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Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life

By Richard Florida

(Basic Books, 374 pp., $26.95)

 

In 2002, with The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida launched one of those terms or categories or ideas--there have been many--that try to structure our contemporary societies into something more complicated than the Marxian conflict between the owners of the means of production and those who are exploited as proletarians working on them. His "creative class" has become more than a concept and something like a commercial enterprise, with its own website, its consultation services for cities and enterprises, its large research undertakings. According to the jacket of his new book, Florida is the creator of the Creative Class Group, located in Washington, D.C., Toronto (where Florida is now director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and professor of business and creativity in the business school of the University of Toronto), Pittsburgh (where he was for many years a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University), and Europe. He is, his publisher tells us, "one of the world's leading public intellectuals."

The "creative class" includes those who work in occupations and industries that call upon some measure of creativity. Florida divides them into a "super-creative core" consisting of computer and mathematical occupations; architecture and engineering; life, physical, and social sciences; education, training, and library occupations; arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media--a grouping that seems rather too capacious to merit the term "super-creative"--and a larger, wider group of "creative professionals," which includes management, law, health care, and some in sales and sales management. Together the two categories make up a large part of the American labor force. Florida tracked the rapid rise in the numbers of this creative class, contrasted it with the decline of workers in manufacturing, and posited its significance for innovation and economic growth. More interestingly, he argued that the growth and decline of urban areas is dependent on their ability to attract the members of the creative class--that it was more important for cities to have a "people climate" than a "business climate."

The "people climate" that attracted the creative class was not simply the natural amenities we think of to explain the growth of the Sunbelt and the decline of the industrial heartland. In Florida's view, a climate that would attract the creative class is within the powers of imaginative local communities to, well, create. "Neither sunnier weather nor warmer climates are systematically associated with regional growth," Florida wrote, adding: "University of Chicago sociologist Terry Clark finds that natural amenities, including sun and temperature, are not associated with location decisions of high human capital individuals. [They] are more likely to be drawn to cities that offer 'constructed amenities,' from arts and culture to highquality restaurants."

 

Florida is devoted to statistically constructed indices, and he has created many, demonstrating how they are related to economic growth. But he is also very responsive to the concrete aspects of urban life, to his own experience in various cities, to the varying kinds of urbanism that exist, and I find all this quite attractive. He is a devotee of Jane Jacobs--not only her classic work on the dense and mixed inner city but also her later books on the economy of cities; and he appreciates the architecture and the urban texture of the older parts of our cities, and sees in them a resource that can be attractive to the creative class. He draws upon the experience of his large Italian-American family growing up in Newark, his own experience in learning and working in various parts of the United States, and in particular his long residence in Pittsburgh to introduce into his writing a concreteness and a vividness that supplements and gives life to his statistical analyses. His account of how Pittsburgh has tried to recreate itself is a classic analysis of where cities go wrong (by building stadiums and convention centers) and where they can go right (by taking advantage of their ethnic working-class areas and their industrial-age architecture).

Florida probably gives too much credit to the amenities that attract him in explaining the rise and fall of cities, and he has so been faulted by Edward Glaeser and other urban economists. They put more weight on traditional elements affecting the competitive advantages of cities, such as changes in modes and efficiencies of types of transportation, and the business-friendliness or -unfriendliness of city and state policies. Florida's most striking and newsworthy effort in the direction of bringing together his own urban experience with his statistical analysis was his invention of a "Gay Index," which to him was one of the most important marks of a vibrant and innovative economy. "In virtually all our analyses," he remarked, "the Gay Index did better than any other individual measure as a predictor of hi-tech industry." Where there were gays, and the acceptance of gays, there one found the creative class. Streetwise observations could be supplemented with statistics: it appears that detailed census reports make it possible to separate "unmarried partners" of the same sex from "roommates" and "unrelated adults," and Florida has increasingly made much of this.

Again, perhaps too much. Florida's new book begins with the story of his agitated preparation for an appearance on The Colbert Report, and indeed the first thing that Colbert raises, as one might expect, is the Gay Index. "A disturbing new study," Colbert begins, "has found a solution to the housing slump: live next to gay people. The study's author measured changes in income and property values using something called the Bohemian-Gay index.... The theory is that tolerant communities, where homosexuals are likely to reside, nurture an open-minded culture of creativity which can lead to innovations like Google, or YouTube, or ShirtlessHunksBaggingGroceries.com."

