Richard Florida: Your City is Hopeless, That will be $35,000

It seems everyone who’s interested in cities has an opinion about Richard Florida.

I’ve always had it in for him, since he wrote, “Who’s Your City?,” a book which instructed readers which city they should live in based on personal characteristics, as if that was a rational way to choose a place to live.

When I was working at a newspaper in Toledo a coworker of mine began researching “Who’s Your City” for an article because Toledo was listed as the 12th (13th, 14th?) best mid-sized city to be a committed gay couple. The story had to be killed midway through, however, because the margin of error on the statistic was approximately 50 percent.

Florida, looking appropriately creative

Florida, looking appropriately creative

Well, Florida is gearing to go to the presses again in April with, “The Great Reset,” in which he argues that the recession has fundamentally reshaped the economic landscape. This tome may be more controversial because of its premise that the new economy will divide the country into geographic winners and losers.

It also happens that many of these “losers” paid Florida a hefty fee to explain how their cities could be made Meccas for the hip, highly-educated population that is so essential to prosperity, according to Florida’s teachings.

In an article in the American Prospect titled “The Ruse of the Creative Class,” Washington Post writer Alec Macgillis takes Florida to task for his assertion that “ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try.”

Florida, who is arguably the country’s best known urban thinker, made a name for himself with his 2004 book “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in which he argued that highly mobile, “creative workers” in growth industries would determine the economic prosperity of cities by congregating and developing knowledge clusters.

The book was so popular, the cities of Cleveland, Toledo, Baltimore, Rochester, Green Bay, Des Moines, Elmira, New York, and others lined up to pay Florida a $35,000 speaking fee to share his insights on how to improve their attractiveness to young professionals.

His ideas inspired Elmira to install “Poetry Posts” around town in hopes of developing retail to serve the creative class. It also inspired the state of Michigan to launch its “Cool Cities” initiative, an ambarrassing failure.

In the AP article, Florida denies any wrongdoing.

“I’ve never tried to sugarcoat the message to any of them,” he says. “I’ve given them the facts … about what they were up against. I never tried to give them false hope. I encouraged them to work on their assets, but I tried to be honest and objective in helping them engage their problems. I hope they don’t feel let down.”

This is directly from the article: In February 2008 he told the residents of Sackville, New Brunswick, population 5,000, that they were in a “cosmopolitan country town” with obvious advantages over Toronto. In Louisville, Florida held up the Louisville Slugger museum as a potential creative-class magnet.

I’m not going to rewrite the article in it’s entirety, you should read it. Here’s the link again.

I just pulled this one little golden nugget out for you to chew on till then. It’s a quote from Eric Cedo, director of Create Detroit.

“I believe Richard has a real strong pulse on a certain segment of the population that can move freely around … but I’m staying. I’m not going. He keeps missing one of the most fundamental points, which is that there is a remnant of people who aren’t going to leave — and it’s because of the struggle that we’re going to stay.”



Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Headline

20 responses to “Richard Florida: Your City is Hopeless, That will be $35,000

  1. Rob

    I think Macgillis’s TAP article has been pretty definitively refuted by Ryan Avent (see:

  2. Special K

    Angie, thanks for posting this link.

    For further reading on Florida, take a look at Chris Potter’s blog. Potter is the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper and has been following Florida’s career and pronouncements since Florida was at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University:

  3. I don’t know. I found Macgillis’ article pretty convincing.

    I think Florida is kind of like a Freud. He has some interesting ideas, that can stimulate discussion and help us understand what is going on. At the same time, they are kind of ridiculous and wrong.

    I think the “talent” he describes is much more diverse than he acknowledges. It’s absurd to think that all software engineers are unmoored hipsters who will flock to whatever place has the most coffee shops per capita. I think they choose where they live for a variety of complicated reasons, like the rest of us, not the least of which is who will pay them the most.

