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Interview: Richard Florida on Columbus and the “New Urban Crisis”

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: Richard Florida on Columbus and the “New Urban Crisis”
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Richard Florida, the well-known researcher, professor and author of the book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” has been chronicling the return-to-the-city movement since its beginnings in the 1980s. He’s been an advocate for a new type of economic development focused on creativity and innovation, and has spoken approvingly of the impact of the knowledge economy on cities.

But now the self-described “urban optimist” is taking a hard look at the dark side of the creative economy – the widening inequality in our cities and the fact that, while some urban neighborhoods are dealing with the problems of gentrification and new wealthy residents moving in, many more neighborhoods are struggling with persistent poverty, and remain isolated from any type of economic investment or opportunity.

Florida spoke with Columbus Underground in advance of his appearance at Mershon Auditorium on Wednesday, April 19.

He touched on the themes of his latest book, “The New Urban Crisis,” and spoke in detail about how a city like Columbus should be planning for the future.

Florida also talked about his concern about the overall decline of the middle class, the increasing influence that tech companies will have on urban areas, and how his time living in Columbus and teaching at Ohio State helped to shape his ideas about cities. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Columbus Underground: You were in Columbus about five years ago, and at that point the Rise of the Creative Class had been out for about 10 years. It seems like a lot has happened in the last five years, and that the discussion about cities is changing, is your outlook also changing?

Richard Florida: I lived in Columbus for three years, between ’84 and ’87. I taught at Ohio State, lived in German Village, on Sycamore Street. I moved to Columbus from New York City, and I think I didn’t expect Columbus to be what it was — it had a large and thriving gay community and an incredible urban redevelopment scene.

It was one of the first times that I actually kind of saw gentrification, or the early emergence of what I would later call the creative class, so that was very interesting. The Short North happened in real time – there was just the Short North Tavern, my buddy opened a gallery, and then Rigsby’s opened. And then I went on to Pittsburgh, which at that time did not have the energy, the youth, the vitality, or the redevelopment that Columbus had.

And I saw all of my students at Carnegie Mellon, and the really bright faculty members there, leaving to be a part of Apple, Google, or Microsoft. So that’s when I got the idea for the Rise of the Creative Class…what is it about cities that attract people? I was doing this in the 90’s, when there was gentrification in New York, or London, but it wasn’t as extensive as it was later – so I was really trying to make a case, that, look, there’s a back-to-the-city movement going on with, not just artists and musicians and the gay community, but also knowledge-based professionals, the kind of people I had seen in Columbus.

Photo by Walker Evans.

But I don’t think I ever would’ve anticipated that the back-to-the-city movement would be both this forceful and this concentrated. So, it’s not like every city has gone through this, but, for the couple of dozen – and I put Columbus in that list – it happened in a very forceful way.

What we’ve seen from 2000 to 2010, is that the affluent, the young – and mainly white people – have moved back to cities. To make it a simple rubric – the top ten percent have moved back to cities, and the bottom ten percent have been forced out. So there was that research, and then two things happened that really caused me to rethink this.

One was the election of Rob Ford in Toronto, who was pitting the urban cosmopolitans against the suburbanites who think that everything is passing them by.

The second thing was, a colleague and I did an analysis where we looked at how much money people have left after they pay for housing. Many economists say that when you live with expensive housing, you make more money, and that is true on average, but what we did was look at the average wages for the creative class, for the service workers, for retail, and for office workers. What we found is that the creative class had a lot more money left over – 50, 60, in some cases $80,000 or more, while the blue collar working class and the service class are the ones that are getting killed.

CU: What is the new urban crisis, exactly? When you lived in Columbus in the 80’s, there were poor neighborhoods, probably many of the same areas that are still struggling now. Is it that those neighborhoods haven’t shared in the gains that have been made as the creative class comes in and invests in certain neighborhoods?

RF: The old urban crisis was about the flight of money, jobs and the middle class from citites, and all that was left in the cities was the poor and the disadvantaged, and crime, and social pathology. The new urban crisis – it is the comeback of cities, it is the urban revitalization, it is the movement of the affluent back, but there are several dimensions of it. One, like you said, is what I call the patchwork metropolis. It’s not the movement of the rich to the suburbs, it’s not just the movement of the rich back to the city, because you know in Columbus there are still really, really rich suburbs.

You have these small areas of concentrated advantage – in the city, in the suburbs – and you have these much larger strands of concentrated disadvantage. The point I make in the book is, if the middle class fled to the suburbs in the old urban crisis, in the new urban crisis the middle class is being eviscerated.

And it’s the decline of middle class neighborhoods. In 1970, two-thirds of us lived in middle class neighborhoods…by the year 2010, less than 40 percent of us do. We see the growth of highly affluent neighborhoods but even the larger, faster growth of these areas of concentrated disadvantage. In every metro you get this patchwork pattern, with concentrated affluence juxtaposed with concentrated disadvantage. It isn’t so much that gentrification – or the direct displacement of the poor – is the big problem, it’s that we have so much concentrated poverty that has not been affected at all by gentrification.

So, exactly what you’re saying, that the concentrated poverty has remained, and in many ways expanded, and when we get caught up in a conversation that is just about gentrification, we miss that fact. I talk in the book about studies that show, in general, when a neighborhood is, like 45 percent black, it just doesn’t gentrify. What you see is either old industrial neighborhoods filled with warehouses and commercial buildings – like the Brewery District – or old white working class districts, like German Village.

But the people who get killed by the rising home prices are the poor people in the neighborhood, they are the ones that get left behind.

Photo by Walker Evans.

