In Virginia, discussions about the density of growth and development tends to focus on the fiscal dimension. Is there an optimum level of density to maximize revenues versus costs for local governments? (See “The Fiscal Fix” for a discussion of these issues.) But there is another angle that may be just as important. What is the optimum density to stimulate creativity and innovation?
Economic geographer Richard Florida addresses the question in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today. The optimal level of density may be associated with mid-rise development, he says, not hyper-crowded skyscrapers like the buildings clotting the horizons of the world’s biggest cities, especially in Asia.
Florida argues that a city’s physical layout can affect the ability of its inhabitants to mix, network and engage in the kind of informal encounters that stimulate great ideas. Echoing the critique of anti-modernist architect Leon Krier, he likens giant skyscrapers to vertical cul de sacs — dead ends for interaction. He also quotes urban economist Jane Jacobs on the critical need for pedestrian scale to facilitate interaction and affordable, sub-Class A office space where start-ups can get traction. New York’s hubs of innovation aren’t its skyscraper districts, he notes, but its mid-rise, mixed-use neighborhoods.
Richmonders need to be asking the same kinds of questions: Can we alter the physical design of our communities to create what Florida terms “Jacob density,” an urban form that sparks street-level interaction and informal encounters? Chasing after downtown high-rises or glass-and-steel boxes set amid acres of asphalt parking won’t do much to crank up Richmond’s metabolism. But the re-development taking place in three- and four-story buildings in Shockoe Bottom and Manchester very well may.
Regionally, the City of Richmond is leading the way, acting as a magnet for artists, architects, engineers, advertising agencies, small IT firms, video production shops and other creative professions. Henrico and Chesterfield have yet to crack the code. Unless they do more to encourage mixed-use redevelopment on a wide scale, not just in pockets, they will cede the local creative movement to the city.