A review of The New Urban Crisis begins, “Richard Florida…wants you to know that he got almost everything about cities wrong.”
The same review goes on to say,
Today, even Florida recognizes that he was wrong. The rise of the creative class in places like New York, London, and San Francisco created economic growth only for the already rich, displacing the poor and working classes. The problems that once plagued inner cities have moved to the suburbs.
Needless to say, this change of course by one of the most sought-after urbanism gurus of the last decade has gotten people talking around the world. Much of it has been harsh, but if it’s true that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” then that may be fine with Florida. In Buffalo, the conversation gets going this Friday with a panel of urban thinkers who will be reviewing Florida’s book. Details below.
Florida is no stranger to Buffalo – he was a visiting professor in the School of Architecture and Planning in the early 1980s – and is a fan. Nearly a decade ago, he blogged about a NY Magazine article about Gotham expats living in Buffalo. The author of that article spent some time on his visit here with Buffalo Rising founder Newell Nussbaumer, calling him “a kind of unofficial mayor of Buffalo.” The author also interviewed the elected mayor, and wrote the following:
Buffalo has seen hard times for a long time, but as a city, it has reason for new hope. The popularity of the book The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida, released in 2002—the first of four books by Florida on the imperative for cities to attract a certain kind of young creative professional—has given places like Buffalo a blueprint for economic revival. When I interviewed Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, he quoted directly from the Florida playbook. The city is striving to be more bike friendly. It’s supporting co-op housing for artists as a way to draw people back downtown. “We have all the amenities to attract the creative class, and to build on the creative class that already exists here,” said Brown.
Given the obvious success and wide reach of his previous writing, how did Florida came to write a book that now pedals back from much of it? To answer that inevitable question, he wrote this piece for CityLab (formerly Atlantic Cities), which he founded, describing his arc. It’s a helpful read to understand where he’s coming from, both in arriving at his original Creative Class hypothesis a decade and a half ago, and his later rethinking. Also, as he describes this as the “New Urban Crisis,” (emphasis mine) this read tells about the original Urban Crisis. Although most of us are too young to have experienced the original Urban Crisis firsthand, Florida describes a brief personal encounter he had with it.
Even after reading Florida describe his arc, you may still question whether he came to this change of heart on his own, or whether he was pushed. He’s had no shortage of detractors, one even going so far as to start the satire Twitter account @Dick_Florida. A popular counterpoint is “Ruse of the Creative Class.”
His detractors aren’t missing the opportunity to lob fresh rounds in his direction, as you can see in almost any review of his new book.
Slate’s review, for example, pulls no punches. It begins,
Richard Florida is back with another theory about how to fix American cities. It’s a pipe dream—and even he knows it.
Forbes’ review, perhaps surprisingly for a financial publication, compares Florida’s original creative class prescription for reviving America’s cities to supply-side and tickle-down economics.
The Guardian’s review is especially…unguarded. It begins,
There is something quite shocking about seeing a new contemporary map of London in which the rich areas are labeled “primarily creative class” and the poorer parts “primarily service class.” But this is how the American writer and Toronto University professor Richard Florida portrays cities and sees people. There are those who create and those who serve them.
The words at the top of the book’s front cover read: “deserves to stand alongside Piketty’s Capital… Essential”. In a way this is true. Florida’s book is an example of the kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Understanding that thinking is an important part of starting to realise that we cannot go on like this.
The mention of Piketty is telling here. Piketty’s recent economic analysis gives intellectual heft to the recent populist backlash against inequality evidenced in movements such as Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign. But the question remains whether Florida is having the same misgivings, or whether his new book is more an opportunistic result of seeing which way the wind is blowing. Some might cynically assume the latter, but Pete Saunders, in his Forbes review, says, “I’ve sensed this gradual transition in Florida’s writings through the years, ultimately bringing him to this juncture.”
Whatever you may think of his ideas and motivations, his book appearing when it does is especially good timing for Buffalo, as it can help draw a spotlight to issues of inequality and gentrification that have been raised across the city for some time but are now crystallizing in the Fruit Belt. Just this year, the effort to establish a community land trust (CLT) for the Fruit Belt appears to be coming to fruition (so to speak). And just this month, Buffalo hosted a well-attended summit to discuss gentrification.
