The Creative Class Meets New Urbanism

by James A. Bacon

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA–Richard Florida, the author of the “Rise of the Creative Class,” has long remarked upon the creative class’ penchant for living in certain cities rather than others. He has devoted much of his energy over the past 10 years to illuminating the importance of a community’s tolerance for cultural diversity and its openness to newcomers as a trait valued by the creative class. But there has always been as sub-theme in his writing. Creatives also are drawn to cities with a vibrant urban fabric.

In my own Virginia-centric writing about economic development in knowledge economy, I have drawn upon Florida’s insights about the creative class to argue that one of the  challenges facing Virginia’s metro regions is creating an environment where creatives want to live. And I have turned to the work of the New Urbanists for insight into how to create more livable and sustainable communities.

Thus, it was a source of great delight to hear Florida address the 2012 Congress for New Urbanism this afternoon here in West Palm Beach. Florida and various New Urbanism luminaries had crossed paths before, but this was the first time he ever participated in a CNU event. Most  of his remarks were vintage Florida, familiar to anyone who has read his books. But he threw out fresh meat to creative class junkies like myself by sharing the results from some of his recent research.

Florida’s original insight was that corporations are not the key drivers of economic growth and development. Members of what he calls the “creative class” — those artists, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, professionals and solvers of complex problems who comprise roughly 30% of the workforce and account for the vast majority of innovation in our society and economy — drive economic development. Corporations follow the talent. They do business where they can gain access to people with the skills they are seeking. Additionally, when creative people  mix, mingle and combine ideas, they ferment entrepreneurial opportunities, generating new enterprises from the ground up.

The moral of the story: Rather than recruit corporations and corporate investment directly, regions should focus on creating an ambiance that attracts and retains the creative class. For the most part, creatives aren’t looking for the traditional cultural status symbols like stadiums, convention centers, symphonies and ballets. They are looking for cool neighborhoods with vibrant street culture and “authenticity,” an urban fabric rooted in the city’s unique history and culture, as opposed to the sterile mall culture of chain stores and restaurants.

Florida identifies three primary things that give people purpose, meaning and happiness in life. First is family, friends and social relationships. Second is the ability to perform creative work. And third is the place where they live. Sure, everyone wants low crime, good schools, a clean environment and the presence of arts and culture. But two traits drive strong emotional attachment to a region. According to Florida’s recent research, the second most important factor is tolerance — openness to diversity regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and sexual preference. The most important is the community’s aesthetics, beauty — what he calls the “quality of place.”

The quality of place is something that the New Urbanists think about day and night, and their influence upon Florida’s thinking is clear. In Florida’s mind, quality of place is influenced by a number of factors: (1) the degree to which a city (or region) has valued and preserved its history and heritage; (2) the extent to which neighborhoods are walkable, have mixed uses and offer transportation alternatives, (3) the depth of community investment in arts and culture, including popular art and music, not just the high-brow stuff, and (4) the integration of the natural and built environment in a way that’s accessible to the population. Thus, things like parks, rivers and tree canopy assume far more importance than traditional economic developers would ever imagine.

As I consider my home town of Richmond, these things all ring true to me. That’s why I’ve been blogging recently about building murals, indie bands and art districts as a sign of Richmond’s cultural renaissance and eventual entrepreneurial rebound. There will always be a role for recruiting corporate headquarters, back offices and manufacturing facilities. But, as Richmond has discovered the hard way, corporations come and go. Traditional economic development must be accompanied by community development — creating the “great places” that attract and retain society’s wealth creators. Richmonders are making that transition in thinking, but they are not fully there yet. I’ll do what I can to nudge them in the right direction.

18 Responses to The Creative Class Meets New Urbanism

  1. In our summer travels out to the north-west… there are places where young people flock: Portland and Seattle for sure but then places like Bend, Ore, Boise Id, Spokane, Wash, Grants Pass, Or, Hood, Or, Butte, Billings, Mont, etc.

    Each of these places had tech companies in evidence.

    The great outdoors is a magnet for the young and active but the thing that also struck me was each place did have a vibrant (but older) downtown area and a wide variety of affordable housing stock but not much in the way of true modern “mixed-use” or multi-story buildings of the kind we see in the east

    DJ has made several comments of where to put a business and the things that attract a business as well as the things that discourage a business.

    If he is around..I’d like to hear his perspective again on this.

    I’m a big of a skeptic on the arts/culture issue myself. I think of it mostly as an add-on that a key attraction but then Mr. Florida is surely a smarter person on such issues.

