Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Problem With Placemaking

People develop, not places. Economic development is place-centric. We compare metros, states, and countries. Some places are doing better than other places. Young, college-educated talent is moving from decaying Pittsburgh (brain drain) to cool, hip Austin (brain gain). That's Richard Florida's archetypal Creative Class migration. It's a place-centric understanding of talent relocation. Thus, Florida offers the following advice for a Des Moines (i.e. Pittsburgh) aspiring to be a Chicago (i.e. Austin):

What can they do? As I argued long ago, Number 1 is to try to stem the losses. Figure out ways to retain that age group. I'm not saying that only that group matters, but if they cannot be kept or captured it will be hard to stem the sorting problem, as you describe. In fact, this is exactly the problem both Boston and Silicon Valley confronted a half century ago — talented young people were leaving Cambridge (MIT, Harvard, etc.) and Stanford for better jobs, etc., elsewhere. This is why university leaders (not mayors and economic developers) decided to support high-tech development. It could provide a source of employment for these new grads.

From a place-centric perspective, the policy prescription makes sense. From a people-centric position, it's a disaster. That's why I claim Richard Florida is wrong. He's offering bad advice.

Similarly, I've taken placemaking to task. That post has caused a [very] minor stir. At Project for Public Spaces, Brendan Crain (whom I know well from The Where Blog) responds:

Like Russell, many people today are beginning to voice the concern that Placemaking is “counterproductive” to economic development, because they’ve been led to believe that the process is simply about cutting and pasting things that worked somewhere else into struggling spaces. But great places and strong local economies are created in the same way: by getting people together to define local challenges and come up with appropriate solutions to address them. Placemaking makes tangible the opportunities inherent within a place so that they might be taken advantage of. People develop places; thereafter, places develop people.

I'm not an expert on placemaking. I'll concede that I have poor grasp of what placemaking is. I'm critiquing placemaking that purports to influence talent attraction and retention. At the heart of my argument is the fact that these initiatives are intrinsically place-centric. Instead of place-centrism, I'm looking at talent migration through a lens of people-centrism. Hence, people develop, not places.

What does that mean for placemaking initiatives? I'm convinced that placemaking is useful, but not for talent attraction/retention. People move for purposes of personal economic development. A great place to be for that express purpose is a city with tremendous birthplace diversity. But even as Richard Florida has noted, this talent clustering poses its own set of challenges:

On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.

The movers and shakers who roll the dice on a long-distance migration (a journey of economic development benefits like going to college) stand to gain a lot. But for the rest of the people stuck in that place, your only reward is higher housing costs.

Migration is good for people. We shouldn't try to discourage it. However, a bunch of people moving in from elsewhere erodes social capital and can negatively impact a community. There are costs and benefits to increased geographic mobility. I think placemaking can help mitigate these costs and enhance the benefits. More from Brendan Crain:

For every person who thinks that you can ‘placemake’ unilaterally by dropping in cool amenities, there is another who believes that Placemaking is as much about the discussion that participants have with each other as it is about whether a space contains public art or picnic tables when all is said and done. The physical attributes of the space in question are important, but they are the means, not the end. If you’re not building social capital in the community where you’re working, you’re not Placemaking; you’re just reorganizing the furniture.

Emphasis added. Gentrification is reorganizing the furniture without building social capital. It is also the result of people (not places) developing. Gentrification is not a cause of economic development. It is an effect of migration that negatively impacts people who are unable or unwilling to move. The tension between native local and inmigrant is palpable. Don't Californicate Colorado:

We used to be a good mix of libertarian liberals and conservatives with a live and let live attitude. Not anymore.  We’re now getting stupider, and this is being powered by the mass influx of east coast and west coast liberals into the liberal loon town of Denver.  You can see evidence of this in on-line forums.  Enlightened progressives sing Obama's praises and remark what an east coast feel Denver has, and they are right.  It is now easily the least "Colorado" part of the state.

How can Denver continue to be a great place for talent to develop without alienating the rest of the state? Denver is tolerant because so many outsiders have moved there. Migrants dominate the city. It is cosmopolitan. It is booming. If you are part of that tribe, life is great.

For those driving along the Front Range with "NATIVE" bumper stickers, life isn't great. Outsiders have taken over. You can't get a good job unless you think like a liberal loon. The two worlds never meet. Might this be something good placemaking could address?


Anonymous said...

I clicked on one of the twitter links in this post

and I see that Richard Florida replied to that tweet:

Do you have any comments on his reply?

Jim Russell said...

I Tweeted a reply:

I have no idea what "straw man" Florida is Tweeting about.