The sarcasm is not altogether unfair. Who's Your City? is something like a self-help book on where to live. Florida introduces it as a discussion of urban life from the point of view of increasing one's opportunities and happiness. But despite the apparent straightforwardness of its purpose, the book does not quite hang together. One would expect, for example, that Florida would base his advice on where to live on the huge survey that he conducted on the relationship of place to happiness, which questioned 27,000 people in 8,000 communities. But the results are reported sketchily and not very clearly. "Personal life" and "work" were most important in happiness, but "place"--and the point of the survey was to plumb for the significance of "place"--was up there in third place as a contributor to happiness. Satisfaction with one's community, according to the survey, rises with income; renters seem more satisfied with their communities than homeowners; the more education the respondents have, the more satisfied they are; married people are more satisfied with their community than those separated or divorced, older people are more satisfied than younger, Hispanics are the most satisfied, and African Americans are the least. In some cities--Denver and Austin are mentioned--people seemed satisfied with all aspects of their lives. Other cities--such as Washington, D.C.--showed a greater discordance. Many other findings are reported, including details in an appendix that is not easy to interpret.

But how does all this relate to where one should live? A good part of the book is devoted to lists of the best places to live depending on one's stage in life: whether one is a single starting out, a young professional, married with children, or an empty nester. There are recommended lists of cities for each stage of life, with one list for "all households" and a separate one for gay and lesbian households, as if that were the most significant subcategory of the population to keep in mind. If one were considering which significant segment of the population might have different tastes and opportunities in selecting communities to live in, surely minority households would be more important. Curiously, even for the category "married with children," the same subdivision holds--"all households" and then "gay and lesbian." The lists are further subdivided between "Overall" and "Best Buy."

It is not at all clear how all these lists of "Best Places" were determined. Florida rates every American metropolitan area with a population of more than 250,000 in terms of its suitability for households of different life stages and sexual orientation--but the statistical sources and system of determination are not given. Is the survey on place and happiness one source? We are not told. The main source given for these lists is the "2005 American Communities Survey of the US Bureau of the Census," but how is this used to determine what places may be the "best buy" for people generally or for gays and lesbians of various life stages?

And there is a more serious problem with these listings. While the "places" listed are recognizable cities, they are actually Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas, which often are huge and are hardly helpful when proffered as advice as to "where to live." Thus, if "New York" appears on a list, the appendix informs us that this is the metropolitan statistical area that includes New York City, northern New Jersey, Long Island, and other parts of New York and Pennsylvania. "Philadelphia" includes Camden, Wilmington, and other parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The size and the diffuseness of these entities somewhat vitiates the utility of Florida's recommendations. Fortunately, he also gives his ratings for small urban concentrations down to 250,000 people, and those are more meaningful if the reader is actually hunting for a place to live.

Florida is interested in the growth and the development of "mega-regions" around the world, and how they stack up against each other on economic output and innovation and creativity. His Flight of the Creative Class notes that these days creative people can also choose to go abroad for greater opportunity and more desirable places to live, and increasingly they do. Florida and his collaborators have put a good deal of effort in his new book in defining such mega-regions throughout the world and rating them for creativity. Presumably this gives some indication, if one wants to go extra-national, about more "best places" to live. Florida and his collaborators define mega-regions as areas of contiguous or near-contiguous night-time luminosity as visible in satellite images. They then estimate the economic output and innovativeness of such night-time light-defined mega-regions, using national economic data for sub-regions, and thus deriving an "LRP," or light-based regional product, for each region. This is an original way to define large economic regions transcending cities, metropolitan areas, and national boundaries, and it may have some virtues compared with the alternatives. The Greater Tokyo region turns out to have the greatest LRP, beating out "Bos-Wash" (the area from Boston to Washington, first defined as a "mega-region" by Jean Gottman some decades ago in his book Megalopolis) for first place. Berlin, surprisingly, ranks first in "innovation" (based on numbers of patents issued).

There are other peculiar findings, suggesting the dangers of working with large statistical agglomerations. Thus we find among these mega-regions "Tel Aviv-Amman-Beirut" and "Delhi-Lahore." Now, really! Florida's point is that these mega-regions are (to quote one of his sub-heads) "the only economic unit that matters," replacing in some sense the nation. "National borders are less relevant to where economic activities are located," he writes, and "also have less to do with defining cultural identity." Tell that to an Israeli, a Jordanian, or a Lebanese; to an Indian or a Pakistani.

Florida is endlessly curious, creating new indices, sweeping up and reporting new research, and he is animated by a love for cities that makes his books, despite their considerable deficiencies, of interest to the city lover. But Who's Your City? is something of a mess. Its readers have almost no way of understanding where its judgments and recommendations came from. They require a more substantial and critical effort to explain how the "mega-regions" are linked to the issue of livability. Advice must be more precise if it is to be useful, especially if the question at issue is, in the words of Richard Florida's subtitle, "the most important decision of your life."

Nathan Glazer is a contributing editor for The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.

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