Richard Florida’s Frankenstein Moment

Why cities belong to the rich

We live in an electronic age in which it seems almost everything can be done remotely. With email, Skype and collaborative tools in the cloud, we no longer need to share the same physical space in order to pursue much of our work. And globalization, online payments, ubiquitous delivery and endlessly streaming media mean that we can purchase and consume seemingly anything from anywhere without leaving our homes.

So at first glance it seems paradoxical that, at the same time, increasing numbers of people now want to work, live and play in the same concentrated urban spaces, triggering a revitalization of the downtowns of many prominent cities. Meanwhile, consumers increasingly value local goods and idealize a direct, in-person relationship with the people who make our stuff. Farmers’ markets are expanding, restaurants serving local food from open kitchens are booming, artisans who make things by hand are thriving.

Perhaps it is not such a paradox, though. Throughout history humans have tended to appreciate things most when we realize they may disappear. “We don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone,” as Joni Mitchell sang. We are a social species and like talking to each other in the flesh. We value a sense of place. But there is a more problematic side to this instinct, too. The fact that we can do something easily makes doing it the hard way seem rarer, and so more valuable. These days only so many people can live in the cities where all the money and talent are congregating, and only so many people can regularly afford the premium required for buying goods and foodstuffs made in small batches by someone nearby. Proximity can be exclusive.

This return to proximity, and its potential dark side, lies at the heart of two new books. The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It, by prominent Toronto-based urban guru Richard Florida, looks at the geographic dimension of proximity and inequality. Florida has long touted the value of “clustering” in urban centres, where, according to his “creative class” theory, economic magic happens when talented, creative people move into a dense urban environment and interact together. Clustering lies at the heart of the recent renewal of the centres of many North American cities. But, Florida says, he has become increasingly aware of the problems with this process, triggered in part by the extensive criticism he has heard about his theories, and abetted by his experience of watching Rob Ford become mayor of Toronto. When talent and money cluster, they tend to focus on just a few locations, where they drive out those who are not wealthy; this process also creates deep separations and conflict between wealthy and deprived urban areas, both within cities and between cities. He calls this the “New Urban Crisis,” comparing it to the crisis of downtown abandonment that struck cities in the 1960s. The book delves into the specific nature of this urban inequality and some of the mechanisms that create it, concluding with some policy suggestions for addressing it.

In a way, the book is a case of Dr. Frankenstein confronting his own monster. Florida did not create the move back to cities, but he has been one of its biggest boosters, proclaiming its economic and social value and selling cities on following his creative classes formula for attracting talent and wealth. He cannot unmake the monster, but he can try to make amends for some of the negative consequences of his past endeavours. Unlike his earlier The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, which formulated a new philosophy to explain the emerging urban renewal, The New Urban Crisis does not claim to be particularly original. The rising inequality in cities has been discussed among those who study cities for a decade or more, for example in David Hulchanski’s 2007 study revealing the disappearance of Toronto’s middle class neighbourhoods. But there is value in a short, readable book that looks at the big picture across the United States, with some comparisons beyond, especially by someone well known who can bring the discussion to the fore and perhaps trigger real policy changes.

The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Los Angeles academic Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, looks at the consumer side of proximity and inequality. Kicking off from Thorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption, in which the leisure class of the 19th century displayed its inherited wealth through material goods, she posits a new “aspirational class.” This class works for its wealth rather than living off its capital, and lives in a world where material goods are easily accessible and so no longer carry as much cachet. She posits that, instead, the aspirational class establishes its status through new mechanisms. Through “conspicuous production,” its members purchase goods that are produced locally (farmers’ markets), by hand (Etsy), or though a process that is transparent and admirable (“direct trade”), so they can feel they have a direct relationship with the producer. Through “inconspicuous consumption,” they subtly show off cultural status by buying goods and services that are not conspicuous but rather are considered by them to carry higher moral value through environmental or cultural awareness. This category includes not only things such as organic food but also services that are relatively hidden but perpetuate privilege, such as high-quality child care, health care and university tuition. And through “productive leisure” they invest directly in themselves and their children through sports and fitness, cultural activities and other forms of recreation. Each of these modes signals status to other members of the class (she talks a lot about dinner parties) but also encourages a sense of moral worth, which may exacerbate inequality by blinding this community to the socioeconomic conditions that limit others from sharing this behaviour.

