If there's such a thing as a celebrity in the world of urban theory, Richard Florida is it. In an academic field that seldom reaches the fringes of public consciousness, Florida's CV boasts readable best-sellers, one of the world's most influential Twitter feeds, and a self-help book. Lauded as a leading 21st-century thinker and derided as a “pitchman, an opportunist, an elitist, a sham,” his influence is such that a 2013 MIT study identified him as the world's most influential thought leader. Stephen Colbert identified him as “a gay, bohemian artist who just wants to sell his house.”
Here in Toronto, Richard Florida grabbed the local spotlight in the summer of 2007, with news of the economist's move to the University of Toronto (U of T). Now head of U of T's Martin Prosperity Institute (MPI), Florida is most well-known for introducing the 'creative class' theory of economic development. Arguing that the human capital of 'creativity' is to the 21st century what industrialization and Fordism were to much of the 20th, Florida posits that densely concentrated clusters of creative (i.e. knowledge-based) professionals are becoming the primary fulcrum of economic growth.
Late last year, I interviewed the economist and urban theorist for our sister site, UrbanToronto.ca. Though our conversation focused on his work as it pertains to Canada's largest city, the discussion also touched on the broader context of urbanization and its effects, with a particular focus on the crisis of affordability faced by many of North America's growing cities. To better understand the creative class theory, however, a broader overview of Florida's thought helps to contextualize the framework within a larger context.
As labour becomes more knowledge dependent, Florida calls for a paradigm shift in economic thought. If creativity is the engine of prosperity, and dense, diverse, urban environments are its optimal conduits, then cities are also "the fundamental economic, political, and social organizing units of our time." To build the new economy, we must also build the environments that sustain it.
At its heart, the creative class theory is predicated on this relationship between economics and geography. According to Florida, diversity, creativity, tolerance, and economic growth are interrelated: all of them are products of the same urban geography.
The Creative Class and the Knowledge Economy
The principles of Florida's economic thought were laid out in 2002's The Rise of the Creative Class and 2004's Cities and the Creative Class, which quickly became landmark texts in urban theory. Building on Jane Jacobs' work — including The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and The Economy of Cities (1969) — Florida argues that the competitive advantage of regional economies in the 21st century is no longer contingent on raw materials or the ability to attract major companies. Instead, “creativity has replaced raw materials... as the crucial wellspring of growth.”
In post-industrial economies, Florida's theory posits that prosperity is increasingly predicated on the concentration of educated professionals. Throughout much of the world, raw materials and manufacturing are no longer the arbiters of prosperity they once were. While industrialization saw labour and prosperity quickly migrate to manufacturing hubs (like America's rust belt cities) and port cities, the post-industrial economy operates differently. In the information age, the basis of prosperity is knowledge.
However, Florida argues that the success of the "new economy" requires more than a generally well-educated population. Florida's thinking expands on the principles laid out by Jane Jacobs (and economist Robert Lucas), who regarded openness and cultural vibrancy as the building blocks of prosperous cities. The legendary urban theorist argued that mid-century planning (built around the automobile) contributed to urban decay, and — more generally — that the built environment strongly influences the social milieu. Jacobs saw densely populated, diverse, and eclectic spaces as the environments best suited to fostering functional and economically viable communities, famously postulating that cultural vibrancy and population density spurred new ideas.
The Nobel Prize-winning economic Robert Lucas' endogenous growth theory postulated that the 'spillovers' (i.e. positive externalities) that arise from talent-clustering are the principle drivers of economic growth. Translating Jacobs' theory into a formal economic model, Lucas found that the interactions facilitated by dense urban environments allow ideas (and the products and services that arise from them) to develop more quickly.
Building on this principle, Florida argues that innovation and economic productivity accelerate when creativity is concentrated. Citing research developed at the Santa Fe Institute, Florida uses metabolism as an analogue for economic spillovers. “The rate at which living things convert food into energy — their metabolic rate — tends to slow as organisms increase in size,” Florida explains. “But when the Santa Fe team examined trends in innovation, patent activity, wages, and GDP, they found that successful cities, unlike biological organisms, actually get faster as they grow.”
The more that talented people of diverse specializations interact, the more innovation is produced. “Well-educated professionals and creative workers who live together in dense ecosystems, interacting directly, generate ideas and turn them into products and services faster than talented people in other places can,” Florida writes, pointing to cities as “the fundamental economic units of the 21st century.” With density, innovation scales up.
