Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, by Richard Florida (Basic Books, 374 pp., $26.95)
When economist Richard Florida, author of the highly influential and controversial The Rise of the Creative Class, was considering writing a book to help people decide where they should live, his colleagues advised against the task because he was a “serious scholar,” he tells us in his newly published and amusingly titled Who’s Your City? His editor, though, was more encouraging, telling him to write a “serious, engaging and convincing book on why place matters.”
The serious self-help book isn’t a publishing staple, and it may take Florida a few more attempts before he nails it. For starters, only in the last 15 pages of Who’s Your City? does Florida take a stab at fulfilling his stated mission, and he does so somewhat prosaically. Decide what your priorities are, he says, do your homework (his cliché, not mine), assess what opportunities a place has to offer, take a look at the basics like education and public safety, decide whether the city lights your fire (again his words), add up the score, and pick. That’s it.
Who’s Your City? might have been more satisfying if it had a more striking payoff. But much of what comes before is confusing anyway. Florida claims in his introduction that the book is about why place still matters, how regions are becoming more specialized, and how we have become such a mobile society that we can pick where we want to live. I can sign on to all that, but I’ll have to take him at his word that this is what the book is really about. At times, it seems more like a loose confederation of chapters that Florida uses to restate his thesis about the creative class (in case you missed it in his previous three books on the subject) before venturing into uncharted waters with his newest research (cities have personalities, one chapter tells us). Large chunks of the book just seem to be there to fill space—for example, a chapter entitled “The Mobile and the Rooted,” whose purpose is to inform us that some people live in one place their entire lives, while others like to move around a lot. Hard to dispute that.
It’s difficult, in short, not to see Who’s Your City? as another opportunity for Florida to get more mileage out of his creative-class theories, especially since, after city planners and politicians initially embraced his ideas, a backlash has emerged, as Governing magazine put it, over his “theory of cultural and recreational opportunities as key economic development tools.” Florida became a true publishing phenomenon—a best-selling urbanist—with The Rise of the Creative Class. His argument was a variation on the notion that in a modern economy, the quality of human capital—a population’s skills and education levels, among other things—matters increasingly in generating economic growth and development. But whereas economists use simpler measures of what constitutes advances in human capital—the number of college-educated workers in a region, for instance—Florida contended that what boosts growing cities is a specific group of workers that he dubs the “creative class,” those who use “creativity as a key factor in . . . work in business, education, health care, law or some other profession.” (Astute readers will notice the circularity of this definition: creative-class workers are workers who use creativity in their jobs.) Into this imprecisely defined class, Florida poured all sorts of job descriptions, ultimately concluding that it constitutes some 30 percent of the workforce.
Florida’s rebranding of what economists have simply described as “skilled workers” wouldn’t have earned him much attention if not for several other huge leaps he made. Noticing that the places that seemed to be attracting the creative class also had large populations of gays and artist types—whom he labeled “bohemians”—Florida quickly concluded that the way for cities to prosper was to offer what these groups wanted. To Florida, this meant being open, tolerant, diverse, and encouraging of self-expression. He even proposed an agenda for how to create this atmosphere, advising mayors to invest in what David Brooks would describe as bobo (bourgeois/bohemian) amenities like bike paths, rock music festivals, and preservation programs that turn unused former factory areas into hip entertainment districts. For a generation of mayors and urban planners brought up on the careful, mundane pronouncements of most urban economists, Florida’s ideas were a breath of fresh air. Many academic economists wouldn’t go much beyond the data that showed some correlation between skilled workers and flourishing regions; Florida, by contrast, offered a whole agenda, right down to how to redirect the energies of a city’s parks department.