Both authors are looking at essentially the same group of people, whether they are called the creative class or the aspirational class, or follow other classifications (Currid-Halkett notes knowledge workers and symbolic analysts as other authors’ designations, and one also thinks of the British putdown “chattering classes”). They are people who live in large cities, who work with their brains rather than their bodies, and who consider themselves cultured in some way, although they might not say so outright. Rob Ford would have described them as latte-sipping liberals. While both authors make gestures toward other countries, both end up focusing on the specific manifestation of this group within the United States. Both authors also suffer from the same flaw in their definition of the group they are studying: they muddle economic and cultural boundaries. Florida and Currid-Halkett would like to be studying a cultural group—one in which certain behaviour and skills are present across a range of incomes. But both end up defaulting to look only at the wealthy. In each case, the problem lies in the very definition of the group.

Florida has always defined his creative class to include entrepreneurs, financiers, business people and managers. There can certainly be creativity in those kinds of work, but this definition means that there are few wealthy members of society who are not part of the class. The effect is to swamp the category with the wealthy, so that any creatives who are not wealthy—notably those most people would think of when they hear the word “creative,” such as artists, musicians and writers—become an afterthought. The creative class becomes synonymous with the upper-income bracket, and the term becomes more confusing than useful.

For Currid-Halkett, meanwhile, the most fundamental elements of her analysis are consumption patterns that are only really accessible to the wealthy: private tuition, quality health care, luxury goods and services (high-end watches, overseas travel), and routine expenditures on artisanal products. She makes occasional references to hipsters drinking expensive coffee, but the core of her analysis only works for the rich.

In effect, both Florida and Currid-Halkett end up studying what filmmaker Whit Stillman termed “the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” in his 1990 film Metropolitan: upper-income people living in big cities. The effect is compounded by the nature of the data that they use, which is very much oriented around income. There is nothing wrong with this subject—wealthy city-dwellers have evolved as a social group and increased significantly in number and cultural influence since Stillman coined the term, transforming cities and consumption patterns in the process. In a sense, it is a shame that the authors are attached to the cultural angle, as their presentation would be more focused if they were honest with themselves that they were studying a certain kind of wealth.

But their desire to delve into the cultural angle does point to a need for that kind of study. There is, clearly, a culture of creative work and socially aware, unmediated consumption that crosses income lines and has become influential in North America. It is almost startling the way you can find hipsters with similar tastes in practically any city. Toronto author Shawn Micallef explored this culture and some of its class implications in The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure; other authors have examined specific elements such as the attachment to authenticity and analog technologies; and the culture has been satirized in Stuff White People Like and Portlandia.

Studying this culture quantitatively, however, would require a different methodology, perhaps one that combined Florida’s geography with Currid-Halkett’s study of consumption patterns. For example, one could map out farmers’ markets and cross-reference them with craft beer companies. One could add to the mix yoga studios and organic food outlets (Currid-Halkett devotes an entire section to the Whole Foods chain). Are they all concentrated in the same places? What are the demographic, employment and income profiles of those places? Are there any old-school bohemian areas left that have lower incomes but creative consumption and employment patterns, perhaps in smaller towns or rust belt cities? How does this culture’s actual demographic and geographic extent compare to its strong visibility and cultural influence?

