Fifteen years after The Rise of the Creative Class propelled him to a level of stardom among urbanists, Richard Florida’s latest book, The New Urban Crisis, has once again captured public attention. Had the presidential election ended differently in 2016, Florida’s prescriptions for dealing with both inequality and economic revitalization might have served as a blueprint for a Clinton administration. An advisor to Democratic vice presidential candidate and former mayor of Richmond, Virginia, Tim Kaine, Florida had drafted big plans for the future, including expanding the reach of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and creating a new Council of Cities bent on maximizing new investments for metropolitan areas. When “the unthinkable” happened, as Florida puts it, and Trump won, those grand plans evaporated, but not without providing him with an argument that we should all take the “new urban crisis” seriously and do what we can at the state and local level to address it.
The first urban crisis that dominated headlines in the 1960s has long been associated with the shift of resources from city to suburb and the explosive unrest that emerged in those African American neighborhoods left behind where a long history of exclusion from the best jobs and housing kept residents in poverty at a time of rising affluence. Fifty years later, “the crisis” identified by Florida assumes quite a different nature, as a product of success in cities that have capitalized on the opportunities offered by the global economy. These places, which Florida labels products of a “winner-take-all’ urbanism, have capitalized on the synergies that flow from the dense clustering of talent to renew their role as engines of prosperity. At the same time, they have deepened existing patterns of inequality, as demand for housing pushes the middle class to the periphery and opens lower income areas to displacement through gentrification. Not one to minimize the importance of his thesis, Florida declares, “Much more than a crisis of cities, the New Urban Crisis is the central crisis of our time.”
Those who have followed Florida’s daily reports on Citylab, will be familiar with his argument and the many examples that illuminate it, that “place has become the central organizing unit of the new knowledge-based economy.” Unlike the first urban crisis, when a suburban noose, fortified by exclusionary zoning, locked cities into a pattern of decline, this new geography—“a patchwork metropolis”–is characterized by small areas of privilege and large swaths of distress and poverty crisscrossing city and suburb alike.
After years of promoting his theory that cities benefit by attracting the talents associated with what he has called the creative class, Florida now, in a kind of compensatory gesture, turns to measures that might soften their impact as they move into older city neighborhoods and spur new commercial ventures to accommodate them, often at the expense of long-term residents. Far from hostile to market forces that spur gentrification, among other things, or to the process of urban clustering, which he would like cities and suburbs alike to foster, Florida asserts that “the real task of urban policy…is to improve the housing options, economic opportunities, and neighborhood conditions of those who are being left behind.” To do this, he offers a mix of policy prescriptions, to generate more affordable housing, to expand investment in transit upgrades, and to improve urban schools. He even resurrects Henry George’s nineteenth century idea of introducing a tax on land value in place of existing property taxes. Believing there will never be enough “creative jobs” to accommodate everyone, he argues for paying service workers better by hiking the minimum wage and even entertains the introduction of a negative income tax—a prospect not seriously considered since it was introduced during the Nixon Administration in the early 1970s.
Florida’s vast array of social and economic indicators facilitates discussion of how different places fit into the new economic structuring he describes. As might be expected, New York City scores high on both the wealth and the inequality indexes, but Florida shows that other metropolitan areas suffer similar disparities and, with them, challenges. Florida personalizes his assessment by recounting his own family’s rise from the working to the middle class and showing how many factors are making that path to social mobility so difficult. He is less successful in recounting the tensions and their origins that underlie the new geography of inequality he describes. Although our own era has witnessed anger and discord in black communities across the country, even to the point of rioting, in Ferguson, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and elsewhere, Florida’s use of the term “crisis” seems virtually detached from the passions behind such breakdowns .
And this is perhaps the biggest problem with Florida’s book. He fully acknowledges the baleful effects of sustained and concentrated poverty in our cities, but by not contextualizing such areas in light of the “first urban crisis,” he underestimates the cumulative depth and power of deprivation in this unchanging portion of contemporary geography. Indeed, what is missing in his analysis is the way new wealth in cities has advanced at the expense of those marginalized within its limits. As cities promote themselves to the creative class through tax credits, amenities, and other favors, they fail to capture sufficiently the generated profits to improve the prospects of those already in place.
Not incidentally, I think, Florida’s prescriptions sound a lot like the elements of Hillary Clinton’s urban policy formulations as they can be pieced together from her campaign website. Such ideas build on Obama’s modest urban policy legacy, but they don’t rise to the level of a crisis, and they clearly were not enough to generate enthusiasm among black voters in post-industrial cities, let alone those former Obama voters living in the hollowed out suburbs of the industrial Midwest.
Far from having any traction in a Trump administration, Florida’s prescriptions nonetheless might contribute to Democratic consensus building opposition. No doubt the issues he features will remain important, but before they can resonate with an audience both willing to see “a crisis” and do something about it, they will have to be given more passion and depth.