Urban warfare: Joel Kotkin vs. Richard Florida on cities and the creative class

Urban theorists Richard "Rise of the Creative Class" Florida and Joel "New Geography" Kotkin have never exactly seen eye-to-eye. In a 2010 article for Foreign Policy, Kotkin blasted Florida for pushing the "dangerous misconception" that  "concentration by its very nature creates wealth" and that "the hipper the city... the richer and more successful it will be."

But in the last couple of months,  their spat has gotten very public. It started with a January 30 essay by Florida on the Atlantic's Cities Channel, which he co-edits, on the contribution of talent clustering to America's growing inequality:

I've been examining the winners and losers from this talent clustering process in ongoing research with Charlotta Mellander and our Martin Prosperity Institute team. This research divides workers into three socio-economic classes — highly skilled knowledge, professional, and creative workers, and less skilled and lower paid blue-collar and service workers — and takes into the account the wages and housing costs borne by each.

Our main takeaway: On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.

In an article for the Daily Beast this week, Kotkin read this as an admission by Florida that his notion that cities should work to develop creative hubs simply doesn't work to build broad-based prosperity:

Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

One group certain to be flustered by this new perspective will be many of the cities who have signed up and spent hard cash over the years to follow Florida’s prescription of focusing on those things—encouraging the arts and entertainment, building bike paths, welcoming minorities and gays—that would attract young college-educated workers. In his thesis, the model cities of the future are precisely those, such as San Francisco and Seattle, that have become hubs of highly educated migrants, technology, and high-end business services.

That plan, though, has been less than successful in many of the old rust belt cities that once made up much of his client base. Perhaps even more galling to these cities, Florida has turned decidedly negative in his outlook on many of those cities—now looking remarkably gullible—that once made up much of his client base.

"Bollocks" replies Florida:

 Kotkin misleads readers when he writes I’ve “conceded.” What hogwash. I’ve long been aware of the inequality that is a byproduct of the unvarnished creative knowledge economy and I’ve written about it extensively. Going all the way back to The Rise of the Creative Class, I zeroed in on the “widening income gaps and growing stratification that define our social life.”[...]

This is a key issue facing our cities and nation as a whole, as rising inequality and a jobless recovery make clear. This is not something I take lightly: My ongoing series on America’s class divided cities examines this down to the level of census tracts for 10 or so of the nation’s largest metros. It is not a simple issue, but one that is multifaceted and complex; it requires real research and nuanced understanding to get to the nub of it.

So where does that leave us? If we know that the skills, knowledge, and creativity that power economic growth does not lift all boats, what do we do?  Stop investing in skills? Stop the flow of people and jobs back to the urban core—which has not only made many cities safer and better places, but helped increase productivity and innovation for the nation as a whole? Encourage people to tear up more of the environment as they build ever-more-sprawling suburbs?

It strikes me that both authors are latching on to somewhat cartoonish versions of their opponents arguments. There's more to Florida's notion of a creative class than "hipsters + ? = profit" and Kotkin's not-so-fast take on the benefits of large-scale urbanization and megacities has more to it than "sprawl good, cities bad; manufacturing important, artsy-fartsy stuff useless".

But it's an entertaining debate to follow and one with important conseuqences for a rapidly urbanizing future.

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