    When I lived in Columbus, the city paid more than $100,000 to some self-described Gen X expert so she could tell them how to retain young people. I don’t know why the city didn’t save its money and just ask young people what they wanted. Or how about adding some young people to local boards of directors? Youngstown has had a lot of success with that.

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  8. Rob

    I found Macgillis’s article weak. The whole charge that it’s unethical for Florida to take money from cities is a distraction from the broader issue. Florida’s statistical techniques are extremely dubious, as I’ve written in the past; but that’s a problem with the social sciences more broadly. There’s a burden that all theories must be backed up with numbers/data else they have no credibility. Florida has to use nonsensical models that count the number of coffee shops per capita because that’s the only way it will be considered “academically rigorous” and marketable. At the heart of his theory, though, lies the idea that people want to be around people similar to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s a variable that’s nearly impossible to measure or include in any statistical model, so it goes omitted, even though it probably matters more than any of the others.

    If cities are so clueless to help themselves that they’re paying $35k to Florida or $100k to someone else, I honestly wonder if they aren’t already hopeless in solving their problem.

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  10. Katy

    Thanks for posting this….I think Florida is FOS and I think it is shameful that cities pay for these kinds of consultants. His rap on “cool cities” is so inherently classist.

  11. MacGillis, more than anyone else, derailed the Cool Cities agenda. But the beat goes on in cities such as Dayton. The problem isn’t Florida himself (who is a first class public intellectual), but his legions of acolytes driving urban policy.
    Sean Safford insisted that Florida must be stopped
    . I read Safford as saying that we need to resist the allure of Florida’s ideas. Even in the wake of MacGillis’ article, that is still an issue.

    Will Florida now fly into Dayton and try to disabuse his followers? Should CEOs for Cities issue a rebuke? How about an apology from Governor Jennifer Granholm? A lot of damage has been done. Like it or not, Florida is responsible for most of it.

  12. jsmithsen

    Florida represents what most people perceive as “liberalism” in the US. In places such as the Cleveland area the split between “west side real people” and “east side liberals” has for many years been largely economic development strategy. Are you for “bringing in large business, especially manufacturing” or are you for “cool neighborhoods”? Regular readers of top (especially younger) liberal bloggers (e.g. Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Atrios) will note that “walkable urbanism” is their “true love”.

    Why not:

    – creative class walkable urbanism, not as an economic development strategy, but simply because most people like nice neighborhoods, and to fight sprawl. And
    – a national economic strategy to revive manufacturing, including restrictions on foreign “hell-hole” goods through labor and environmental regulations.

    Cleveland has naturally nice areas (the Heights, West side lakefront, the flats) and prairie (Strongsville). The former is suited for living. The latter is fully suited for manufacturing plants.

  13. Even better would be walkable urbanism for everyone who wanted it. Florida has done a lot of mostly accidental damage by connecting Jane Jacobs style organic city thinking with an “elite creative class”.

    However, I also think his most basic idea is absolutely true which is that people live in cities because they want to and because they get tangible network benefits from living near other people. This by the way is also a Jane Jacobs view of the world.

    I don’t think at this point these are really issues anymore. It may very well be that large numbers of Americans still want to live in an isolated nuclear pod family with as little social relation to others as possible. The thing is that it’s now self evident that this just doesn’t work on a basic practical level.

  14. “I think Florida is kind of like a Freud. He has some interesting ideas, that can stimulate discussion and help us understand what is going on. At the same time, they are kind of ridiculous and wrong.”

    Maybe not Freud, but his nephew, master PR man, Edward Bernays.

    But that aside, what is unfortunate is how desperate rustbelt cities are for a return to polluting industries rather than sustainable activities such as restoration of the environment and the restoration and preservation of their stories. The arts, environmentalists and tolerance DO exist in rustbelt cities. But are they talking enough? Maybe not.

    We don’t need something that looks like big box auto-driven sprawl in town. Keep those highway interchanges out there in the exurbs where they belong. We’ve got something far more unique. And that uniqueness has rich and fascinating stories.