One could also ask, in the United States, if all these areas vote for the Democrats. One issue that both works leave out is the idea that there may be rich people who are not part of these classes. After all, the Republican party is supported by a large number of wealthy people. Where do they live? Do they shop at farmers’ markets and Whole Foods too? Or do they, instead, consider that kind of behaviour to be an oblivious claim to cultural and moral superiority, creating the curious phenomenon of rich people being angry at “elites”? Currid-Halkett’s insight that the consumption patterns of the creative/aspirational class incorporate such moral claims could help explain the resentment this class seems to generate and the deep cultural divisions in the United States and elsewhere.

If one thinks of a quadrant, with the vertical axis showing income, from low to high, and the horizontal axis tracking cultural preferences from traditional (for want of a better word) to creative, both authors focus on the top right (wealthy, creative) and, despite their intentions, leave out the bottom right axis, the poor creatives. Although the other, traditional side of the cultural axis is not part of their investigations, it would really need to be included as a contrast in any study that tries to understand the cultural elements that unite wealthy and non-wealthy creatives.

There is another important gap that both books share, and that is historical perspective. Both focus on contrasting the present with the post–Second World War period. But, as we know from Thomas Piketty’s work, that period was an exceptional time when income inequality and wealth inequality in the West were at an all-time low. From a longer historical perspective, many of the features of inequality they describe seem not so much new as a reversion to patterns that were typical of the 19th century, the last time inequality was as severe as it has become today.

To her credit, Currid-Halkett does refer back to earlier historical periods, although everything before the baby boom generation tends to get lumped together. But she is led astray in part by excessive deference to Veblen. One of the most important elements of her analysis is “productive leisure”—spending on immaterial things such as sports and education that bring privileged youth together and create a specific culture of behaviour and taste. This culture is not easily reproduced without being immersed in it from birth, and thus serves as an investment in the next generation to perpetuate status and exclude those who can match the material trappings of prosperity but not the culture of privilege. She contrasts this with Veblen, who described such spending in his day as “conspicuous leisure” that was purely frivolous.

But the process she describes is one of the ways those with inherited privilege have always distinguished themselves from those striving to join their ranks, even in Veblen’s day. Nineteenth-century spending on tuition and sports, too, built social capital in the form of networks and cultural capital in terms of behavioural and knowledge norms. At one point, she cites a study of a modern private school where privileged children assert their status by making their achievements appear effortless. This technique of nonchalance was first identified in the 16th century by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, and has been a mainstay of the maintenance of inherited privilege against newcomers ever since. In a way, Currid-Halkett underplays her own insight. With the idea of productive leisure she has not simply identified a new development; she has coined a term for a key element of status con­sumption that has been part of perpetuating privilege for centuries.

Florida’s analysis of the patterns of urban inequality in today’s cities also evokes the patterns of highly unequal pre-20th century cities, where the wealthy clustered together in desirable neighbourhoods with close access to economic and political power, and the poor were pushed to more distant, less attractive locations. But his emphasis on the value of clustering raises a fundamental question. In discussions of recent urban renewal, there is often an assumption that until now it was natural that people would want to leave the city once they had the opportunity, as happened when automobiles and suburban homes became widely available. Yet clustering has been the key value of cities ever since they first appeared in ancient river valleys. People have always been drawn to cities because of the accelerant effect of bringing wealth, talent and power close together. So a crucial, unasked question is if clustering in cities is coming back, when and why did it go away in the first place. Why did the wealthy, talented and powerful stop wanting to enjoy the close proximity that cities were designed to create?

Two answers suggest themselves, one that applies to all western cities, and another that applies most strongly to the United States. The first is the pollution created by the industrial revolution. Cities have always been somewhat polluted, but that never stopped people from wanting to live in them. The wealthy may have had country estates, but they came back to their central city houses to conduct business and politics. The rise of coal-powered industry and transportation in the 19th century created a whole new level of pollution heretofore unseen. These industries initially demanded specific locations, around ports and waterways for transportation, waste disposal and raw material, that were usually in the centre of cities. Even as coal eventually started to get replaced, the unfiltered exhaust of motor vehicles took its place, along with chemical emissions from new industries, and the concentration of pollution continued.

