Richard Florida – The organic city

Richard Florida has earned an international reputation as a world-class thinker on everything from human creativity and the importance of place to regional development and economic competitiveness.

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Richard Florida has earned an international reputation as a world-class thinker on everything from human creativity and the importance of place to regional development and economic competitiveness.


Urban scientist Richard Florida says Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the perfect place to live and work when he moved there as a young, fun-loving academic in 1987. Although it had suffered huge job losses following the collapse of its world-renowned steel industry, Pittsburgh was in the midst of an economic renaissance that transformed it into both a health-care and high-tech hub and a model of urban renewal in the United States.

“The city’s leaders did everything right,” recalls Florida, who spent 18 years there teaching public policy and regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University. “They gave tax breaks to attract businesses that created a lot of good paying jobs, and they built modern infrastructures. The city really had a lot to offer.”

Despite that success, Florida noted that over time many otherwise happy and talented individuals – the very kind of people the city had worked so hard to attract and on whom it was relying to build its economic future – were moving away from Pittsburgh to live and work elsewhere. Eschewing conventional wisdom that brighter lights and better pay were the likely reasons, Florida began a scientific search to find out, or at least theorize on, why. In particular, he was looking for the soul of the modern city.

His research and writings, which have been published in half a dozen books over the past decade, have set the global science of city planning on its ear and earned Florida an international reputation as a world-class thinker on everything from human creativity and the importance of place to regional development and economic competitiveness.

By all accounts, Florida is best known for his invention of the concept of the “creative class,” a notion that lies at the heart of his third book and breakout bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. Tracing what he calls “the fundamental theme” that has long driven and dictated change in American society, Florida argues that creativity is now, more than ever, the primary driver for urban economic growth, transformation and renewal.

He also identifies and defines a group of people who he claims are the instruments or catalysts of that change and whose presence in large numbers in modern metropolitan areas is essential if the areas are to reach the highest levels of economic development. These essential people he calls the “creative class,” and they include high-tech workers and engineers of all stripes, as well as artists, musicians, lesbians and gays and “high bohemians” – people who have been marginalized, are often impoverished and who lead untraditional lifestyles. In total, Florida contends, these various groups comprise some 40 million people, or a third of the US workforce.

In addition to adding a certain flair to city life, Florida believes that the choices these creative people make on where and how they work, live and play are crucial. Their choices affect everything from the organization of workplaces to the development of urban areas to which businesses – and even cities – will continue to grow and prosper. And which businesses and cities will fail. “The creative class fosters an open and dynamic environment,” Florida says. “This environment, in turn, attracts more creative people and more business and capital.”

The big challenge for urban planners and developers, he adds, is to create and sustain what he calls the “3 Ts” of the economic growth of cities: technology, talent and tolerance. In addition to providing tax breaks and other economic incentives that attract businesses and creative individuals, he argues, municipal leaders and officials must work to build a “people climate” that provides a sense of well-being and belonging for citizens of all ages and walks of life. “Of course people need to feel physically safe,” he says. “But they also need to feel welcome, to be part of the community they live in.”

One way to achieve that, says Florida, is through enlightened urban planning. For example, instead of costly traditional designs and infrastructures such as motorways, high-rise office towers, sports facilities and shopping centres, he thinks cities and regions should spend more on their “regenerative resources,” creating “green-heavy” commercial and residential neighbourhoods that are integrated and user-friendly. Similarly, he suggests, municipal laws and civic activities – everything from store hours and ethnic celebrations – should embrace and reflect street-level culture and demographics.

To help plan and implement those efforts, Florida also recommends the use of novel methods and tools to help qualify and quantify urban populations, such as the ranking system he devised that rates cities according to such things as a “bohemian index,” a “gay index” and a “diversity index.” “It’s very hard to create these talent pools for the creative class and to tap and harness that energy,” he says. “It’s an organic process.” Notably, Florida mentions San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where as many as half of the entrepreneurs are foreign-born, as “shining examples of places that are able to attract and generate top talent from around the world.”

Though praised in many circles across the US and elsewhere (The Rise of the Creative Class, for example, was deemed a leading breakthrough idea by the Harvard Business Review, while Toronto’s Globe & Mail called it “an intellectual tour de force”) Florida’s thoughts and theories on the subject of cities have also rankled many academics and journalists. “Florida has come along to codify and capture a movement already in progress,” notes one. “He seized on a process that’s been playing out in American cities since they hit bottom in the 1970s: the Soho phenomenon, where artists reclaim undervalued real estate, give it a new purpose and value and make it appealing to the real estate industry again.” “When you read how Florida defines his creative class,” says another, “it’s hard to distinguish them from our old friends from the 1980s, the yuppies.”

Florida, for his part, is unfazed by such criticism. Now living in Canada, where he is the academic director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and founder of a global advisory services firm called Creative Class Group, he is a highly prized speaker and strong public advocate for tolerance, openness and diversity for gays, lesbians, artists and creative people of all kinds – for all the right reasons. “The simple fact is that business thrives in communities where there is a large talent pool,” says Florida, whose latest book, Who’s Your City?, explores how the creative economy is making place for the most important decisions of our lives. “The future belongs to such places,” he says.

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