    Every city has a story and it’s time people who know them start talking. We don’t need to let a snake oil salesman tell our city’s stories – we can tell them better. If we celebrate what is good in addition to bitching about what is bad, there won’t be room for “consultants”. They won’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

    Imagine if Cleveland’s folks were all busy telling their stories – day and night, the good the bad and the ugly. Why would Cleveland need a Richard Florida to come in and tell us what’s lacking or what’s working? It wouldn’t.

    Good to see the conversation here and elsewhere. Mr. Florida – thanks, but no thanks.

  15. As a former city employee from Roanoke, VA we incorporated Florida’s model into our ED strategy and it has paid great dividends. The problem is there are many people not willing to accept these realities and creative strategies cause it is so different than what they are and have been doing. By accepting the Florida model, EDOs would have to admit what they have been doing is not right. Leadership is taking risk and doing something that can put a city on a different path. Unfortunately, people are not willing to take these risks for the cities they have selected to lead.

  16. I’m not a Florida expert, having only read The Rise Of The Creative Class and nothing since but an article or two. Generally, I find a lot of wisdom in his advice.

    By the way, from my memory, he was hardly down on Pittsburgh and like me wondered why a city with so many “creative class” assets wasn’t doing better.

    He was a strong advocate of a lot of reasonable ideas like mass transit, intercity rail lines and Jane Jacobs type mixed use policies or at least that’s what I recall. Also, he was very bullish on a lot of the more grass roots things happening in the city like the Penn Ave Arts Initiative and I think the Sprout Fund. He is also very, very right on immigration policy.

    Mostly, he’s excluded from the conversation for publicly dissing the failed city urban development projects like the stadiums and mega subsidies on a national stage.

    At this point, he feels that if we don’t get it by now, we never will and for a lot of Rust Belt cities that’s probably a spot on call.

    If Post Gazette writers by now can’t see the vast differences between creative, organic urban places like the South Side and the disastrous mess on the North Shore and Lower Hill they never will.

    Was in Manchester today and looking at the sliced scarred North Side. Carnegie’s old railroad works will be torn down along the Ohio River so they can store spools of electric cables and park trucks. The joke of a river walk needs a gate to keep cars off it every few feet. The giant highway called Ohio River Blvd. creates a literal wall from the waterfront where Manchester’s main shopping drag used to be. A giant sign guides cars to Sewickly and Wexford. (Two wealthy northern suburbs)

    Should Richard be bullish on a city that does things like this?

  17. Albertine Flugzeug Brand

    Wow. Really polemic and bitter here.

    The real message of Florida is that a diverse body of knowledge workers today in one community is what self-generates economic activity over time. Rather than depending on some big companies that hire and then fire and close up when the tax breaks go away.

    Even in the rust belt days, there were key knowledge worker players who were engineers or master craftsmen who invented new processes and got those new mills and plants off the ground. And they moved throughout the region and even the other industrial cities of the world. The father of a friend of mine, she just turned 104 yrs, worked in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Berlin, Manchester in the glory years of the Rustbelt in the early 1900s. As an inventor who took ideas for machines and motors and engines with him everywhere he went. He is a perfect example of a “creative class” person from even then.

    These are the people who have to be attracted to live in these towns in order for new businesses to get created to employ people and make spillover effects.

    Arts are an attraction to these people, like Austin TX which was first a student and music town, before it became a High Tech town. The arts neighborhoods attract people, or entice students to stay in town and work in cool new emergent businesses, but there has to be some economic reason in the first place.

    What the rustbelt people don’t want to hear from Florida, is that gay people actually have a role to play in this kind of economic resurgence of their old neighborhoods.

    But, the alchemy requires many things including many skilled people with relationships in other cities, large corporations, and other countries to get new business ideas off the ground.

