Saturday, January 16, 2010

Changing Viewpoints: The case for creating the new "Creative Class"

For years now, Richard Florida has toured the country preaching about how to attract the creative class. The creative class being young, educated, creative and highly mobile professionals who followed culture, tolerance, hipness and opportunity. Some cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Austin attracted them in droves. Other cities, much smaller cities, often in a state of decline, pined for them, scheming the ways in which they too could attract these young hipsters. In reality most of these places never had a chance.

The migratory nature of the ever mobile creative class was based on an overheated economy. The economic landscape has changed considerably over the last few years and the demographics of the creative class, I among them, have been particularly hard hit. The mechanisms that drove all the job growth of the overheated economy have broken down, displacing and marooning millions.

Not that there wasn't truth to Mr. Florida's ideas; quite the contrary. Tolerant cities do attract more creativity. Fatalism and squelchers can kill a community. But not every city can be a New York or a San Francisco. The culture and character of those cities developed organically over several hundred years. You can't create those conditions overnight. More than that, the creative class has a finite number; just as finite as the number of companies that employed them. And as we know, those companies aren't as numerous as they once were. The set up was never sustainable from the onset. Even in the best of times, some cities will win but many more end up losing.

Not all cities were meant to live forever. History is littered with cities that for any number of reasons have ceased to be. Cities grow organically and often contract due to factors both economic and environmental, but for any city to survive it has to be sustainable. The United States lacks any substantial guiding urban policy so most cities are on their own in trying to create a sustainable system.

But without the U.S. Federal Government actually creating policy that strengthens the urban core they are actually ripping cities apart. The almost Laissez-faire approach to urban policy that has existed in the United States for generations simply does not work. The support that cities do receive from the Federal Government damages the urban fabric, supports urban sprawl, and reinforces as well as concentrates generational poverty. This country needs to concentrate on the challenges facing urban areas in a way that is constructive and encourages sustainability. And while it may be impossible for the smallest towns to be sustainable at least we can ensure that more places are viable than the current laissez-faire approach allows.

Urban policy should also be created at the local level, grassroots and otherwise. But instead of trying to attract the limited numbers of creative class type people, urban areas both small and large need to concentrate on creating the creative class from their own citizens through improving the educational opportunities available as well as focusing on other quality of life issues. Local communities must work towards and get the Federal Government's support in ending the mechanisms that perpetuate generational poverty while getting the poor (and the middle class) to move their lives forward in constructive ways so that everyone can make a positive difference in strengthening an area's capital. Tolerant and educated societies work to everyone's benefit. But cities shouldn't try to be something they are not. Accentuate your best qualities and plan for the poorest of residents so that everyone benefits.

Long story short; there's no place like home so start concentrating on ways to use what you've got to make that home reach its full potential. The old rules of the old economy no longer apply. Build culture, tolerance and opportunity in your own backyard. Spend your energies on forcing Washington's hand to do what's right and what's needed so that cities can have the tools to really shine and finally, instead of looking to siphoning capital from elsewhere, grow your own creative class from your community's greatest strength- your own people.

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