In the first of two perspectives on Richard Florida’s most recent book, The New Urban Crisis (Oneworld Press, 2017), which looks at the causes and effects of inequality and high house prices in cities, Samir Jeraj gives a critical assessment.
The New Urban Crisis follows on from Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class fifteen years earlier, in which he championed gentrification in cities. Governments and planners were to get young creatives together with tech in neighbourhoods and places they would like to be – cue flat whites, avocado on toast, and vintage shops. This, he argued, would bring about a more “inclusive urbanism” through the clustering of innovative economic activity. In turn, this growth would raise up the conditions of everyone – vintage trickle-down economics on a local level.
Florida argues that the urban policy he once advocated is failing. While the creative class earned better wages in large, knowledge-based cities, these benefits did not find their way to working-class and service-class people and communities. In fact, the gap between rich and poor, black and white, grew under policies that sought to concentrate the new “knowledge-based” economic power in large cities. As a result, previously prosperous suburbs and smaller cities have declined and are now experiencing rising crime, addiction, and racial unrest. These places have found themselves unable to compete and adapt with the “Superstar” Cities, such as New York, London, Paris, Singapore, and LA, as their former residents “return” to live in the city.
The challenge for Florida is that the same processes that produce economic growth in these cities also fuel inequality, and economic and racial segregation. Where his argument departs from other left-leaning critics is that he argues processes of gentrification, while a significant issue in large cities, are dwarfed by the more general impact of wealthy people “returning to the city” and raising housing costs.
The challenge for Richard Florida is that the same processes that produce economic growth in these cities also fuel inequality
What has happened since, Florida argues, is that “left behind” communities voted against this type of urban liberal progressivism and for populist politicians such as Rob Ford in Toronto and Donald Trump, and took the UK out of Europe. Some have argued that The New Urban Crisis is a non-apology apology for The Creative Class and its role in electing Rob Ford, Donald Trump, and bringing about Brexit.
The answer, according to The New Urban Crisis, is a series of progressive policies that would be at home in a Green Party manifesto: a land value tax, public transport, affordable housing, a living wage, anti-poverty programmes (including a universal basic income through a “negative income tax”), international cooperation to address challenges facing rapidly urbanising cities in the Global South, and devolution of power. However, the impending challenges of climate change, biodiversity, and even air quality (something cities are battling at the moment) get a rare mention, if at all.
A weak prescription for change
The problems Florida describes are all familiar, but both his analysis of the causes and his ideas for addressing them are weak and without a strong sense of how they will happen. He argues that devolution of power is a key means of change but in The New Urban Crisis it is limited to creating powerful, and seemingly apolitical, directly-elected Mayors. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is described as a “competent and consequential” manager of the city, rather than someone with a clear centre-right political agenda and ideology challenged by left-leaning Democrat Bill de Blasio. Neither Bloomberg’s support for deeply racialised ‘stop and frisk’ policies, a key part of de Blasio’s election campaign, nor his commitment to tackling climate change is mentioned. The implication from The New Urban Crisis is that benevolent technocratic government can create the change sketched out by Florida, but there is no political analysis to show how such a government could come about – particularly as it would seem in opposition to the prevailing political winds.
The New Urban Crisis is largely a manifesto for those already endowed with power, with no serious prescription for challenging or reshaping it.
By contrast, radicals such as David Harvey have argued for the development of social movements to resist and reverse the privatisation of the city by rich and powerful elites. But with The New Urban Crisis there is a lack of any real construction of how civil society could, or is, coming together to bring about the policies he is talking about. In Seattle, the fight for the 15-dollar-an-hour wage brought together trade unions, faith groups, radicals, and anti-poverty campaigners in a campaign that won a significant progressive victory through a referendum. Nor does Florida seem to have any appreciation that the rich will fight back – as arguably they have done in how they overwhelmingly voted for Ford, Trump, and Brexit. Land value taxes will have a dramatic impact on landed wealth, threatening the fortunes accrued to the rich through neoliberal policies. Attempts to challenge the power of property in the US through city government have, unsurprisingly, met with resistance. The worrying conclusion is that The New Urban Crisis is largely a manifesto for those already endowed with power, with no serious prescription for challenging or reshaping it.
If you want to understand the liberal narrative and response to the crisis, this is a readable and clear start. The limitation is that inequality, exclusion, and poverty are seen as growing problems to be solved through reform, rather than leading to the rejection of the economic model.