So how does a city attract and nurture the density of human capital that sparks the knowledge economy?
Compiling a wealth of research and data to study the relationship between clusters of creativity (particularly high-tech innovation) and urban geography, Florida's 'Creativity Index' identifies a strong correlation of the three Ts: tolerance, talent, and technology. According to Florida, places that combine all three are best suited to foster a creative economy.
The Rise of the Creative Class points to correlations between the concentration of university-educated professionals (talent), foreign-born residents (tolerance), and high-tech jobs (techonology). The regions that develop booming technology sectors are places with diverse and well-educated populations. In modern knowledge-based economies, the ability to attract creative professionals thus becomes a vital determinant of long-term economic output. Inverting established economic thought, Florida asserts that attracting a talented and diverse labour pool is more important than attracting the businesses that employ them.
In lieu of tax breaks and deregulation, Florida proposes a focus on 'quality of place.' Instead of providing economic incentives (which he argues are relatively inefficient), Florida argues that dense, diverse, and culturally open urban environments are a much more powerful conduit for prosperity. To Florida, attracting a talented, diverse population is far more important than attracting corporate presence. Reflected in initiatives like 'Keep Austin Weird' and 'Keep Indy Indie,' Florida's ethos privileges the 'place-making' value of fine-grained urbanism and arts and culture as vessels of the creative economy.
Alongside population density — facilitated by massive investment in transit and walkability — and the three Ts of the Creativity Index, Florida also identifies Gay and Bohemian indices as acute indicators of the geographic relationship between human capital and high-tech industries. While the Bohemian Index measures the concentration of artistically employed professionals, the Gay Index interprets the concentration of LGBTQ populations as a bellwether of tolerance. Both populations reflect regional creativity and cultural openness, but also create positive feedback loops that accelerate economic growth. Florida's analysis shows that the presence of these populations also precipitates increases in real estate values, so "a gay, bohemian artist who just wants to sell his house" is probably getting a good deal.
If the creative labour force is attracted to a city or neighbourhood by its tolerance, vibrant cultural landscape, and walkable streets — even a sense of 'cool' — then these qualities can prove critical to economic prosperity. For creative cities like Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco, being at the forefront of high-tech industries goes hand in hand with tolerance, diversity, and bohemia.
The Economics of Geography
"Every economy has its geography." This succinctly declarative phrase forms the bedrock of Florida's contributions to urban theory. Rooted in neo-Marxist thought, Florida's structuralist ethos is premised on the theory that a society's material conditions determine its social organization. However, while classical Marxism asserts that the social structure of communities can be understood as a direct consequence of underlying economic conditions, Florida's analysis takes a further step back by interrogating the socio-economic impacts of geography.
“In 1870, New England mill towns like Lowell, Lawrence, Manchester, and Springfield were among the country’s most productive industrial cities, and America’s population overwhelmingly lived in the countryside. By 1900, the economic geography had been transformed from a patchwork of farm plots and small mercantile towns to a landscape increasingly dominated by giant factory cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Buffalo,” Florida notes, describing how geographic migrations reflect changing economic structures. Now, in the rapidly urbanizing 21st century, economic circumstances are fostering a geography of creativity. A geography of cities.
Writing in The Globe and Mail, Florida describes the evolving geography of creative capitalism using David Harvey's concept of spatial fix. "Suburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age — the geographic expression of mass production. Low-cost mortgages, massive highway systems and suburban infrastructure projects fuelled the industrial engine of postwar capitalism, propelling demand for cars, appliances and all sorts of industrial goods."
In an era no longer characterized by mass production, Florida concludes that the knowledge-driven "creative economy is giving rise to a new spatial fix and a very different geography." While industrial production was reinforced by the geography of suburbanization, creative production entails a return to urban density. Ending the sprawl of suburbanization, however, entails neither the death of the suburb nor the primacy of downtown. It means creating the walkable, transit-friendly density of human scale environments — not 'skyscraper suburbs' — whether in downtowns or urbanizing suburbs. It means creating good places to live.
Though seemingly divorced from tangible economic metrics, the socio-cultural geography of cities becomes a key factor when viewed through Florida's neo-Marxist lens. Marrying Marxist structuralism with the urban theory set out by Jane Jacobs, Florida's work (also shaped by Neil Smith, Charles Tiebout, Alfred Marshall, and Robert Park) analyzes the correlations between urban geography and economic performance. “The geographic structure of a community — which goes beyond urban structure and built form to consider factors like affordability and socio-cultural integration — is the central determinant of economic output," he tells me.
