Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Richard Florida Paradox

Richard Florida says he deserves credit for the positive "transformation" going on in the Rust Belt. He understood the value of Rust Belt Chic early on and promoted it:

As economies develop you get a bigger division of labor, not only in industry, but in geography. It's becoming more and more concentrated, but it has become so oppressively expensive to live in a place like London or New York or San Francisco. I said in the book, that if people in the great Midwest and Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Buffalo, if the leadership would wake up and recognize the incredible asset they have of industrial architecture, this incredible place of authenticity and realism, that people would enjoy being there. They were leaving not because they didn't like it, but because they couldn't be themselves there.

I think it fitting that he highlights the retention part of the policy narrative. Cool cities, however you define "cool", don't keep people from leaving. Sticking around your hometown, wherever that might be, makes it hard to be yourself. It's a limiting experience.

The transformation of the Rust Belt is all about outsiders learning to appreciate the "authenticity and realism" of these shrinking cities. It is an environment about new possibilities. It is about personal development. As for the allure of global cities, you can lose yourself. You can reinvent yourself. You can't do either in your hometown.

In the war for talent, places are very similar to companies. Pittsburgh could learn a lot from Apple:

Eric Firestone began a new job at a Web start-up here three weeks ago, and he’s already thinking about what he might do next. But that’s just fine with his new employer.

The company, a service to turn cellphones into credit card readers, lured Mr. Firestone from Apple partly with an unusual pitch: it promised to give him weekly lessons about starting his own business someday, including how to find venture capitalists to finance it.

Mr. Firestone, a 28-year-old software engineer, said he could try to get financing for a start-up from venture capital firms now, “but I feel like I’d be having a hard time. Here you get to learn.”

Think of Apple as New York City or Washington, DC, to name two heavyweights in talent attraction. Pittsburgh is the Web start-up poaching Mr. Firestone. Pittsburgh succeeds because it can better develop the person and offers an exit strategy. The investment in human capital leads to greater geographic mobility. Cities aren't tar pits surrounding the regional watering hole. They are stepping stones to something bigger and better.

Apple loses because it won't offer the knowledge that would cause talent to, eventually, leave. Instead, it offers material incentives. This is akin to the urban amenities strategy that Florida is selling. Pittsburgh invests a lot of money and the people still leave. The boondoggle:

"Creating ‘cool cities’ is more than a catchphrase. It is an initiative that is imperative for us to undertake to grow our state’s economy and to keep our young, educated workers here," Granholm said. "The future economic success of our state is directly tied to our ability to attract and retain exciting new jobs and young workers who are hard wired into the knowledge-based economy."

The advisory group told the Governor that it wants ways to create communities that have a sense of place, are more walkable, and find new uses for historic buildings. The group also thinks cool cities must have business development that includes young people as a part of the economic community and recognizes their impact. They also want to link business development to the arts and culture and more affordable and diverse housing options.

Cool cities also have entertainment activities available at all hours, according to the advisory group members, and cities need to provide a welcoming place for performing arts and culture.

That was way back in 2003, 8-years ago this coming November. Did the initiative work? Whether it did or not doesn't seem to matter. Name a community that fits all the above criteria (e.g. "sense of place") of a Cool City. Then compare the outmigration rate of that place with that of a Rust Belt city. The coolest cities are hemorrhaging talent. The Creative Class is fleeing, some moving from Brooklyn to Cleveland.

Retention retards the development of people and Richard Florida fully understands the value of increasing geographic mobility. Then why does he preach about ways to keep talent from leaving? Because the underlying premise of Creative Class theory is wrong, which often results in Florida contradicting himself:

Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and my current hometown of Pittsburgh were at the forefront of the organizational age. The cultural and attitudinal norms of that age became so powerfully ingrained in these places that they did not allow the new norms and attitudes associated with the creative age to grow up, diffuse and become generally accepted. This process, in turn, stamped out much of the creative impulse, causing talented and creative people to seek out new places where they could more readily plug in and make a go of it.

Florida was researching why talent was leaving Pittsburgh. But how do you explain all the migration to other cities with similar deficiencies? Why would you expect the most geographically mobile demographic cohort to stay put? The incoherent mixing of migration concepts is mind boggling. Florida is trying to stop the very trend he has brilliantly detailed and made famous.

Creative Class theory does explain (perhaps not as well as you think) why places such as Austin are a significant destination for talent in any region throughout the United States. It doesn't model why people leave. Yet that's the most popular application of Florida's ideas.

What the Creative Class does best is leave and head to places full of other people who also abandoned their hometowns. That's what Rust Belt cities lack. That's all about to change and Richard Florida had nothing to do with it.


Sam said...

Richard Florida is a deiscredited hack who has been selling sugar water to fools and shortsighted opportunists. He has set back economic development 20 years.

Brian said...

What Sam said, only Sam was too kind.

However, thanks for posting this anyway. The details on the "help me learn the start-up business while I work" stuff gave me a useful idea on how to steal it for a deserving city.

Angie said...

I hope you are right, about everything changing.