Saturday, May 9th, 2009
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.
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:
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.
May architectural events calendar (Lynn Becker)
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)
Tools for highway work: An easier pill to swallow? (KC Star)
State delays bond sale for bridges project (C-J)
Biotech’s third wave (Star Tribune)