CU: I just wrote about a program here called Move to Prosper, which will take poor families and provide support for them to move to what they call high opportunity neighborhoods. What are your thoughts on these types of programs?

RF: This really comes off the work of brilliant economist Raj Chetty, who argues, very convincingly, that economic mobility has slowed down, and that it is worse in sprawling areas and in highly segregated areas. His work suggests that if you take a poor kid out of a high-poverty neighborhood, the younger you do it, the better off that kid is.

We break these types of approaches to poverty into two types; people-oriented and place-oriented. Most of the urban optimists like me have always been for people-based policy; to, say, move people out of low opportunity neighborhoods to better neighborhoods. But if you take the smartest kids with the best familes out of these low opportunity neighborhoods, the neighborhood will ultimately get worse and worse, because the people who will get left behind are the people with the least opportunity and ability to move.

So I think that we should do people-based policies, I agree with them, but we also need to do place-based policies to bolster those neighborhoods, because if not, we’re just going to perpetuate this cycle, and those neighborhoods are going to get worse and worse.

CU: What are some examples of place-based strategies, for helping these very poor neighborhoods that have been that way for a long time?

RF: I’m a social scientist, so I’m a diagnostician, not a therapist so much, but in my book I talk about the incredible work of a couple of urban sociologists – Robert Sampson at Harvard and Patrick Sharkey at New York University – and I really defer to their work. I had been studying concentrated advantage, whereas they were studying concentrated disadvantage, and what we could see is that we were looking at flip sides of the same coin.

They both said that it can’t just be one thing, it has to be a full-tilt effort – you have to invest in schools, you have to invest in crime reduction, economic opportunity, job creation, neighborhood stabilization, work programs, creating on-ramps for people to get into the labor market, daycare, etc. So it has to be the full package, you’re not going to rescue these neighborhoods with bandaids. And we really haven’t had this kind of effort, because we really haven’t had a federal government policy.

I end up being kind of pessimistic about this with Trump in office…what’s going to happen is the city and states are going to have to solve their own problems. I actually re-wrote the book in the week after the election to emphasize that not only will places will have to do this on their own, but that we need very different approaches to the new urban crisis in different parts of our country.

In many ways, the problems of New York, San Francisco and LA are different than the problems of Columbus or Austin, which are very different than the problems of Detroit or Baltimore. So is it a one-size-fits-all urban policy any more? We’re going to have to have very local approaches to the new urban crisis.

CU: Where does that leave places like Lancaster, Ohio, or other small towns and rural areas that have seen their opportunities kind of shrivel up…what’s the future look like for those places?

RF: In the book I have a chapter called “The Rise of Winner-Take-All Capitalism,” and that’s what really has happened – it’s no longer factories or industry that drive economic growth, it is now the clustering of talent and people with economic assets.

Columbus would fit the bill as kind of a second tier knowledge hub, not quite San Francisco, but it’s a winner, especially in the rust belt. What’s happening is the winner-take-all capitalism actually acts within metros, so only parts of Columbus benefit, and the rest of it falls behind. So I think the big conversation we need to have in this country is not just about economic inequality, it’s about growing geographic inequality, and that’s happening in every scale – across metros and cities, and within them.

If you’re in a place that’s been left behind, if you don’t have education, especially, you’re stuck. The backlash against this inequality is the rise of Trumpian populism, and that’s terrifying because Trump’s going to destroy the American economy, by limiting immigration, by defunding universities and science, and by reducing the flow of talent into our country.

Really, this is another call for place-based policies – how do we help these left-behind places? And how do they help themselves? Increasingly, we’re going to have to confront this, because there is no magic bullet.

CU: When Columbus won in the Smart City competition, part of pitch was to use the money to help out a struggling neighborhood, Linden. What are your thoughts on that strategy and, generally, on the issue of driverless cars and how they will  impact cities in the future?

RF: My whole focus from here on in is going to be about building inclusive prosperity. Over the past decade, myself and other urban economists have really talked about how communities build prosperity, and we’ve done a pretty good job. If you go to Columbus or any city across the country, they’ll know their economic clusters, they’ll know their industries, their talent base. But we just didn’t focus on inclusive prosperity.

I think it makes sense, Columbus is a very strong economy – it’s not San Francisco, New York, or Boston, so it doesn’t have the extent of the winner-take-all problems – but it has a spectacularly good, incredibly large university, which means that the university can tackle problems that many other, more specialized universities can’t. So it has a leverage in terms of implementing smart city strategies, in combination with the city and the state, because the federal government isn’t doing anything.

A conceptual autonomous vehicle at the Easton Transit Center — Image via City of Columbus.

Also, to your point, our cities are going to change shape and form so much, I was asked this question recently, how will tech change the city? The city is a very inefficient set of organizations. We made our agriculture incredibly efficient so that we can produce with one percent of our population more than enough food to feed us, we made our factories very efficient, but in cities, cars sit empty, buses and trucks sit empty, hotel rooms site empty, university offices sit empty…cities are incredibly inefficient.

So what we’re seeing now is that the city becomes a platform of the knowledge economy. Big companies, like Google, Siemens, Cisco, IBM, will become much more active in actually shaping our cities, and cities really need to get out in front of this. They can’t just be passive receivers, because left to it’s own devices, this would probably reinforce the winner-take-all dynamic.

Being in a place like Columbus, and seeing what’s happened in places like San Francisco or Boston, trying to mitigate and avoid those problems is a smart thing to do. You really want to anticipate the problems that come with the creative classes, that come with being a knowledge hub like Columbus, and build an inclusive smart city, and that takes an inclusive economic development and prosperity strategy.

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