Theory: The Creative Class controversy

Professor Richard Florida's book.

Professor Richard Florida’s book.

In the last few months, Professor Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory, which has been widely discussed  in urban planning and economics in the last decade, has taken some punches.

The Creative Class theory, in a nutshell, suggested that when a city or neighborhood had a highly creative and diverse population – artists and members of the LGBT community, for example – that those residents were a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and an indicator of economic renewal and revitalization.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay for The Daily Beast in March, tore into many of the assumptions of Florida’s initial theory, as well as the way it’s been implemented in various cities across the country.

Last year, in another blog, I discussed my own experience in one of the Creative Class cities (Madison, Wisconsin) and an article by writer Frank Bures that appeared in Twin Cities magazine Thirty Two, which also debated many of the Creative Class talking points.

It’s clear that the economic benefits are not as robustly realized as Florida had theorized. I agree that there are several key parts of his theory that have splintered under intense inspection. (Florida’s response to the Kotkin essay can be found here.)

But I’m not sure I’m completely ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

The main thing that always rang true for me in Florida’s theory is the idea of flexibility.

I’ve written a great deal about Pittsburgh in this blog, and I have a great love for the city. But at different times when I’ve lived there, I felt that it was very inflexible. It was a town that didn’t embrace diversity, or differences. It didn’t understand different approaches, or different ideas.

If we fast forward to 2013, Pittsburgh is a different place.

I don’t know that all artists, or LGBT people, are magic indicators. But it’s been primarily those residents who have made astonishing changes in Lawrenceville.

Of course, what few theories really delve into is the fact that in so many Rust Belt cities – and even here in Chicago – there are deeply ingrained institutionalized class and race barriers that bar many of our citizens from participating in that economic process.

To truly be diverse – and flexible – we need planning and programs that are truly flexible and inclusive. And while planning theory is helpful in that regard, reform and government involvement is what’s really needed to make that a reality.

 

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