The Creative Class as saviors of old citiesI've been doing some thinking about Richard Florida's Creative Class strategy for cities (his site), and why it became so popular so fast with cities all across the country. Part of it was the allure of the Internet boom, which it perfectly complimented. Everybody wants to be the next Silicon Valley. But I think there's a bigger-picture, longer-term story of cities that explains why the ground was so fertile for a Creative-Class-type theory to be accepted so rapidly across such a large swath of the country.
I think the nutshell story for a lot of cities over the last 60 years is as follows:
- People keep moving farther out for bigger, newer, cheaper houses
- This suburban growth leads to traffic congestion and transit hassles
- Employers move to the suburban "edge cities" to follow their employees and reduce commutes
- Old core cities are left with a deteriorating tax base as jobs move out, lower income families (often immigrants) move into their old housing stock, and inner city schools continue to decline relative to the suburbs
Into this desperate situation comes Dr. Florida with the miracle cure: attract well-off childless households like singles, young or empty-nest couples, and gays. "Childless household" is not a very sexy term, so they become the "creative class" - and who doesn't want to be a part of that? This demographic is the perfect target customer for old cities: they provide tax base, don't care about schools, and are looking for something different from the plain-jane, child-safe, Disney-approved suburb. Voilà! A match made in heaven. Just revitalize a few funky neighborhoods here or there, have the feds build you some cool light rail, get some nightlife, arts organizations, and a few gay bars and you're good to go. Sure, you have to get crime under control, at least in those neighborhoods, but a little focused police attention for a while should do the trick.
So the new metro model can be thought of as three concentric circles:
- A core of creative class, immigrants, and low-income neighborhoods with older housing stock and mediocre schools (although hopefully on an improving track)
- A ring of employers, usually along the loops and beltways
- The suburbs and exurbs of families
This model is very transit-unfriendly because the employers tend to be dispersed along the rim. But even if those in the core have to drive to work, they probably have a not-so-bad reverse commute. And hopefully those core creatives are paying taxes that will help the old city upgrade its infrastructure, neighborhoods, and schools.
The counter-argument to the creative class theory tends to sum up as "forget the fluff, focus on fundamentals like taxes, schools, crime, mobility, and infrastructure." And I think that's absolutely the right strategy on a metro-area basis, but before old core cities can have the money to reduce taxes, improve schools, reduce crime, increase mobility, and upgrade infrastructure, they have to have the tax base to pay for it, and the creative class approach is the easiest way to get there. The "low hanging fruit," if you will.
Houston has been lucky enough to avoid some elements of this story. First, we invested a whole lot in freeways and HOV transit to help keep employers in the core. Second, for those employers that did leave, annexation allowed us to keep growing the city limits to include them so we didn't lose the tax base (Greenspoint, Clear Lake, Energy Corridor, Westchase, Willowbrook/HP, etc.). This is why you don't hear quite as much about the creative class here as in many other cities: we never declined to the point we were that desperate to attract tax base. There was some talk during the Internet bubble about Houston having trouble attracting top talent nationally, but that seemed to fade away with the bubble collapse and the recession: jobs trumped coolness. And anybody who's watched our core evolve the last 10 years or so can see that we've come a long, long way on the coolness factor, which the rest of the country is just barely starting to notice.
So what does all this mean? I think it means that Houston has a real shot at becoming one of the next great world cities. We're making a lot of progress on attracting the creative class tax base, and we still have most of the employers in the core due to strong mobility investments, and HISD is one of the best urban school districts in the nation, and our lack of zoning makes core redevelopment of our housing and commercial building stock much easier than most cities, and we're the lowest cost-of-living major city in America. That gives us a tremendous financial base we can use to tackle any problems and invest in "great city" infrastructure like museums, parks, transit, stadiums, education, charities, libraries, top restaurants, and arts and entertainment organizations. If we keep up this momentum, we should expect to see great things in the coming decades...