Richard Florida is about as close as you get to a rock star in urban policy circles. He parlayed books on cities into best sellers, created a lucrative cosulting business, and recently was lured to Toronto to head a think tank created just for him (with a salary exceeding $350k in Canadian dollars).
Florida’s rise to rock star status rests on his argument that a city’s future depends on its ability to attract, retain, and grow a “creative class” of professionals, artists, hip software engineers, technology experts, and others. His consulting firm has been retained by dozens of cities to craft plans for attracting and nurturing the so-called creative class.
If all this sounds a bit elitist, it is, and Florida doesn’t hide it. Affable and open in person (I’ve debaetd him before), Florida says he is simply pointing out what he thinks are observations about the way cities actually function and grow. The ideas seem a little too simplistic (and they are), so the real question may be how long they last in the policy debate.
Now, as the Toronto Star reports, the party may be over. A legion of critics is arguing that his work is little more than salemanship. What makes this report particularly interesting is the explicitly Marxist orientation of most of the critiques.
According to one neighborhood activist leading the charge against Florida,
“Richard Florida’s exotic city, his creative city, depends on ghost people, working behind the scenes. Immigrants, people of colour. You want to know what his version of creative is? He’s the relocation agent for the global bourgeoisie. And the rest of us don’t matter.”
Honeymoons, typically, are short. For Florida, who arrived in Toronto just over two years ago to head the Martin Prosperity Institute, a University of Toronto think-tank created just for him, it’s officially over.
Shakir, a community advocate, was speaking at a public forum organized recently by the art magazine Fuse, and the group, Creative Class Struggle. Its website leaves little to the imagination: “We are a Toronto-based collective who are organizing a campaign challenging the presence of Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, as well as the wider policies and practices they represent.”
The forum was its coming-out party — the beginning, they say, of a wider campaign, as the site explains, “to reclaim our institutions, our city, and our elected governments” from Florida’s best-known pitch: That future economic health for cities relies on broad-brushstroke boosterism of creative professionals, bohemianism, cosmopolitanism and diversity, and the warning that cities that don’t embrace it will be left in a death-spiral of post-industrial decay.
I’ve generally felt that Florida’s insights were useful, but oversold on their merits. You can’t build a city only on professionals, artists, and other elites. Too many people were looking for the next silver bullet to revitalize their city, and Florida’s ideas seemed to provide it. The problem is that Florida’s ideas apply most directly to downtowns, and downtowns simply aren’t that important (economically and culturally) anymore. So, an urban development strategy based on downtown development will do little to keep an urban economy growing.
The backlash in Toronto is probably inevitable as the practical weaknesses of the new sliver bullet become evident.
One of the most substantive critics of Florida is Joel Kotkin and a popular early critique of Florida’s work can be found here. Several articles critical of Florida’s ideas can be found at newgeography.com as well.