To illustrate the theory's basic tenets, we can consider a familiar example: how the configuration of an office space can shape the work culture at a company. Unsurprisingly, a grid of cubicles can foster a very different environment than an open bullpen with large, shared tables, or a Silicon Valley-esque 'lounge space' of hammocks, standing desks, and certified massage therapy.
Similarly, by creating an office layout where the hierarchy is rigidly reinforced by the space, the work culture is likely to be highly vertical. If workers are physically separated from one another (and further separated from their bosses) the company's work is unlikely to be collaborative in nature. It's harder to share ideas and interact with your boss in such an environment; the geography of walls and doors discourages it. By contrast, an open-concept office where the CEO sits at the same shared table as an intern is more likely to produce a collaborative and horizontally integrated work culture.
It's a simplified analogy, but a useful starting point to think about the extent to which cities are shaped by geography. On a larger scale, urban design shapes social and economic structures in the way that walls and furniture shape an office. The density and socio-economic diversity of a city is intrinsically tied to its economic performance. In a dense milieu where lots of interactions take place, more ideas can be exchanged, and in diverse, tolerant places, a sense of openness can open the door to innovation.
For example, the consequences of building a sprawling car-dependent city can range far beyond the tangible impacts (through 'diseconomies of scale') of commute times and pollution. Interaction with the environment also plays an important role in socio-economic organization. As Florida puts it, “the physical character of the economy — the way land is used, the location of homes and businesses, the physical infrastructure that ties everything together — shapes consumption, production, and innovation.”
If Florida is right, the implications are huge. Making decisions about planning and urban design means making decisions about the socio-economic shape of society. If bohemia spurs creativity, then fine-grained arts and culture funding can — via positive externalities — enhance a city's economy as well as its cultural reputation. If diversity spurs creativity, then welcoming immigrants and embracing mixed-income neighbourhoods can also mean welcoming prosperity. And if density means accelerating innovation, then NIMBYism means slowing it.
A Beatification of Hipsters and Gentrifiers?
But what does all of this mean for people who aren't part of the creative class? In prioritizing the needs and abilities of knowledge-based professionals as the drivers of economic growth, where does Florida's theory leave less privileged socio-economic classes?
Despite the strong focus on knowledge-driven professionals, Florida stresses that socio-economic diversity is crucial to the creative economy's success.
As economic inequality deepens, the issue of affordability has become a critical focus of Florida's recent thought. In places like New York, London, and San Francisco, crises of affordability threaten the “DNA of innovation” that makes these cities so successful. While cloisters of extreme wealth can make urban life unaffordable for creative professionals, the displacement caused by gentrification can also erode the diversity that nourishes creativity in the first place.
For example, the bohemian and LGBT community that characterized 1960s Greenwich Village was later pushed out by skyrocketing real estate prices, threatening the diversity — and creative capacity — of the neighbourhood. Similarly, San Francisco's city-wide housing crisis means that even tech industry workers now struggle to afford the city, creating increasingly sanitized enclaves of wealth that are not as well suited to foster innovation. Economic stratification has obvious social harms, but it has far-ranging economic harms as well.
"We need a new affordable housing model," Florida argues, pointing to Toronto's increasingly polarized landscape. “I don't know exactly what that model looks like, but it needs to be an urban equivalent to the post-war suburban housing I grew up in." Without embracing new density, it's more difficult to maintain racial and socio-economic diversity as population increases. Like many urbanists, Florida has identified restrictive planning policies and NIMBYism as prime culprits in holding back more inclusive urban development.
In the struggle to create an affordable and equitable urban environment, however, Florida finds hope in a somewhat unexpected place: the development industry. "I have some optimism about the future of real estate development," he tells me. "The best and most forward-thinking developers now realize that the key to building real estate value in the long term comes through creating good neighbourhoods, and not just good buildings. To create vibrant and attractive neighbourhoods, though, developers know that they have to bring in retail and services, and if they can't bring people in to work there because it's too expensive, then that value is lost."
