Thursday, February 05, 2009

Geography of Economic Reinvention

The Canadian province of Ontario is now Richard Florida's sandbox. Urban-centric economic development is the paradigm of choice and the resulting landscape might raise more than a few eyebrows:

The authors clarify the view by mapping out three different Ontarios. The first is an Ontario of successful city regions, including Toronto, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo, which are "well positioned for the creative age." The second is the heartland of failing industrial cities and towns that will require "massive retooling, either within or away from the auto industry."

Third is a rural hinterland doomed to decline, its only hope being to forge new connections to "larger, denser regions where people and ideas are fast-moving."

Exactly what those connections might be, and how they might work, is anyone's guess. The theory of the creative economy focuses on the urban centres, where everything happens. The best hope for the margins - the entire focus of current economic anxiety in Ontario, and the constituency that reliably forms majorities at Queen's Park - is to bask in the glow of big-city success.

I'm troubled by the apparent upscaling of city triage. Ontario has a few of its own Braddocks, places left for dead as growth is concentrated in a few strategic places. Just as Toronto turns its back on struggling neighborhoods, Ontario is considering targetting its resources in the areas of greatest return. To use Florida's terms, spiky Ontario will get spikier.

The conumdrum is figuring out how the valleys of globalization can benefit from the further agglomeration of talent in city centers. The brain drain from the "rural hinterland" should accelerate, the pressure to move to Toronto becoming even greater. But there are more than bucolic villages at stake. Consider the plight of Nashua, NH:

Nashua software company Kadient packed up and moved its 60 employees to Lowell, Mass., last weekend to take better advantage of the Boston-area work force, the company announced Tuesday. "We did it all of a sudden. We packed up on Thursday. We worked remotely on Friday," Chief Executive Officer Brian Zanghi said. "It's a mess here, but the phones are working." ...

... Zanghi said the company does a lot of recruiting from Greater Boston, but has had trouble convincing recent college graduates and interns to drive over the border to work in New Hampshire.

"A lot of the students wanted to be closer to an urban environment," he said. "Trying to convince that person to drive up to Nashua . . . it was more of a challenge."

The news is particularly disappointing for Nashua because the city has a reputation as the state's high-tech hub – a place with a highly skilled and educated pool of workers.

The pull of Boston is too great. Second-tier and third-tier cities should take note. If you are too far from Toronto, the Florida plan will do more harm than good. The gravity of the global city is only going to increase. Getting the entire province to buy in is going to be difficult. Even the beneficiaries of this strategy might find the futurescape too draconian.

Update: Northern Ontario has its own ideas:

The Growth Plan for Northern Ontario is being touted as a 25-year policy for development and investment planning in the North, developed for Northerners by Northerners.

It will be designed to focus on achieving a sustained pattern of growth, recognizing the challenges of Northern Ontario, including youth out-migration, creating sustainable regions and improving infrastructure needs.


Update II: More on the commissioned Florida report here and here. Quote of note:

The authors say the boundaries separating old industrial cities, Canada's North and rural regions from the burgeoning hotbeds of creative, knowledge-driven activity must be torn down. The creative economy must give rise to a new geographic structure consisting of a series of cities and suburbs linked together by rapid-transit systems and communications networks, the report says.

"In the past, you could have your own island economy," Dr. Florida said. "Now we have to connect mega-regions."

I'll need to read the report in order to comment further.

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