I can’t decide whether American economist Richard Florida, who is currently doing the rounds promoting his latest book The Flight of the Creative Class, is one of those public intellectuals that Tim Dunlop loves, or just a populist poseur. Florida is responsible for the vogue notion that the growth and prosperity of modern cities are fuelled by the “creative class”, and the extent to which a city caters for their tastes and interests.
What intrigued me about Florida’s current publicity tour is the uncritical adulation his ideas seem to be receiving in much of the Australian media. Take this fawning interview in the Sydney Morning Herald and this equally uncritical article in the same journal. Why so credulous? I can’t help thinking it has something to do with the fact that Florida’s shtick panders to the desires and prejudices of the chattering classes. He reckons the “creative class” needs lots of cheeky little trattorias, art galleries, al fresco dining with great lattes, superb theatre, and a generally “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly” ambience. What’s more, as we’ll see, his latest book adds to this yuppie-friendly mix the additional proposition that George W. Bush’s moralistic neoconservative tendencies run a severe risk of imperilling American prosperity by provoking a flight of the “creative class” to other more receptive overseas destinations. You can see why Fairfax journos might be inclined to serve up a rich diet of Dorothy Dixers to Comrade Florida. This marginally less credulous article in The Age explains the focus of Florida’s new book in the following terms:
This time around, Florida argues that the United States is struggling to hold on to the Creative Class, a problem exacerbated by the Bush Administration’s heightened security concerns after September 11, the growing divide between conservatives and liberals, and the attacks on scientific investigation into areas such as stem cell research, which are causing people to leave the country or stop them from getting in.
However, there are several peculiar aspects to the “creative class” concept. Most importantly, Florida defines them as including not only arts, media and advertising industry types, but also scientists, engineers, technologists, lawyers, doctors, educators and finance workers. Now I know a few “creative” lawyers and accountants, but it’s hardly a label that instantly springs to mind for most of them. It looks very much like Florida is simply using “creative class” as a trendy synonym for “knowledge worker”, in order to give his books an appearance of originality that they don’t actually possess. That’s certainly what Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser argues.
Moreover, Glaeser also debunks essentially the only vaguely original aspect of Florida’s hypothesis, namely that economic growth of cities is promoted by being “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly”. Glaeser undertook regression analysis of statistics supplied by Florida himself on 242 cities. He found that while there was a significant positive correlation between growth and prosperity and the presence of a highly skilled and educated workforce, there was no significant correlation of growth with either the so-called “Gay Index” (the number of coupled gay people in the area relative to the number of total people in the area) or “Bohemian Index” (the number of artistic types in the population relative to the overall population).
Moreover, what basis is there for the assumption that all or even most scientists, engineers, technologists, artists, entertainers, lawyers, doctors, educators and finance workers are likely to be more attracted by arty or gay friendly facilities than by decent public transport, sporting facilities, good schools and a safe urban/suburban environment? Again it’s a point Glaeser makes:
But while I agree with much of Florida’s substantive claims about the real, I end up with doubts about his prescriptions for urban planning. Florida makes the reasonable argument that as cities hinge on creative people, they need to attract creative people. So far, so good. Then he argues that this means attracting bohemian types who like funky, socially free areas with cool downtowns and lots of density. Wait a minute. Where does that come from? I know a lot of creative people. I’ve studied a lot of creative people. Most of them like what most well-off people like¢â¬âbig suburban lots with easy commutes by automobile and safe streets and good schools and low taxes. After all, there is plenty of evidence linking low taxes, sprawl and safety with growth. Plano, Texas was the most successful skilled city in the country in the 1990s (measured by population growth)¢â¬âit’s not exactly a Bohemian paradise.
An article in the The Age (in contrast to its credulous Sydney stablemate) makes a similar point:
On the other side of the fence, Joel Kotkin, one of America’s most readable and provocative commentators on urban issues, has suggested that Florida’s arguments might be used by cities as a pretext for neglecting infrastructure and social problems. “New York doesn’t need another art museum,” Kotkin has said. “It needs a subway that works.”
Lastly, the non-American cities Florida cites as being the big dangers for attracting the “creative class” away from the evil neocon-dominated US include Sydney and Melbourne, along with Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Bangalore and Shanghai. Now I haven’t visited either Shanghai or Bangalore, but I’d be very surprised if either of them is notably gay or bohemian friendly. Moreover, as The Age article observes, it’s a bit difficult to understand the inclusion of Amsterdam in Florida’s “creative class” dynamic attractant list when Dutch economic growth is currently hovering around a dismal 1%.
One suspects the spectre of flight of the creative class from the evil US creativity-crushing neocons (and even its very existence as a significant economic factor discrete from knowledge workers in general) has much more to do with promoting Richard Florida than with encouraging sound policies for urban growth and development.