Richard Florida’s 2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class” was one of the most important heralds of life in this century. In it, Florida argued that those cities that were most successful in luring “creative workers” who “engage in creative problem-solving, drawing on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems” would be the places that thrived economically. From passage of expansive antidiscrimination laws and omnipresent WiFi to a bevy of restaurants with locally sourced food, the strategies that cities could implement to enhance the real and perceived quality of life for such workers would push those cities to the front of the line. In contrast, those communities that resisted social change and held on to traditional economic development practices such as stadium projects and corporate welfare would atrophy.
From Austin to San Diego, an array of cities embraced Florida’s perspective and produced a great renaissance of the American city in the Bush and Obama eras. High-tech workers moved back into the urban cores, keeping downtown areas lively after work hours and ushering in approaches such as multi-modal transportation. However, despite the energy and wealth that are now fundamental attributes of many cities across the United States (and in other first-world countries), a darker side to urban regeneration has emerged.
In “The New Urban Crisis” published earlier this year, Florida returns with a decidedly different take on the state of the city. Now, Florida contends that the most successful cities have become the victims of their own success during this era of urban rebirth. Cities like San Francisco have become so expensive that a combination of three things has occurred: increased and deep inequality between a new urban bourgeoisie and the urban poor; many working class and poor families pushed out to suburbs typically ill-prepared to deal with an economically disadvantaged citizenry; and the middle-class and the younger creative types who fuel the city’s energy no longer able to afford life in the city. Additionally, because of the fact that the creative class tends to congregate in certain areas of the city, segregation has become even more deeply entrenched in all but a handful of these cities. In numerous cities — with Austin as perhaps the best example — transportation issues have made daily life increasingly arduous. Finally, the “success” of cities has created a sharp contrast with a less hopeful rural life that set the stage for the rise of Trumpist nationalism.
To his credit, Florida does not simply throw up his hands about the problems that his original vision helped perpetuate. Instead, in “The New Urban Crisis,” he presents an array of proposals to guide cities in maximizing the benefits of the creative class while showing awareness of their risks:
• Ensuring affordable rental options remain available across the city;
• Paying as much attention to turning service jobs into middle-class careers as to continuing to recruit creative-class opportunities;
• Investing in infrastructure that creates quality of life along with other projects that benefit lower-income families;
• Preventing segregation by discouraging the creation of creative enclaves;
• Creating structure so that all neighborhoods maintain a political voice.
Where does that leave a city like Little Rock as it prepares for a 2018 election that promises to focus on what kind of future it will have? First, it does seem that many of the initial promises of a creative-class focused economy remain very much alive in a place that remains affordable. Many who have been priced out of places like Austin could be attracted to a place like Little Rock. While Little Rock was slow to center its energy on a creative class-oriented economic development (and still chases 300 job outlets with the exuberance of 1950s boosters), most now recognize that an economically vibrant Greater Little Rock will be brought about through high-tech entrepreneurialism. That worldview should continue to be embraced.
Just as important, however, is the set of lessons from Florida’s latest analysis. Any such success in developing a booming creative economy will be undermined if the city’s historic segregation is only enhanced by it, if no hope for a middle-class future can be seen in the neighborhoods to the east of Interstate 30 and the south of I-630, if investments are not made in a smart public transportation system and in truly affordable housing, and if fundamental governmental reform that makes all neighborhoods feel as though they have a voice in the city’s future is not adopted. Along with a debate over the economic direction Little Rock should take, Florida is convincing that these other questions are just as important as we move towards a consequential 2018 election year.