Of course, there were some doubters, including me. When I first received a copy of The Rise of the Creative Class and looked at its charts, I noted that some of the cities that he dubbed the most creative had an uneven history of economic growth, while some of his least creative had been doing quite well. I expected that Florida might explain why some cities thick with the creative class still struggled, while others lacking it might nevertheless prosper. But what I discovered in reading the book was that there was little actual correlation between the creative class and economic growth. In nearly 400 pages of text, charts, and notes, Florida explained elaborately how he developed his notion of what cities are most creative, but he never actually conformed his work to economic reality. He simply assumed that everyone would agree that his most creative cities were also the most robust economically—even though many weren’t.
Responding to the criticism in his subsequent work, Florida set out his own standards for what constituted economic growth. I had noted that a number of his most creative cities were laggards when it came to population and job growth, as well as the ability to generate entrepreneurial companies. So Florida now cites rises in housing prices as the key sign that his most creative cities are economic powerhouses. But as many economists have pointed out—and as even Florida has admitted elsewhere—housing prices can be as much a function of supply constraints caused by government regulations as of demand. Before New York City enacted rent-control regulations and a thicket of confusing housing codes, for instance, builders in the city regularly produced some 30,000 to 40,000 new units a year. But during much of the modern era, the city has been producing just 10,000 to 15,000 units annually, though it needs to build about 25,000 units each year simply to replace what is lost. No wonder prices in the city have skyrocketed. By contrast, as the economist Thomas Sowell points out in his Economic Facts and Fallacies, Las Vegas, with a far lighter regulatory touch, has encouraged rapid building that has met the demand produced by the city’s population growth, keeping prices reasonable. Yet to Florida, New York’s high housing prices and Las Vegas’s more affordable ones confirm his theories—which rank Gotham high on creative-class lists, and Las Vegas low.
As Who’s Your City? demonstrates, Florida’s recent work is about not just cities, but the development of giant mega-regions as economic powerhouses. Growth in such regions is indeed exploding, but much of it is so far-flung that it can hardly be said to be influenced by the hipness of urban bohemian enclaves. When Florida talks about San Francisco’s economic gains, for instance, he is often referring to economic growth generated in Silicon Valley, but implying that hip Haight-Ashbury is somehow responsible for it. Similarly, in an analysis of the New York economy that Florida did after September 11, he concluded that much of the region’s growth was coming from places like Ocean County, New Jersey, and Suffolk County, Long Island—which are statistically part of the regional economy, but too far from Manhattan for anyone to believe that their success stems from bohemian Greenwich Village or the gay enclaves of Chelsea.
Florida is a big thinker who likes the excitement of the “aha!” moment. But unlike some academics, who might spend years studying, testing, and retesting their insights, he often rushes forward proclaiming some new bit of research as integral to his creative-class ideas—sometimes at the expense of those who bought and paid for his earlier ones. In Who’s Your City?, for instance, Florida writes that he has now begun to search for ways to measure how psychology, specifically human personality traits, might influence regions’ economic development. Discovering the work on personality of the University of Texas’s Sam Gosling and Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow, Florida examines their data and constructs maps showing that people living in different cities and regions exhibit predominant personality types—ranging from conscientious and agreeable to neurotic. Guess which type dominates in New York.
But Florida’s new map of cities as personalities has little to do with his creative-class rankings. New York and Las Vegas, for instance, both score high on openness to new experiences as well as on neurosis. Minneapolis, a creative-class winner, and Detroit, a loser, are both high in extroversion. Trying to suss it all out, Florida decides that to be a real winner a region needs to have not just lots of creative-class types, but the right personality. And, he admits, changing a region’s personality to reprogram it for success is not easy.
All of this is fine, even intriguing, but one can’t help wondering about those mayors and governors who rushed to build bike paths and subsidize music festivals and are now being told that it isn’t quite that simple. Not only do they have to attract creative-class types, they also need to figure out how to change their cities’ or regions’ “personalities” to make sure that they get the desired economic payoff. One might have expected from Florida himself, if not a little contrition, then perhaps a moment’s pause to acknowledge that his latest theory could explain why his original list of creative-class cities contained a few economic clunkers. No doubt these cities merely lacked the proper “personality.”