  2. Missing from the equation is what changes when people have children.

  3. re: children. Indeed. I was reading ” Why So Few Walk or Bike to School”
    http://transportationnation.org/2012/05/11/why-so-few-walk-or-bike-to-school/

    and it clearly shows how having children dramatically changes how people feel about settlement patterns and how – people with kids – actually gravitate towards more auto-centric, single-family-detached, cul-de-saced development patterns.

    I think this is a largely unrecognized dynamic.

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  5. Auto-centric. Because it’s a two income world based on working in cubes. Family time management is critical.

    Single family detached. Because apartment living is dangerous for kids.

    Cul de sac. A natural barrier to kids ending up in the wrong neighborhood.

    And which came first in the great Northwest? The young people or the tech jobs?

  6. auto-centric in that when in a cul-de-saced development… kids still ride to school even if it is within easy walking distance and people drive to the 7-11 even if it is at the entrance to their subdivision….

    but the point is (and you apparently agree) that it’s the presence of kids that changes the way that people want their living conditions and walking is no longer valued.

    in terms of what came first – many of the places like Butte, Boise, Bend, etc are out of the way places and I surmise that young people moved there in search of the lifestyle and the corporates followed.

    Corporates don’t usually move to out of the way places that do not have a well-educated workforce of young. And I think it takes more than a “artsy” flavor to a city to attract young professionals, myself.

  7. An educational system focused on producing members of the creative class is a big deal. Functioning airports are another.

    San Francisco has Stanford, Berkeley, even the under-recognized program at San Jose State. Austin has the University of Texas. Denver has the University of Colorado at Boulder, Seattle has the University of Washington. All have good airports. Austin was a little shy on the air transport so they build a brand new airport.

    Virginia, as usual, is a mis-managed disaster. The three best universities are not really up to par on science and technology (with the exception of some programs at VT). They are in the wrong places. They are not located near competent air transportation.

    Of Virginia’s three urban locales only Northern Virginia has a sufficient university (the University of Maryland at College Park) and effective air transportation. The biggest challenge in NoVa is overcoming the simple mindedness of the state’s political elite and building an area that capitalizes on the assets already in place. Given the absurd blather over Rail to Dulles I have limited hope.

    Richmond is a disaster. The sheer absurdity of its political elite is something I’d expect to find in Mississippi or Alabama. The civic leadership sits around and waits for progress to “bubble up” while admiring street murals and idie bands. Funny how these pseudo – conservatives can declare that private investment will never happen without a huge tax incentive called the capital gains tax but then expect public investment to just “bubble up”. Meanwhile, massive aluminum factories built in the 1970s sit rusting away along Richmond’s rivers while that city’s political elite wanders by waiting for something to “bubble up”. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Richmond’s leadership is incapable of the kind of progressive thinking required to build a place where the Creative Class would want to live. None is so blind as those who will not see. Would it really be so hard to offer tax incentives to tear down the abandoned aluminum factories and build parks by the river? Oh never mind, the friendly, hard working people have been so mis-led by that city’s moribund political elite that I doubt they can even think like that anymore. Never have so many suffered so much at the hands of so few.

    Tidewater has the most raw potential in the state. However, the good people of Tidewater need to defeat the state’s politicos in Richmond in order to capitalize on this potential.

    My plan? Sell UVA and William & Mary to their own Boards of Visitors. The act like private schools with no accountability to the people of Virginia. Let them become private schools. Keep the original grounds of UVA as a state park. Use the money to bolster GMU and CNU. Focus on programs in demand by the Creative Class. Build a new, modern airport in Tidewater. Move the state capital to Virginia Beach.

    Give up on Richmond. 150 years is long enough to wait. The political and civic leadership in Richmond is incapable of sustained progress.

    • Don wrote, “Would it really be so hard to offer tax incentives to tear down the abandoned aluminum factories and build parks by the river?”

      The old aluminum factory adjoins the canal, not the river. It doesn’t make sense to tear it down because it can provide a shell, a historic one at that, for retail, office and residential development. It will fit in nicely with the other restored historical buildings along the canal.

      No need for any additional tax credits (over and above the existing historic tax credits) to get the kind of development we want.

      As for the James River, the city’s plan *is* to turn it into a large park. The thing limiting access to the river is the CSX rail line — a working rail line that moves a lot of coal. There is no way that CSX will give it up.

    • Don wrote, “The civic leadership sits around and waits for progress to “bubble up” while admiring street murals and idie bands.”

      No, the civic elite is *not* sitting around and waiting for progress to bubble up. The civic elite is visiting Boston and other metro regions to see what best practices they can implement here.

