How the crash will - and won't - reshape AmericaA couple months ago, Richard Florida (of Creative Class fame) published a major article in The Atlantic on 'How the Crash Will Reshape America' (hat tip to Deborah). A short summary of his thesis is here, and here are some cool interactive maps of patent activity, income and population growth that came with the article (hat tip to Peter). It's been sitting in my overflowing reading stack since then, but I finally got a chance to read and react to it.
There is a lot here, including a lot I agree with, but in the interest of brevity, I will focus on areas where we disagree, which are substantial. His biases show clearly throughout the article. Just one example: he sees the decline of the industrial Midwest, and also talks about the critical importance of creativity, innovation, and patents - yet his data maps show incredible concentrations of patent activity in the Midwest, actually looming over all other regions of the country. These two things do not square, yet no explanation is found. Clearly that critical-mass creative cluster is not able to save itself from the powerful forces of the internet and globalization, yet he claims that similar clusters in finance, media, entertainment, and tech in much higher-cost NYC and CA are safe. Nothing to see here, NY and CA, just move on along and don't worry yourselves...
"...New York is more of a mecca for fashion designers, musicians, film directors, artists, and—yes—psychiatrists than for financial professionals."Does he not realize that those financial professionals are also the wealthy patrons that support all those arts? If they go, or get a lot poorer, the artists go. Look at history: artistic creatives follow the money, and are not wealth generators themselves. They are an effect, not a cause.
As a preamble to calls for more dense, urban living, he calls for a shift from homeownership to renting:
"As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly."I think this is a misreading of what's happening. As a society, we've moved up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs over the last 50 years. As we've satisfied our economic and material needs, social needs have become more important, and people are simply less willing to break those geographic ties to friends and family for a slightly better job. Evidence of this can be seen in college applications, where teenagers are now much more interested in staying closer to home and parents, rather than trying to get as far away from them as possible. I think it's a healthy sign of more mature priorities than the old climb-the-salary-ladder-at-all-costs approach.
"(The economy) no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required."It's amusing that the entire essay calls for breaking from the past and moving forward, then at the end he suddenly lurches backward to the past calling for more density, rail transit, and walking with fewer cars. We agree that growth is all about people making lots of connections quickly, but he thinks that means people physically stacked on top of each other. In a world built around walking as the primary mobility mode, he - and Jane Jacobs - are right: it's all about physical proximity and density. Speed is fixed and slow, so density needs to be maximized. But as I've pointed out before, we have become a wealthy and technologically advanced society where the car is the primary mobility mode. Speed is now variable and potentially fast, while density is more limited (because of the need to accommodate roads and parking). Keeping up the same, or even faster, velocity of connections means keeping up speeds - and that means high-speed freeways and arterials with adequate capacity and with minimal traffic congestion. See this post for a detailed comparative analysis of how these two approaches play out in Manhattan and Houston.
The personal vehicle, whatever its propulsion technology, is now a permanent part of society. Accept it, and optimize your cities around it to maximize the velocity of connections (note that this does not preclude pedestrian-oriented villages within a broader car-driven regional urban area). Any other strategy has about as much chance of success as the Midwest does of reclaiming manufacturing from Asia...