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Debating the Creative Class—and Missing the Point

The debate has continues between proponents and detractors of Richard Florida’s theory on the creative class. But many are missing the point.

Can Florida’s thinking save cities like Buffalo, N.Y.? Credit: Doug Kerr on Flickr

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In the decade since publishing The Rise of the Creative Class, there’s been a lot of back and forth between Richard Florida and his detractors. Most recently, this debate reached a summit with Frank Bures’ essay in Thirty Two Magazine, and Florida’s rebuttal in The Atlantic Cities. (For a summary of Bures’ argument, see this previous post.)

Yet, with all this arguing, it seems like some are still missing the real point of why Florida is so contentious.

Whether or not Florida’s creative capital theory is any different from previous economic models, namely Ed Glaeser’s human capital approach, seems to be a moot point. Bures argues that, “Much of what Florida was describing was already accounted for by a theory that had been well-known in economic circles for decades.” Florida doesn’t disagree. He writes that the human capital and creative class theories “tend to measure the same thing.” For Florida, “the debate is over how to measure human capital.” Many economists measure it through education level, as Glaeser does through his human capital theory. Florida, however, uses occupation instead of educational attainment.

Both theories aim to achieve the same thing: An understanding of a region’s economic performance through understanding its demographics. Where they differ is on which demographic data to use.

Mayor Bloomberg says that people now “vote with their feet.” Credit: Center for American Progress

The most contentious topic — whether Florida has mixed up the chicken and the egg — is where most people seem to lose focus on the problem at hand. But Florida actually rejects the idea that he has ever made the claim that “arts spending is a driver of economic development.” In another essay Florida writes, “I don’t mince words when I say that communities that invest large sums of public money in mega projects like… the symphony, opera and ballet are sorely mistaken if they suppose this will somehow lead to economic growth and development.”

From there, he does backtrack slightly into ambiguous territory, writing, “arts and culture can and do at times precede and influence subsequent economic development.” In Florida’s viewpoint, openness, tolerance and the promotion of bohemianism is important for cities when attracting other types of creativity. He claims that the bohemians will attract engineers and the like, who in turn will drive the real economic growth. To Florida, it is in the best interests of cities to strive to “be cool.” Florida cites New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in an op-ed in the Financial Times wrote, “as individuals and capital become ever more mobile, cities are in competition for people…being cool counts. People … vote with their feet.” The cooler a place is, whether through luck or through a city’s own efforts, the greater the chance economic drivers will follow. Many critics seem to get this confused, thinking that Florida claims those who make a place cooler in the first place will themselves drive the economy.

And yet many, who do understand and agree with this principle, are still skeptical of Florida.

Can you really compare cities as disparate as London, pictured here, and Buffalo, pictured above? Credit: Flickr user otrocalpe

One major doubt is not whether such an approach is important to cities like New York; they are undoubtedly in competition for the brightest minds and have the resources and wherewithal to compete. Rather, the doubt is whether this policy prescription is useful for the many smaller cities across the country. Can a small city, with no existing economic base and much of its population in poverty, afford to spend any of its resources on an attempt to attract the creative class?

Furthermore, the artsiness and tolerance are not the only measures of livability – the keyword that Florida seems to miss in what attracts creative types. In many places, public safety, educational opportunities and transportation access trump tolerance and the like in importance for making a city more competitive. New York City already has relatively safe streets, okay public schools and functioning public transport. For other cities, is it perhaps prudent to worry about better public transport and safety before anything else?

In the end, the real crux of the problem with Florida – that is, where the debate should be – is not whether he has the chicken or the egg confused or whether Glaeser’s model is better. It is whether Florida fits every city. Richard Florida is only one of many thinkers out there. And yet, many cities – and many critics – have developed tunnel vision, focusing only on him. Perhaps the most pernicious and unfortunate aspect of this is that, by focusing so intently on drawing in the creative class, many cities have seemed to forgotten that the majority of people already living there are decidedly not in the creative class.

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Tags: economic developmentmichael bloombergtorontorichard florida

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