      *I* am suspicious of elite-driven inititiatives, and *I* am the one who admires the murals and indie bands. (I am fr from the only one who does, but other advocates for bottom-up change tend not to be part of the civic elite.)

      It’s fine to criticize Richmond’s civic elite. Be my guest. But get it straight what you’re criticizing. Unfortunately, you are starting with the premise that Richmond sucks and Richmond is to blame for every problem in the state, and you’re grabbing any stick you can find to beat it with. If one stick doesn’t work, you pick up another. Such indiscriminate venting might make you feel better, but it doesn’t add to the rational discourse. Shame on you! You have so much more to contribute.

      • You should read Susan Dunn’s “Dominion of Memories”. It is an excellent book that explains how the lazy, diffident and arrogant slave-holding society of Virginia turned the strongest and most promising state in the nation into a “byword for poverty, slavery and economic stagnation”. Do those words sound familiar, Jim? It’s certainly not just me that thinks this way.

        The failed society described by Ms. Dunn was composed of the so-called First Families of Virginia and was centered in Richmond.

        I believe that the remnants of that self-proclaimed aristocracy still clings to its Richmond roots and works in an unholy alliance with a hopelessly corrupt state legislature for its own personal profit.

        Ms. Dunn’s thesis is that slavery corrupted the slave-owners as they became incapable of any personal initiative or sustained forward progress.

        That seems very much like Richmond’s political class. I am always reminded of Richmond when Vivian Leigh says, “After all, tomorrow is another day” in Gone With the Wind.

        In fact, I feel especially sorry for the good and hard working people of Richmond who have lived for years under the yoke of the so-called First Families of Virginia. I can’t fully fathom the misery that the noobs of Richmond’s so called upper crust have visited on the residents of Richmond. However, I can imagine the misery that this group of vision-less, imagination-challenged self absorbed clods have visited on the good and hard working people of Virginia outside of Richmond and it needs to end.

        http://www.amazon.com/Dominion-Memories-Jefferson-Madison-Virginia/dp/0465003567

    • In a rare instance of agreement with Don, I endorse the idea of privatizing UVa and W&M and channeling public funds into building public universities in the major metro areas: GMU in NoVa, ODU in Norfolk and VCU in Richmond, and CNU in the Peninsula.

      UVa and W&M can stand on their own as private institutions. The drawback would be that they would admit fewer Virginia students… which is why the idea will never happen. But don’t blame “Richmond” for that. Blame parents around the state.

  8. NoVA exists because we live next to the federal trough. As evidence thereof, recent discussion of the burden of paying for Tysons infrastructure before the Fairfax County Planning Commission included the differences between landlords. Those with federal government and federal contractor tenants can normally pass along higher costs, including contributions to the construction of public facilities. However, those with “private sector” tenants cannot. I’m not making light of this discussion. Fairfax County is struggling with this question. I respectfully submit that a similar discussion does not likely occur in most other areas of the country.
    People also tend to live in NoVA because of its generally good public schools. As Larry has stated on a number of occasions, given a choice between schools and transporation, most here pick schools.

    • “People also tend to live in NoVA because of its generally good public schools. As Larry has stated on a number of occasions, given a choice between schools and transporation, most here pick schools.”.

      Wrong. Most here don’t think it needs to be a choice.

  9. well no… they have chosen… they don’t want to pay for transportation..like much of the rest of Virginia they think someone else should pay.

    The General Assembly gave Fairfax alone the ability to levy an income tax provided two requirements were met: 1. – the revenues could only pay for transportation and 2. – the citizens had to approve it in a referenda.

    Why did Fairfax never take this forward? They had an ability that no other jurisdiction in the State had.

  10. As a guy who left Richmond to go to school and then work in Boise, then came back to Virginia, here are some brief observations.

    Boise isn’t an accident. It wasn’t always “hip” or “cool”. There is a reason the Boise’s have jumped in terms of stickiness for college grads, and for corporate growth, while communities that have many of the same amenities have struggled – Spokane, Yakima, Cheyenne, Billings (Bend is a 2nd home/tourist city much like Asheville so I take that one out of the hopper as its economy is a boom/bust single sector deal).

    Boise’s success is due to public investment choices, corporate headquarter/capital access, and a big chunk of happenstance.