“We also need to upgrade shitty, low-income urban jobs,” he tells me. To remain attractive, cities need higher minimum wages in order to support service sector employment. For neighbourhoods to thrive, “they need to be able to accommodate these workers too." Arguing that Toronto would benefit from “a higher minimum wage” to reflect the costs of living in an urban centre, Florida stresses that keeping cities affordable and diverse is vital to their continued prosperity.
Perceptions of social inequity aside, it's also tempting to view the creative class rhetoric as insubstantial and unsubstantiated. Given that much of Florida's work is founded on unconventional, attention-grabbing metrics, the rhetoric is easy to dismiss. Optically, the seemingly 'hipster-loving' economics of 'urban cool' certainly don't stack up very well against the 'Very Serious People' that often dominate our perceptions of legitimacy. The creative class? The Gay Index? To some critics, it sounds more like a glorified sales pitch than a viable economic theory. After all, how can the 'urban vibrancy' of buskers and third wave coffee seriously figure in macroeconomics?
When digested through the pop-culture medium of soundbites and buzzwords, it's easy to assume that the creative class theory lacks substance. Florida's body of published work tells another story. Data-heavy and full of academic citation, the analysis presented in Florida's academic and non-academic work that underpins the creative class theory is very much evidence based. Drawing heavily on large-scale studies and the work of his peers, Florida's conclusions are more academically rigorous than the easy-going rhetoric suggests.
Nonetheless, Florida's methodology has been questioned, with some critics arguing that selective use of data and metrics has skewed the creative class theory's conclusions. In particular, Florida's correlations between environment and geography have been criticized as lacking tangible evidence of causality. Indeed, the cities that top the Creative Index do not always experience the most economic growth.
For his part, Florida views many of these critiques of causality as "reductionist, chicken-and-egg thinking about cities, innovation and economic growth. This is not an either/or proposition," he writes. Instead, he posits that the relationship between geography and economy is better understood as a symbiont circle than a question of causation vs. correlation. Even if the most creative cities do experience the highest economic growth over a period of time — of course, there are also always a wealth of other variables at play — Florida maintains that the correlation between quality of place and creativity is the key economic relationship of our time.
Urbanism In The Age Of Globalization
But what does all of this mean in the context of a digitized 21st century economy? In our supposedly 'flat,' globalizing world, where Skype calls can replace face-to-face meetings and business transactions can be conducted from anywhere, is Florida's argument becoming less relevant?
Geography tells another story.
In the global era, the sharp rise of global inequality is mirrored in human geography, with enclaves of prosperity surrounded by the decaying husks of a bygone industrial economy. Despite the ostensible 'death of place' precipitated by the internet (like the railroad, telephone, automobile, and airplane before it...), global prosperity continues to be selectively concentrated. In fact, the very same tech companies that erase geography continue to cluster in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. That's what it takes to attract the best employees.
Across America, even digital media jobs — whose medium is the quintessential 'non-place' of the internet — are quickly becoming more concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, and DC.
“Today, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas,” Florida writes in 2008's Who's Your City? “In the United States, more than 90 percent of all economic output is produced in metropolitan regions, while just the largest five metro regions account for 23 percent of it. And cities and their surrounding metropolitan corridors are morphing into massive mega-regions, home to tens of millions of people producing hundreds of billions and in some cases trillions of dollars in economic output. Place remains the central axis of our time — more important to the world economy and our individual lives than ever before.”
Technology, Florida claims, is not as important as the creativity of the individuals that harness it, with the creative abilities of professionals proving the key to economic success. With rising economic inequality also starkly reflected in physical geography, the world's wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated across urban 'mega-regions.' “The world isn't flat, it's spiky,” Florida declares, “and the greatest cities are the tallest spikes.” In the global era, urbanization and talent clustering are accelerating, even as place supposedly becomes less important.
With metropolitan urban environments at their cores, mega-regions like the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, the Houston-San Antonio-Dallas Texas Triangle, and China's Shanghai-Beijing corridor, are also housing more of the world's population, and (proportionately speaking) even more of its wealth.
Meanwhile, the relationships between the world's leading cities are also becoming more central to the global economy. In this sense, globalization impacts geography by strengthening the relationships between "superstar cities" across the world. Citing the work of sociologist Zach Neal and research developed by the Brookings Institute, Florida writes that "cities such as New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai are strongly connected to one another, much more so than, say, New York and Louisville or Toronto and Edmonton."
