In "The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class - And What We Can Do about It," author Richard Florida identifies and wrestles with one of the greatest points currently facing American society. We are witnessing a flood of youthful, well-educated, and affluent skilled workers pouring back into America’s cities, effectively turning the tides on a decades-long trend of suburbanization and urban abandonment and decay. In 2002, Florida was one of the first scholars to anticipate this back-to-the-city movement in his celebrated and controversial book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida determined that the so-called creative class – comprised of professional artists, technology workers, and the LGBT community – tend to be present in high concentrations in the metropolitan regions that exhibit a greater level of economic development. In “The Rise of the Creative Class,” he theorized that the presence of this demographic promotes an open and dynamic urban environment, in turn attracting more creative types to the city and further stimulating the growth of businesses and the production of capital. He proposed that enticing and retaining the high-quality professional talent of the creative class could be the best principal use of a city’s regenerative resources in order to encourage urban growth and renewal and to generate enduring prosperity. These ideas have proven highly influential and have been greeted with lofty praise and harsh criticism alike.
Detractors decried Florida’s thinking as elitist and self-congratulatory: favoring a snobby hipster aesthetic and attitude; applying the flattering label of “creative” only to those already best poised to succeed professionally and innovate in the most visible of ways; and calling upon the privileged to be the architects of all of society’s salvation. Some accused Florida of misunderstanding and misinterpreting the data that led to these conclusions. Simultaneously, Florida was greeted with applause and accolades, and he achieved a sort of “superstar” status not unlike that of those successful but troubled cities that he discusses in his newest book: he became an in-demand speaker, his thinking attracted a quasi-religious following, his Creative Class Group consultancy grew to boast an illustrious list of clients, and his ideas were acclaimed by mayors and urban planning departments throughout the USA, some relying heavily on Florida’s philosophies when undertaking urban renewal initiatives – and, when we glance at the refreshed vibrancy and dynamism and of America’s largest cities through the new millennium, we can clearly see that these endeavors were in many ways successful. Florida may well be to credit with helping to aid the revival of our cities in decline.
And yet, a decade and a half after the publication of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida admits that things are not looking so bright in “The New Urban Crisis:” the middle class is shriveling up as our cities and suburbs alike are being sharply sliced into starkly contrasting zones where islets of affluence and privilege are surrounded by vast seas of poverty and disadvantage – and it is these same forces fueling urban growth that have also nourished the most troubling challenges at the root of this crisis: segregation along racial and socioeconomic lines, income and wage inequality, unaffordable urban housing, and imbalanced infrastructural disparities between now thriving urban neighborhoods and the declining suburbs. The emergence of a “winner-take-all” urbanism benefiting only those at the top of the societal food chain has risen directly alongside Florida’s very own creative class. Florida’s critics can even trace a direct correlation between the espousal of the “Creative Class” agenda and the flourishing of urban inequality: Florida’s formula for success has been proven to mostly benefit those already rich, largely white upper classes; displace the professional artists and queer communities that he championed; and see the problems that once so disgraced the inner cities merely relocate out to suburbia.
It is no small irony that the very solutions that Florida offered so enthusiastically at the turn of the twenty-first century can now be seen as lying at the root of the new urban crisis today. Florida is left with no choice but to retreat or to confront this head-on. Many could accuse Florida of forging renown and success through an intriguing but ultimately profoundly misleading hypothesis and backpedaling – and indeed the author demonstrates courage in re-examining his earlier ideas as the world around us evolves. In “The New Urban Crisis,” Florida does not step down his promotion of the creative class and its power to bring new energy to cities and makes no apologies for his previous theorizing and its interpretations or implementations. However, he does now directly confront the issues of inequality that lie at the humanitarian heart of America’s urban struggles, and examines the crucial role that “classes” beyond (or, rather, below) his creative class should play in the success of cities, and the need for these classes to achieve both an agency and an elevation that should be allowed to come from within. In this way, some might think that he’s dodging the blame, or half-heartedly peddling the sort of egalitarian utopianism that the same Left that embraced “The Creative Class” at the dawn of the new millennium will find redeeming today. An inquiry into how earnestly he espouses these opinions can surely elicit a wealth of heated debate. Florida puts frequent emphasis upon his modest and dignified origins in a middle-class family in Newark, New Jersey, and then later in that wilting city’s flourishing suburbs, casting himself as a member of the honest salt-of-the-earth classes who should benefit most from the new thinking on the new crisis: a middle-class hero now giving back to his community. The limitations in his trademark writing and rhetoric are difficult to ignore and at times frustrating to grapple with. The division of humanity into three classes seems dreadfully reductive, and indeed the labels (“creative class,” “service class,” and “working class”) are as charged as they are misleading regarding Florida’s actual meanings when he uses them. Furthermore, outside of London and Toronto, Florida rarely looks far beyond the USA’s largest or most powerful metropolises – it’s “superstar” cities and its “tech hubs” – when charting the Crisis and prescribing remedies for it. But he does provide insight into how what is happening in these U.S. cities relates to the urban situations in other developed nations, and how lessons learned here can apply to the very different situations emerging in the rapidly developing cities of the “global south.” What Florida presents us with here is never necessarily less problematic than what preceded it. But what Florida does offer us in “The Rise of the Creative Class,” regardless, is a feast of food for thought.