    Boise intentionally invested in parks and open spaces beginning in the late 60′s. These investments were sustained through generational changes in elected officials (Republicans and Democracts alike). The investments eventually conspired to create an amenity of outdoor recreation that is nationally competitive. but it was a generation worth of small ball projects that made the big change possible. The community had a long range goal, but they didn’t come out and announce it as a “let’s build the nation’s greatest outdoor recreation system”. Rather, they built it up bit by bit over the year – but all following a strategic plan, rather than the whims of politicians. The discipline shown by City Council in Boise was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever watched. Despite their insanity at times (See a Mayor snooping on staff), the public for whatever reason kept everyone on path for policy and investments, in spite of personalities or politics.

    On the corporate side, Boise pivoted from being a state government/resource extraction economy to one centered on high tech manufacturing, corporate headquarters, health care, and education because of three dudes – JR Simplot, Joe Albertson, and Harry Morrison. These native sons built up HUGE corporate empires that they kept at home. They then took the proceeds from these companies and created new companies – JR Simplot went from potatoes to semiconductors. but this happened because privately held corporate headquarters were kept at home. Cities with enhanced decision making authority (state capitals, corporate headquarter towns). Capital moved quickly to ideas in these places. And these folks intentionally invested big time in PUBLIC goods like roads, parks, schools. While Boise is a super conservative community, the Mormon influence and corporate competitiveness ensured that the businesses plowed their money into public good rather than private golf courses and private school systems.

    Do not discount the fact that these are young cities without large scale urban issues that confound a lot of east coast cities. Portland and Seattle have urban problems, but nothing of the scale of Richmond, Baltimore, Louisville or DC. The communities out there don’t spend near as much political or public capital fighting fights from the 1950′s all over again – there simply isn’t that baggage and history. So, it is easy to move forward when you don’t have to continually address your past.

    And finally, these communities are not stuck with the Virginia model of independent cities. it is far easier to work regionally in the west because of the form of local government out there that is much more flexible and used to experimentation (Portland) and regional solution development (Salt Lake City metro). The toughest public policy issue in the west isn’t land use, transportation, or zoning – it’s water. And when a basic thing like water requires cooperation, it makes other partnerships easier.

    Richmond has many of the same amenities found in western cities – the river and its whitewater. And this is unique when looking at peer communities across the mid-south and mid-atlantic. But the city in Virginia that strikes me as the one most poised to capture the creative class is Roanoke (it would be Charlottesville, but that city is rapidly pricing itself out of competition for young talent). Roanoke has a lot of the same advantages that Boise, Bend and Ft. Collins enjoyed in the 1970′s. If Roanoke can work regionally, convince the big old coal money to invest in new, privately held start-ups in the Roanoke/VT corridor, it can replicate the west by offering an affordable quality of life, unmatched access to outdoor recreation, and a pipeline of talent from local colleges and universities.

    • Scott, thanks for your thoughtful observations. I’m particularly struck by your comments about Roanoke. I lived in Roanoke for four years a couple of decades ago and really enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful city, wonderful people and a great little downtown. Ultimately, I left though, because it didn’t have enough going on. That’s the problem with small metros.

      People have been talking for years about tapping the synergies between Blacksburg (Virginia Tech and corporate research) and Roanoke (larger labor force, more corporate services). Has anything really happened. There’s a large psychological distance between the two communities, which are divided by mountains and accessible only by Interstate 81. When I lived there, there just was not a lot of interaction between the two.

  11. You are absolutely correct.

    Roanoke’s potential has languished for years. What could change it and move it forward so that Staunton/Harrisonburg/Waynesboro don’t pass ‘em by?

    Well, let’s start by talking about the improbable – merge Roanoke City, Roanoke County, Vinton, and Salem into one jurisdiction. That would provide the framework for actual regional solutions by sharing funding across the whole of the area, not just one or two small (by metro tax base and population measures) communities. They’ve already started pushing that way with the Western Virginia Water Authority, the Roanoke CVB, and the Roanoke Partnership (economic development). But the truth is that there is very little capital to muster within the individual jurisdictions due to their small size, meager tax bases, and limited populations. Gotta think regionally. And it’s doable there because the region is tight knit, already functioning, and geographically linked. if regional solutions can work in Virginia, there is no better place to test it than the Roanoke Valley.

    • When I lived in Roanoke in the early 1980s, as I recall, voters rejected a proposal to consolidate the City of Roanoke, Roanoke County and the City of Salem into a single jurisdiction. Parochialism has deep roots!

      A consolidation might indeed help the region. But I’ve seen articles recently (I can’t remember which ones, unfortunately) suggesting that consolidations don’t always work out as expected — instead of saving money, they sometimes end up costing more.

      Even so, from an outsider’s perspective, consolidation certainly would make sense for the Roanoke Valley.

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