Whatever you may think of his ideas and motivations, his proposed solutions certainly merit a look at their applicability to Buffalo. What he proposes is an “urbanism for all” shaped around “seven key pillars.”
Those pillars are:
- Reform zoning and building codes, as well as tax policies, to ensure that the clustering force works to the benefit of all.
- Invest in the infrastructure needed to spur density and clustering and limit costly and inefficient sprawl.
- Build more affordable rental housing in central locations.
- Expand the middle class by turning low-wage service jobs into family-supporting work.
- Tackle concentrated poverty head-on by investing in people and places
- Engage in a global effort to build stronger, more prosperous cities in rapidly urbanizing parts of the emerging world.
- Empower communities and enable local leaders to strengthen their own economies and cope with the challenges of the New Urban Crisis.
How is Buffalo doing on those? Taking them point for point:
- The push is on for inclusionary zoning, which would take us in the right direction. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has also called for inclusion of more low-income housing in Buffalo’s development boom. He’s gotten a lot of push-back, but isn’t backing down. He shouldn’t.
- Controlling sprawl through legal means is difficult, but we have taken important steps with a Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) plan that is perhaps the most anti-sprawl in the state. The recent One Region Forward plan reinforced this and got key buy-in from local leadership. The UB Regional Institute was involved in developing both plans. As for investing in infrastructure to spur density, plans to extend MetroRail and – finally – plans to promote real transit-oriented development should help there. Green Code was intended to help promote density, as well.
- I am not aware of a plan in Buffalo to build more affordable rental housing in central locations, aside from inclusionary zoning and transit-oriented development, assuming a the resulting development is mixed-income.
- Recent efforts to raise the minimum wage statewide and efforts to pass living wage legislation locally.
- Recent initiatives such as Say Yes, workforce development, Artspace, Buffalo Arts and Technology Center, Joint Schools Reconstruction are examples of investing in both people and places, although there is always more that can be done.
- While this isn’t specific to Buffalo, Buffalo’s extensive immigrant resettlement program, proximity to diverse Ontario, and SUNY’s international student presence gives the city closer ties to international cities, and many living here send money home.
- Buffalo has a number of initiatives underway to empower and develop local leaders and take charge of addressing many of the issues raised in Florida’s new book. A good example is the effort to create a community land trust to help combat gentrification in the Fruit Belt neighborhood adjacent to the medical campus. Another is Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program.
So measured against Florida’s “seven key pillars,” you might say Buffalo is a work in progress.
Whatever you may think of its thesis or author, Florida’s book and its subject are especially important for Buffalo to discuss now. Kudos to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and its board chair, Frank Housh, for getting it going. That happens this Friday at noon, at the Central Library. See below or click here for details.
Discussion of Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis to be held at Downtown Central Library
The latest Chairman’s Book Club pick tackles problems in today’s cities
The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library presents a new Chairman’s Book Club, hosted by Library Board Chairman Frank Housh, on Friday, October 27, 2017 from 12 noon to 1 PM.
This program takes place at the downtown Central Library, 1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo and is free and open to the public.
This session will focus on Richard Florida’s latest book, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It. The author of the groundbreaking The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida returns with a nuanced, thoughtful assessment of the tensions facing modern cities and a vision for stronger, more inclusive urban centers. Former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley calls it “essential reading for urban leaders and all city-dwellers.”
The Chairman’s Book Club features a timely, thought-provoking title selected to encourage public dialogue, discussed by a panel of notable community members.
The panel on October 27 will feature local architect and urbanist Kisha Patterson, Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo and Robert Silverman of the UB School of Architecture & Planning.
Copies of the book are available at any of the 37 Buffalo & Erie County Public Libraries. A “Book Club in a Bag” is also available, containing ten copies of the book and a reading guide.
For more information, visit the Library System website at www.BuffaloLib.org or call 716-858-8900.
The event is also part of the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Civil Writes Project.