Florida contends that cities continue to be the most powerful economic engines in the world, and the best hope of salvation for our economic future domestically and globally. In “The New Urban Crisis,” Florida endeavors first to define the key dimensions of this titular crisis, then to identify the fundamental forces that are shaping it, and finally – crucially – to detail what can be done to remedy these ills: in order to move society forward as the world inexorably continues to rapidly urbanize, Florida now encourages a new model of “urbanism-for-all” which promotes the industrial innovation, job and wealth creation, and high living standards that can lead to a better way of life, not just for those on the upper crust benefitting from the revitalization foreseen in “The Rise of the Creative Class,” but for all people. This new and inclusive urbanist strategy sees cities re-envisioned for a newly expanded and thriving middle class by turning traditionally low-wage working-class jobs into middle-class work, stimulating growth by investment in urban infrastructure such as public transit; reformation of zoning and tax laws to encourage the ideal sort of mid-rise, mixed-use density that fosters human interaction; providing more affordable housing; and empowering cities themselves to address the unique challenges that beset them. Aside from advocating for specific reforms like the implementation of a negative income tax, Florida doesn’t have many concrete proposals to solve the Crisis and offers his recommendations in broad strokes: “The New Urban Crisis” functions more like an informative guide-book for encouraging thinking and dialogue on the issue than a practical and instructive tool-kit for healing and improving complex urban engines.
“The New Urban Crisis” is a book that speaks directly to today’s moment (2018) – a time perhaps unimaginable in the era that saw the birth of “The Creative Class” – addressing Brexit- and Trump-era concerns and, whilst politically charged, calling for bipartisanism and unity in our fractured society: it is a crisis indeed when we pause to look at these issues in the context of the current socio-political situation and the direction in which policy is headed. Although some of the conclusions that Florida draws may be hard for many of us swallow, and some statements dare to stand in stark contrast with the commonly accepted ideologies of this generation – he is unafraid, for example, to firmly recognize the beneficial effects of gentrification, and to point the accusatory finger away from the young migrant professionals and technology workers who usually shoulder the blame for its more deleterious consequences – the author demonstrates a genuine passion for societal betterment and the greater global good that makes his words imminently – if not urgently – readable. Florida writes with an evident fondness for cities and the humans that make them, and his voice – personal and frank – often has a candid and authentic ring.
A deep analysis of data, both granular and aggregate, lends significant heft to Florida’s words without bogging the reader down. While the text is painstakingly researched, annotated, and indexed, a plethora of comparisons and illustrations appeal directly to the layperson, and Florida’s evocative writing style easily captures the imagination. Engaging and digestible, “The New Urban Crisis” is a page-turner that packs a punch and leaves an impact – the reader is forced to confront the real direness of the situation, and Florida’s capacity for conveying his themes and energizing his audience is virtuosic. The solutions that Florida proposes are as idealistic as they are practical, and while some readers are sure to disagree strongly with the author’s thinking, “The New Urban Crisis” is poised to be a powerful catalyst for healthy – and important – debate, and is sure to become a text as seminal as its predecessors, and an unmissable read for policymakers and educators that offers clear-eyed and powerful perspective that would greatly benefit all city dwellers. Whether or not you’ll agree – and whether or not “The New Urban Crisis” is ultimately on the right track – Florida and his ideas have great worth for their concision, conviction, and incendiary nature: they will encourage any reader to reflect and react, and will inevitably recharge the discussions around these crucial issues. Florida doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but his thinking is valuable as much for what it says about this new urban crisis as how it is a reflection and product of this very dilemma. Representing a strong voice on an urgent issue, this is an appeal for more and better urbanism that needs to be heard.
Do you believe that there is a crisis of inequality where you live? What steps could you, your neighbors, and your local government officials take to confront and resolve this issue? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
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