Richard Florida and the future of America in the economic downturn

I love Richard Florida, and I don’t mean that in a physical or romantic sense.  I love his surname “Florida” (although he was born in Newark, New Jersey) – so very American (“Florida”, almost as good as Colorado, Arizona, Nevada or Montana), so reminiscent of an America full of romance, promise and mystery.  I also love his work, filled with those easily understood insights into America’s economic geography. A lmost without peer, Florida has been instrumental in charting the recent economic, professional and workforce trends in American cities.  His 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life  turned around much thinking about American cities, and helped to crystalise thinking about the importance of creative and knowledge workers.  While Florida was by no means the first to introduce these ideas, his concepts of the creative, high-tech and “gay” indexes certainly have grabbed the public imagination in a way that Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities did more than a generation ago.  His 2006 follow-up book The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent put the ideas into an international perspective.  People have argued – strenuously at times – with Florida’s data and conclusions, but no doubt he has laid the groundwork for a new way of thinking about American economic geography.

In Florida’s March 2009 Atlantic article entitled “How the Crash Will Reshape America“, he analyses the implications of the current global economic crisis for the economic and social geography of the USA – following up his own work and putting an overlay of the economic hard times.  Which American cities will be the greatest losers?  (And who within them?)  And who, indeed, will be the winners, if you can call them that?

Here is a summary list of Florida’s conclusions:

– “The current economic crisis is unlikely to result in the same kind of shared economic experience” like the Great Depression of the 1930s. – While no place in America is likely to avoid a long and deep recession, some places will do much better than others, some places “may never come back at all” and the recession will “permanently and profoundly alter the country’s economic landscape”.

– While New York City was in some ways the epicentre (my word, not Florida’s) of the current crash, it is likely to survive handily because (a) world economic centres don’t change very quickly (witness Amsterdam in 17th century to London in 19th century to New York); (b) New York remains a very open and accessible place to live and work by comparison with most alternatives; (c) “Financial positions account for only about 8 percent of the New York area’s jobs, not too far off the national average of 5.5 percent (and 28 percent in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, 18 percent in Des Moines, 13 percent in Hartford, etc.); and (d) “New York is much, much more than a financial center”, in an enormous mega-metro area with a “broad range of creative industries” (sound familiar?);

– Mega-regions and hubs in them (Chicago, Los Angeles) will be better buffered than most places, and even Miami – hit hard by the real estate collapse – will remain an important financial centre for south Florida and Latin America.

– The attractiveness of cities has changed – “Thirty years ago, educational attainment was spread relatively uniformly throughout the country (is this true? DP), but that’s no longer the case. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh and Boston now have two to three times the concentration of college graduates of Akron or Buffalo”, with wider disparities for postgraduate degrees.

– The places most likely to suffer (“sadly and unjustly”) “are the ones least associated with high finance – “older manufacturing regions … shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities … (and) “the Rust Belt in particular”.

– The worst outlook? Detroit, “where the average home price (in October 2008) was $18,513”.

– “When work disappears, city populations don’t always decline as fast as you expect”, due to family ties and few prospects elsewhere.

– Small southern cities (with Asian car manufacturing plants) will benefit as American auto makers decline.

– The increase in home ownership has not necessarily been a good thing, and a decrease may not necessarily be a bad thing (DP: This is likely to be controversial, or at least seen as insensitive.)  As a result, the suburbs are likely to thin

– There will be a clustering of output, jobs and innovation in a small number of elite locations.

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