center of the demographic. Pick on up today!

  13. Economic Sociologist says:

    Strange… didn’t know my name would show up as “economic sociologist”

    This is Sean Safford.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Sean: I was under the impression that most sociologists would not put Gladwell in the same category as Friedman and Florida. Am I wrong?

  15. Anonymous says:

    “Anon at 5:24: usually, city leaders like high-cost solutions because they generate more political power. “

    No doubt true. But places like Detroit are bankrupt or almost so and there simply are not the dollars to funnel into those kinds of projects.

    As to your second point, I would agree that many of the proponents of the power of the “creative class” are those who gain relevance from such a declaration. I remember when Florida can to Detroit to speak a few years back and there was a huge buzz in the “creative class” community. You could sense that people who had always been relegated to second-class status in the city were empowered by this idea that they were as important to the revival of the city as the traditional political and money interests. Florida doesn’t have all of the answers to problems of urban area but as Aaron noted, it doesn’t mean that some of his proposals don’t have merit.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    The problem is that the ideas Florida has that have merit, like attracting educated people, don’t really require his creative class theories. The parts that are original research, like the gay index, are just wrong. As is the idea that the city needs to attract the hipster subset of the creative class rather than the entrepreneurial subset.

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    Sean, thanks for the contribution. I hope you’ll continue reading and participating on the blog, since I believe you’d find it interesting.

    Good luck with your ongoing Florida debate. With your post getting widely linked now, I think you’ll see more discussion.

  18. The Urbanophile says:

    JG, thanks for the nice words.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is the idea that, once you see someone as a pitch man flogging a product, you can immediately bundle them in with all such other pitch men and immediately see them through the lens of trying to sell you something. Thus you automatically take a more skeptical eye towards what they say and with a grain of salt, just like any other marketing message.

  19. CARR says:

    I have heard Florida speak on several occasions. I can say he has the gift of gab. I have also read his first 2 books. Very interesting and easy reads.

    The real appeal of Florida and Friedman is that there ideas are easy to understand and their books are easy to read. All to often guys who are really top notch academics write books that the average person can’t understand.

    You can read Florida’s books in a couple of hours and pretty much understand exactly what he is saying. How many other books dealing with cities and economic theories can you do with?

    I think a lot of his ideas about the “creative class” have merit. However, If I were a mayor or a city planner I wouldn’t put all of my eggs in the creative class basket. I do think that it should be a part of your city’s arsenal.

    What’s wrong with investing in bike paths, arts groups, and the like? Even if it doesn’t bring the economic windfall you want it still makes your community a more diverse and livable place. Plus, there is some economic windfall if you can find a creative niche. It may not be the golden cow/ticket, but it’s more than what you had before.

  20. Alon Levy says:

    How many other books dealing with cities and economic theories can you do with?

    Most of them. Paul Krugman is an exceedingly clear writer. Ed Glaeser’s economic history papers are written for the educated layman. Jane Jacobs is at times too clear, at the expense of references.

    The same is true for the economists Friedman is cribbing. There’s really no excuse not to read John Williamson and Jagdish Bhagwati’s defenses of globalization – if anything they’re easier to understand than Friedman, since unlike Friedman they deal with criticisms of neo-liberalism rather than just assert that they are wrong and move on to their next claim.

  21. Jefferey says:

    Richard Florida made quite an impact in Dayton when he spoke at a local university. Enough so his consultancy was retained to facilitate some things here in Dayton.

    I have mixed opinions on this, but a lot has to do with who is involved locally and overselling what can be done in a place as small as Dayton.

    I do agree with his picking up on what makes a city interesting, a certain quality of life or buzz aspect to a place that comes with an urban bohemia or culturally and socially diverse city.

    I see his first book as describing that phenomena, or tyring to put numbers behind it.

    Yet, how to translate something so ineffable to a repeatable economic development practice is a good question.

  22. Jefferey says:

    Also I think Florida gay index, which is just a correllation, was pretty radical for a lot of people.

    Since there is a pervasive latent homophobia in our society (still), Florida’s seeing a large gay/lesbian presence as something positive, as sort of an indicator species, really flew in the face of how people see gays and lesbians, as a negative presence in a city. making it less desirable or, as we say in Dayton, family-friendly.

  23. Alon Levy says:

    Jeffrey: the homophobia isn’t really present in planning circles, though. Urban planners hate transgendered people, who they see a type of bum, but bourgeois gay couples they like – they gentrify poor neighborhoods.

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