Cities should ignore the creative class if they don't care about development
Joel Kotkin launched a full-on assault on Richard Florida's "creative class" concept yesterday.
Let's concede the straw-man point: The "creative class" is not the end-all and be-all of civilization. The creative class consists mostly of well-educated professionals. Everybody can't be in the professional class, and we need cities and towns that serve the needs of the entire population including those in the manufacturing, construction, and the service areas, plus people who don't work like retirees and children. Communities are for everybody.
The main point that Kotkin makes is that the creative class or catering to them doesn't benefit cities very much and doesn't help a broad swath of the population. "Among the most pervasive, and arguably pernicious, notions of the past decade has been that the 'creative class' of the skilled, educated and hip would remake and revive American cities," he writes.
To which I respond: Do educated professionals contribute to the economy, to the tax base, to jobs, to the educational system? If the answer is yes, then an influx of the "creative class" does indeed help the entire city and offer some benefit, directly or indirectly, to most of the citizens.
How about the amenities that attract the creative class? Are they worth investing in and do they benefit a broad swath of the public? These amenities include: Walkability, transit, culture, quality public spaces, historical architecture, high-end jobs, education, connection to nature, and housing in walkable neighborhoods. The answer, again, is yes, yes, yes.
It never seems to occur to Kotkin that household income minus housing costs is not the only way to measure quality of life, and that other benefits might flow from urban revival. Nor does he understand that compact, mixed-use development can be compatible and symbiotic with single-family living.
Kotkin concedes that the "creative class" has helped to revitalize downtowns, but argues that this trend has been way overblown. He uses broad-brush statistics from the master of demographically diminishing all things urban, Wendell Cox, who drew a two-mile radius around the 51 major US metropolitan downtowns. In the decade 2000-2010, these areas gained only 206,000 people, Kotkin notes, by way of arguing that the creative class trend is insignificant. Here is why this fact means little:
• All large metro areas are included in the figure, including those that are strong in attracting the creative class and those who are weak.
• That two-mile radius amounts to 12 square miles in each city. Most US downtowns are a square mile or two at the most. The analysis includes mostly neighborhoods outside of downtown. These may or may not be creative class enclaves and they are often still losing population.
• It misses a lot of "creative class" related development, much of which is occurring in centers throughout metropolitan areas. Close to 50 percent of all commercial development since 2009 in the Washington DC metro region has occurred in "walkable urban centers" all over that region, according to Christopher Leinberger. These urban centers, often in suburban or transit-oriented locations miles from downtown, are a major trend from coast to coast.
• The 2000-2010 years began with the greatest suburban housing boom in US history, and ended with the greatest financial crisis to hit America since the Great Depression. That time frame obscures what is happening now.
Current market trends bring us to another one of Kotkin's points: That the creative class is not significant because it consists of mostly childless households. Maybe so, but 87 percent of the change in US population from 2010-2030 — the two-decade period we entered three years ago — is projected to be households without children. Here's the math, according to Arthur C. Nelson, author of Reshaping Metropolitan America:
As a result of that and other factors, we are seeing a significant impact of the creative class on development. Better! Cities & Towns analyzed the top 10 cities of the creative class in the March 2013 issue and found that a building boom is now taking place in these cities, relative to the rest of the US. And it is a building boom directed toward urbanism.
The primary point about the "creative class" is not that this group should be put on a pedestal, but that they are a key factor driving real estate and development trends now and in coming decades. Cities should indeed ignore the creative class completely — if they don't care about development and revitalization. In that case, please pay close attention to Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox, they'll be among the few people peddling this advice in the coming years.
UPDATE: Richard Florida responded to Joel Kotkin here. "Cities are back, as much as Joel Kotkin wants to deny it. They have turned the corner and are growing and flourishing again. People with skill, knowledge, and creativity, entrepreneurial businesses, and small shops are returning to places that were once given up for lost. Our suburbs are being transformed bit by bit into more walkable, denser mixed-use places. A new urban revolution is upon us, driven in large part by the returns to density, skills, and creativity."
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