There is a great article in the American Prospect this week on the Richard Florida cult and how he is modifying his views. He has been chargin $35,000 per talk to tell every small and medium sized community across North America they can be successful if they embrace creativity and hang paintings on the wall at City Hall. In February 2008 he told the residents of Sackville, New Brunswick that they were in a “cosmopolitan country town” with obvious advantages over Toronto and in his new book, however; he will argue “it’s time for the country to cut its losses and instead encourage growth in places that are prospering”.
In a warm-up to his next book — The Great Reset, due out in April — Florida has been arguing that the recession has so decimated many cities and regions that it’s time for the country to cut its losses and instead encourage growth in places that are prospering, like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. And the rest? In his much-cited cover story in the March issue of The Atlantic — “How the Crash Will Reshape America” — he delivered the harsh news: “We need to be clear that ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. … Different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. … We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography.”
The article implies that Florida’s new tack is based on the failure of his old creative cities idea. For those of you that follow this blog I have said since his first book that he had a causality problem. He argued that places with high concentrations of creative people generate strong economies. I argued that places with strong economies have suplus disposable income to invest in creative endeavours which in turn increase the creative class which does have an impact on the economy. It’s chicken and egg.
The problem is that communities were literally investing huge money in festivals, cultural events, museums, etc. and expecting that ICT, automotive, aerospace, financial firms would come stampeding to the door. They lowered investment in efforts to directly grow key industries turned that investment into ‘creative’ things and it didn’t work.
I have read numerous articles in recent months about Florida and the growing dissallusionment with his creative ideas. I guess his move to focus on the few regions that are already prosperous is a logical step for him – although it will limit his $35,000 speaking visits to a select few locations.
This article takes a harsh view of Florida’s new position:
Now, by declaring cities or regions to be relics, Florida is denying any agency on the part of local leaders to stem the tide, says Karl Stauber, president of the Danville Regional Foundation in southern Virginia. “It’s very easy for people to adopt the victim position: We’re screwed and we can’t do anything about it,” he says. “My fundamental problem with Florida is that he reinforces the victim mentality.” At the same time, Stauber says, Florida’s regional determinism overlooks the role that specific decisions and investments have played in making some places thrive. It’s no accident, for one thing, that many of his most “creative” cities are home to public universities. Why assume that new investments might not prop up other places as well?
I think that is true. I have studied economic development across North America, parts of Europe and even Latin America over 20 years and there are numerous examples of cities and regions that were on the periphery with declining economies that transformed themselves into newer, stronger economies just by sheer force of will and action.
By moving to a fatalistic position, Florida risks a prolonged and deep economic funk across the U.S. A few years ago I looked at straight population trends by region in the U.S. going back to World War 2. I can’t find that research now but I recall being surprised that every region of the U.S. from the Pacific Northwest, to the mid-Atlantic states has witnessed at least one serious population growth spurt since the war (with growth rates well above the national average growth rate). In Canada, by contrast, Atlantic Canada had never even achieved the average national population growth rate in 140 years since Confederation. I concluded at the time that this ability for all regions to achieve strong growth was part of the reason why the U.S. was so successful during the 20th Century.
When regions started to overheat, capital and investment would move elsewhere. That would, in turn, cause a downturn in the overheated region, force a reset and then back to growth. That free flow of labour and capital around the U.S. was not mirrored in Canada.
My point is that (as pointed out in the article) if we just agree that certain regions are doomed because they were based on an old economy, that will lead to bad outcomes. All regions need to have the potential to be successful – even though we know that many will not.
I look forward to his new book. Maybe now he will get beyond the pulpy sentimental soup that he was feeding willing municipal leaders and start talking hard realities. Or maybe not. Maybe he will just try and shock us with another round of out of context statistics so he can sell books. We’ll see.
Take Northern New Brunswick (and ultimately all of New Brunswick). It will take great effort and courage to make the changes that are needed up there if that economy is to thrive in the future. There are many that have written the region off and want it to reset down to a new equilibrium where the economy is based on what’s left of the natural resources and a small local service economy.
While I agree this is a likely scenario, I don’t agree it is an inevitable one.