One criticism of The Rise of the Creative Class was that the ideas Florida proposed for attracting certain types of people were at odds with surveys that actually asked people what they thought was most important in a city. I don’t recall a single reference to public security and policing, for instance, though of course the lack of them almost completely destroyed New York’s attractiveness in the late 1980s and 1990s and continues to hamper the revival of other cities like Newark and Detroit. Similarly, it’s hard to find in that earlier book more than a passing reference to schools and their importance locally. Unfairly or not, the impression one comes away with after reading Creative Class is that if mayors can just figure out a way to attract some musicians and gays to their town, they don’t need to worry much about intractable problems like crime and failing school systems.
In Who’s Your City?, Florida tries to rectify this flaw by commissioning a massive survey asking people what they look for in places to live. Unsurprisingly, the factors that Florida had mostly ignored—including the basics of personal security and education—top the lists of what people, even creative types, seek. In other words, subsidizing arts festivals and enacting legislation promoting openness and tolerance might not matter much if the city’s crime rate is as high as Detroit’s.
Of course, now that Florida has discovered how important a school system is to his target audience, in Who’s Your City he must now give his two-and-a-half page riff on what’s wrong with public education in America. His assessment boils down to this: we’re still teaching kids as though we were in the industrial age, trying to force them into rote learning instead of unleashing their creativity and allowing them to learn flexibly. Florida doesn’t seem to know that one reason so much public education has gone off the rails in the United States is that curricula developed in our education schools starting in the 1960s and 1970s tried to do exactly what he proposes—make learning a more inner-centered, “natural,” and creative process, while ignoring the basics. Today, for instance, kids are taught to read through “whole language” courses that dispense with what educators deride as the “drill and kill” of learning phonics in favor of classroom interactions with classmates and minimal teacher guidance. Though we now have a mountain of scientific evidence showing that whole-language instruction doesn’t work nearly as well as phonics-based instruction, “the resistance from many educators to [teaching phonics] has been palpable,” according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Educators cling to ineffective techniques precisely because many share Florida’s romantic, misguided notion that they must find ways to unleash students’ creativity. Indeed, when Florida praises foreign elementary-education systems over America’s, he seems unaware that most of them are far more traditional in their curricula, and far more standardized in their teaching (many countries require that the same curricula be taught in all of their schools), than America is.
The author’s few hundred mistaken words on our education system go to the heart of what I shall call the Florida Conundrum. Economics is one of the academy’s least politically correct disciplines, and most academic economists accept a whole set of basic principles that have been tested through research many times over. As an urban-planner-cum-economist, Florida has to operate within the constraints of these generally accepted principles, or else try to overturn them with his own research. But he also wants to be a social and cultural observer, pushing far beyond what his research reveals. And as a commentator, Florida is far to the left of his own economics, creating a dissonance that sometimes makes his work inexplicable, or worse, risible.
That’s what made The Flight of the Creative Class—Florida’s sequel to The Rise of the Creative Class—so flawed. The economist in him wanted to prove that diversity and creativity led to economic success, and the left-wing cultural critic in him wanted to believe (along with many American elites) that Europe and Canada (where Florida now lives) were far more open and diverse than the U.S. How to explain that America’s economy is, over the long term, far more productive and creative than theirs? He couldn’t, but that didn’t stop him from writing a “serious” book arguing that America should be imitating the likes of Denmark and Sweden to ensure economic success.
The framework of Who’s Your City? gives Florida the cultural critic fresh opportunities to cover old ground, as well as occasions to venture onto new turf—from our educational system to marriage among the rich and the poor. His new book shows the economist at his most voluble, but least directed—sometimes neither here nor there. He sounds a bit like a medium channeling basic economic tenets, leftish cultural criticism, and self-help all at once: a single voice, yes, but uttering many ideas and often conflicting ones.