Globalization reduces the economic distance between the world's urban centres, yet it simultaneously increases the disparities within nations themselves. New York is now closer to Tokyo and London, and in a way, further than ever from Kentucky. Surprising as it may seem, this is the geography of the internet age.
Even Trumpism Has Its Geography
In 2016, thinking of economics and geography as symbiotically related remains an almost novel idea. In our political consciousness, economic policy and urban design are still rarely considered side by side. Yet, to look across North America is to see that the borders of human and physical geography are all too often socio-economic — and racial — borders as well.
During our conversation about Toronto, Florida pointed to the rise of former mayor Rob Ford as a troubling sign of the city's growing inequality. "We [the Martin Prosperity Institute] did a study — based on U of T professor David Hulchanski's maps — looking at where Ford's support came from,” Florida begins. “And what we found was that one of the key factors behind supporting Ford was that you drove alone in a car," he explains.
Florida highlights the correlation between between Ford supporters and the increasingly marginalized neighbourhoods that surround Toronto's revitalizing urban core. Hulchanski's 2010 Three Cities Within Toronto report showed that socio-economic classes are increasingly becoming geographically segregated, with a wealthy urban core surrounded by eroding middle-income neighbourhoods and impoverished outer areas. Revisiting the data, Florida found that Ford's support was concentrated in the same transit-deprived and geographically isolated low income neighbourhoods. Understanding 'Ford Nation' through the lens of human geography pulls back the curtain on an overlooked economic disparity.
To Florida, much of the Rob Ford phenomenon is explained by the geography of income polarization. As the physical and cultural distance between social classes increases, so does the divisiveness of politics. In this sense, the unfortunate triumph of Rob Ford was an indictment of our increasingly stratified city. To many — myself included — the success of Ford seemed impossible at the outset. But I live in Downtown Toronto, I write this kind of stuff, and I don't have a driver's license, let alone a car. And I've never met a Ford supporter.
"And in the United States, it's the same phenomenon with Donald Trump," he tells me.
Along with MPI colleagues and a team of economic researchers, Florida recently mapped Republican Primary results in "1,952 total counties in 24 states and the District of Columbia" to find where support for each candidate is most strongly concentrated. For Trump — and to a large degree, Ted Cruz and John Kasich as well — the rhetoric resonates most "in counties with large shares of poverty, white voters, and blue-collar or working-class jobs, and low shares of highly educated voters, income, density, and creative-class or knowledge workers. Additionally, Trump counties are positively associated with blue-collar, working-class counties [and] poverty."
Although the narrative of Trump's appeal to the growing insecurities of white, working-class male voters has been widely voiced, examining the political geography of Trumpism offers valuable insight into America's socio-cultural divisions. Similarly, The New York Times reported that support for Trump is most strongly concentrated in sparsely populated "non-urban, blue collar," and "old economy" parts of America. It's an elegantly literal answer to the question of “where does Trump support come from?” It comes from a different economy, yes, but a different geography too.
More broadly, Florida also points to research that shows a startling correlation between low population densities (under 800 people per square mile) and modern Republican support. Although it's a somewhat reductive correlation — many other factors influence the American political landscape — the mentalities and economic realities that bisect the American politics are generally reflected in the geography of the nation. Cities vote Democrat. Rural areas vote Republican.
In an interview with The New Republic, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse illustrates how geography can shape political priorities. "There are certain things in which the physical nature of a city, the fact the people are piled on top of each other, requires some notion of the public good." Conversely, "[c]onservative ideology works beautifully in the suburbs, because it makes sense spatially." Or, as Emily Badger puts it in Citylab, "[i]f you live in a city and you think government — and other people — should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighbourhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no backyard?" In this sense, elements of Trumpism and the modern Republican party can be understood within the context of economic geography.
Like Rob Ford, however, Donald Trump also comes from one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world. Like Ford, his rise reflects deep economic and geographic — and, in Trump's case, racial — divisions. And, like with Ford, understanding how geography inflects socio-economic circumstances provides insight into a political phenomenon that bewilders urban sensibilities. Geography is a factor in shaping the things we experience, the opportunities we are granted, and subsequently, the way we think, and what we believe in.
Taking the socio-economic issues that face us and analyzing them through the lens of geography shows familiar problems and divides in a new light. If the socio-economic impacts of geography are as powerful as Florida claims, then investing in quality of place is a vital ingredient in creating better communities and better societies.