Pollution made proximity to the city centre repulsive rather than attractive. It could thus be the explanation for why those with the means began to move their living quarters away. It started in the late 19th century with suburbs and towns built around (electric, non-polluting) streetcar routes, such as Toronto’s The Beaches and Mimico. Once cars and good highways became widely available after the Second World War, the exodus accelerated and expanded to the emerging middle class, leaving the poor to live in the most polluted areas. Florida describes the wealthy as having first dibs on where to live, but perhaps it was really industry that seized the land it needed first, and the wealthy were simply the first in line to get away from it. Once people fled, many non-polluting industries followed them. Florida points out that, until recently, the big technology companies were based in suburbs; many still are.

More recently, a reduction in pollution can explain the return to proximity. Deindustrialization means that the pollution that took over the centres of cities is largely gone. The new urban economic engines—finance, technology and media—do not pollute, so they can take over the attractive loft spaces left behind by industry without creating the same problems, and welcome their workers to live close by in new condominiums built on reclaimed industrial land. With less pollution, people can enjoy living amid the charming, defanged trappings of industry without enduring the reality of its side effects. Strict new emissions controls on cars, meanwhile, mean that street air is no longer foul, and being able to walk and cycle to nearby workplaces and services has become more of a joy and less of an endurance test for the lungs.

Lessening pollution may even help explain another element of the return to urbanity, the reduction in urban crime at about the same time as people started moving back to cities. One of the strongest hypotheses for the rise and fall of crime in the second half of the 20th century is lead. Not only do crime statistics correlate closely with the increase and decrease of childhood exposure to lead gasoline emissions, but the causal process is also well established—we know well what lead exposure does to children’s brains.

If industrial pollution can explain the abandonment of urban proximity and its re-establishment at the turn of the 21st century, another factor has to be addressed to explain the exceptional intensity of this process in the United States, and that is racism. The impacts of racism are of course present in other countries. In Paris and Toronto, for example, racialized inhabitants are pushed to the poorly serviced margins of the cities while a higher-income, largely white population occupies the newly desirable centre. But its impacts on the development of U.S. cities seem particularly intense. It was in the United States that the term “white flight” was coined, and only in the United States that the term “urban” became a code word for black.

Racism in American urbanism is not simply a passive force, denying African Americans opportunities. It is an active, vicious force. For decades, policies at all levels of government, and in the private sector, worked to prevent urban black communities from enjoying the benefits that urban clustering should have brought, by destroying black attempts to build up social and economic capital in American cities. When black neighbourhoods developed, redlining prevented access to private and public capital to purchase houses, or to maintain and improve houses that were owned. Restrictive covenants prevented African Americans from escaping these redlined districts. A recent article by Preston Lauterbach in Places shows how in Memphis, as elsewhere, “slum clearance” and public housing projects were used to destroy functional black communities, disrupting social support networks, eliminating local economic opportunities and locking the population into rental spaces. Federal money was used to drive highways through the heart of black neighbourhoods, breaking up their connective street network and destroying buildings that could have been used to build capital. The poverty of inner-city black neighbourhoods in American cities was the result of specific policies that left African Americans stuck in cities but denied them the benefits of urbanism.

Racism also accelerated the flight of white residents from central cities. Although pollution may have resulted in flight toward the suburbs in cities across the western world, rarely was that flight as extreme as in the United States. There, white people fled not only proximity to pollution, but also proximity to African-American neighbours. The result was what Florida describes as the original urban crisis. But it is also a key factor in the new crisis of urban inequality. Although a greater tolerance in younger generations for living near different kinds of people might be contributing to the return to the city, Florida documents how, in U.S. cities, neighbourhoods with an overwhelmingly black population, even in seemingly attractive locations, are for better or for worse not experiencing the inflow of investment and wealthier new inhabitants experienced by other central locations. The result is an intense “patchwork” inequality in many U.S. cities.