    The real problem for the Rustbelt is people who made huge fortunes there got the license starting in the Reagan years to move capital all over the world to low-cost, low-tax, no-tax, non-union countries. Those unions in those towns cost those guys a lot of profits and their descendants were taught to resent that for decades. Like the New Deal too! That is the big problem and the fact that generations of families still think a job should come to them in a big company, rather than develop the skills, personality, and relationships to be an entrepreneur.

    RE: taking consulting money, this is a big game played everywhere and McKinsey & Co charge a $250K /month starting fee for a team of new totally inexperienced MBAs graduates to analyse data for a purely theoretical purpose. That is a rip-off to the shareholders, and clearly the corporate sector is performing worse than governments now and taking everybody down. Please do a scathing story about that too!

    City bureaucrats need new ideas too and they need outsiders to bring those, so I don’t see anything wrong with paying for advice and information. Especially in rustbelt, where I was born so I know it well, there is too much insularity now which is really bad in a work where business and customers are global. If they’re mad about having paid for information, the problem is they couldn’t come up with and implement a strategy themselves. That is also a problem for a lot of execs and bureaucrats, but those are different kinds of consultants to help with that.

  18. No time really fully respond to all the points both true and false that you bring up.

    First– yes global trade is a huge factor in the current state of much of the Rust Belt and clearly unfair policies have played a role in that.

    But honestly, one has to see the very, very clear fact that even given those conditions, hardly all manufacturing has left the country. It’s just trended heavily away from the former Rust Belt. Until we are strong enough to ask why this has happened in spite of the huge built up base of plants and superior locational advantages like flat land; a location central to both raw material supplies, coal, iron ore, water (which is huge) and major domestic markets. Large plants are represent vast sunk costs, and people don’t pick up without good reasons.

    Second, we need to wake up to the fact that even if domestic manufacturing production, especially in heavy industry had thrived, it almost certainly would have employed far fewer workers.

    I think the Mon Valley alone once had 70,000 steel workers and a major works like Homestead could need 30,000 workers. Today a big plant like the ET works needs 900 people.

    “Today, two blast furnaces (Furnaces No.1 and No. 3) continue in operation at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, which remains part of U.S. Steel. In 2005, the mill produced 2.8 million tons of steel, equal to 28% of U.S. Steel’s domestic production. The mill employs about 900 persons, some of whom belong to the second or third generations of their families to work in the mill.”

    Yes, I suppose we could have yelled stop the world and kept the plants running exactly as before with tens of thousands of employees doing insanely hard and dangerous jobs. And yes, that’s what still goes on in many countries.

    “Families still think a job should come to them in a big company, rather than develop the skills, personality, and relationships to be an entrepreneur.”

    Here we get to the real meat of the issue. Most people with any knowledge of economics know that jobs come and go; technologies change, markets change and companies die. The real story of the former Rust belt is one of incredibly low new company and new industry formation.

    Getting to Pittsburgh specifically, we have a city with tremendous assets on which to build a creative economy. (Yes, these assets like colleges, libraries, museums, concert halls and parks were left here by the so called robber barons) The question is what went wrong along the way, in the transition between Pittsburgh’s old and new economies. Why hasn’t the city done better at retaining more residents and a larger for profit job base built around it’s strong old economy industries and new ideas coming from it’s elite universities.

    I think the big missing link in Pittsburgh’s story has a lot to do with the national highway system and the aggressively anti urban, anti neighborhood policies Pittsburgh has followed until recently.

    The free form organic neighborhoods where students would mix with researchers and small firms and venture capital were blown away to make way for highways and parking lots.

  19. Tristan

    Just got a quote from RF for an opening speech … 85 000 USD + first class travel expenses … nothing less

  20. Keith

    Ahh, yes, the Kevin Trudeau of urbanism who helped spawn a bunch of overpriced consultants to tell clueless city leaders (who probably live in the burbs) on how to attract yuppies with deep wallets and “hip”, “cool” creative types. And fail.

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