Florida does spend several pages looking at the situation of black urban dwellers in the United States, but, given its fundamental significance in the history of U.S. urbanism and the current urban inequality, it should surely deserve a chapter of its own. It would have fit awkwardly into his narrative, however, because the impact of racism on urban inequality is at heart a continuance of the original urban crisis, rather than a new one.

Placing the return to proximity in historical perspective does not mean we are simply returning to the past. There are certainly differences between past periods and our current situation. For example, Currid-Halkett opens her book by quoting Veblen’s example of the handcrafted silver spoon, prized by the wealthy over its cheaper, mass-produced kin. After the relatively equal post-war period when mass production was culturally as well as economically dominant, the artisanal is back, along with the inequality that supports it. But the desire for a feeling of direct connection with the producer that Currid-Halkett documents is a modern addition. The wealthy now need to distinguish their consumption by shying away not only from the mass produced, but also from the easily accessible conveniences of the digital world and globalization.

Even if the return to proximity echoes the past, in the period within living memory it is a new phenomenon that is important to identify and address. As both the authors demonstrate, it triggers critical issues of inequality that have already created new divisions and could change our society for the worse. Both physically and virtually, on social media and the web, the new proximity focuses on being close to those who are like us, and ever more easily separated from those who are not.

Currid-Halkett does not offer solutions but, for the non-American reader, several jump out. If the costs of child care, tuition and health care are critical in perpetuating privilege, then providing those services through the state at low cost, as many European countries do and Canada does to a limited extent, would go a long way toward evening out opportunities. Of course these measures are not enough—European countries also have some of the problems she identifies—but they could certainly improve the situation.

The solutions for geographic exclusion are not so obvious. Florida does offer various solutions, not all of them convincing. He has a tilt at the NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) bogeyman that is often blamed for inhibiting new development, but he targets cities that are already high density, such as San Francisco, and admits that new private development in such super-charged locations would not be affordable. It would make more sense to target his ire toward low-density suburbs, such as those around the major employment centres in Silicon Valley, where generating an urban lifestyle through higher density (and transit investments, another of the solutions he proposes) could draw demand away from places like San Francisco.

A more convincing solution Florida offers is building more affordable rental housing. But he shies away from calling for direct government investment in building affordable housing, preferring indirect incentives. This shyness is understandable—the perception of the history of public housing, especially in the United States, is not a glorious one. But governments can learn from their past mistakes, and the fact is that the only way to get significant amounts of truly affordable housing in the most in-demand cities is through direct government investment, ideally in partnership with for- and non-profit providers who can help avoid some of the public housing pitfalls of the past.

It is important to rescue the return to proximity from its dark side, because at its heart it is a good development. People living close together not only generate jobs, wealth and creativity; they also develop more tolerance for difference. Moreover, they put fewer demands on transportation and the environment, which is crucial to addressing the crisis of global warming. The new patterns of consumption Currid-Halkett explores encourage social and environmental responsibility, and investment in the well-being of our children. They support interesting, fulfilling forms of work and a sense of grounding and identity for both producers and consumers in the midst of alienating economic, social and technological changes.

The conundrum that the authors leave us with is that, left to play out on its own, the return to proximity also exacerbates inequality. That inequality, in turn, threatens to kill off these very benefits. The goose could get killed by its golden eggs. Florida points out how clustering wealth in city centres could drive out the diversity and creative talent that draw people to live there in the first place, leaving those cities lifeless. Currid-Halkett points out that socially aware consumption can get sucked into the endless cycle of social climbing that leaves us unhappy and dissatisfied, rather than generating the personal and social benefits it is supposed to. Both authors provide a valuable service in cutting through the hype (which they admit they are themselves prone to) and revealing the way these trends can promote inequality. Now it is up to us to figure out how to distribute the benefits more equally across the barriers created by economics and geography, to save the new proximity from itself.