[Review] 'The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It'
August 10, 2017
In The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books: 2017), urban studies theorist Richard Florida offers a mea culpa of sort for the back-to-the-city movement he has long championed. In books such as The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002) and Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2005), Florida argued that, if cities hoped to thrive in a competitive global economy, they needed to attract and retain talent — "[t]he knowledge workers, techies, and artists and other cultural creatives who [make] up the creative class.:
If nothing else, Florida's timing was impeccable. By 2000, the ranks of the creative class in the United States had grown to 40 million — a third of the U.S. workforce — and many of its members had left the suburban or rural communities of their childhood and headed to cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where they moved into neighborhoods that had been written off by the professional class and city officials. That story was repeated around the globe, as knowledge workers and creatives flocked to already vibrant cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo; booming Asian metropolises such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul; and sprawling, emerging mega-cities such as Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai.
Indeed, today — in a stunning illustration of the power of urban centers to transform societies through what Florida dubs the "3Ts of economic development" (technology, talent, and tolerance) — more than half the population of the globe lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050 upwards of 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. Little wonder, then, that in recent decades urbanists have proclaimed "the triumph of the city" (the title of an excellent book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser), or that the future of humanity is urban.
And yet this newfound appreciation for the richness, convenience, and stimulation provided by city living has not been without costs, as gentrification, rising rents, and real estate speculation have squeezed blue-collar and service workers out of neighborhoods and livelihoods, contributed to the re-segregation of public schools, and driven huge increases in wealth and income inequality. It is an economic failure that we should have seen but didn't, and from the Brexit vote in England, to the election of Donald Trump, to the growing popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe, we are living with the consequences of that failure. The New Urban Crisis is Florida's attempt to diagnose where things went wrong — and offer a prescription for how we can recover an urbanism that works for all people, not just elites and the creative class.
If that's too conceptual, allow me an anecdote by way of illustration: As I was finishing Florida's book in Washington Square Park in Manhattan earlier this summer, surrounded on all sides by buildings belonging to New York University (where Florida is a fellow), I could see, firsthand, his 3Ts at work. Across the way, diverse crowds of college students walked to their next class or appointment while sending photos to friends on the latest app; on the corner, a well-heeled couple waited impatiently for their Uber driver; and, a group of foreign tourists were listening to their guide about the history of the square. To the "urban optimist," it was a perfect illustration of "the stunning revival of cities and the power of urbanization to improve the human condition," while for the pessimist, it might suggest just how profoundly "modern cities [are] being carved into gilded and virtually gated areas for conspicuous consumption by the super-rich...."
And that's not the half of it. The juxtaposition of boundless opportunity and desperate poverty found in so many cities has led to mounting alienation and resentment. Indeed, Florida, who counted himself among the optimists "not too long ago," argues that to truly understand this new urban crisis (as opposed to the mid-twentieth-century urban crisis of deindustrialization and white flight), we need to recognize and come to grips with the fact that cities are both "the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress," and "zones of gaping inequality and class division."
Florida identifies five key factors that have combined to create this crisis: 1) the growing economic gap between so-called superstar cities — where a disproportionate share of high-value industries, high-tech startups, and top talent are concentrated — and struggling industrial cities, or what he calls "winner-take-call urbanism"; 2) the steep rise in urban housing costs, which has resulted in the displacement of countless numbers of blue-collar and service workers, not to mention the poor and disadvantaged; 3) a rapid increase in inequality and segregation driven in part by "sorting" — a phenomenon in which creatives and the well-off congregate in neighborhoods formerly favored by the working middle class, creating a patchwork of relatively small areas of privilege surrounded by large tracts of poverty; 4) the growing crisis in the suburbs, where problems typically associated with urban areas — poverty, economic insecurity, crime, and segregation — are growing and becoming entrenched; and 5) the urbanization of the developing world, often without the improvements in standards of living that accompanied an earlier wave of urbanization in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China.
At the core of these challenges, writes Florida, is an economic divide that shapes our built environment and determines where we live. "Simply put," he adds, "the rich live where they choose, and the poor where they can." This reality creates a host of related problems with both short- and long-term consequences (e.g., "people who live in far-flung suburbs and endure long commutes have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stress, insomnia, and hypertension and are more likely to commit suicide or die in car crashes").
Florida illustrates each of these challenges using the latest demographic and economic data, much of it pulled from the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, which he leads. In fact, the book is filled with interesting graphs and charts, including one showing the number of houses one could buy in various U.S. cities for the price of a single apartment in Manhattan's chi-chi SoHo neighborhood (Memphis, Tennessee, tops the list with 38!). He also highlights his institute's New Urban Crisis Index, which reveals high levels of combined economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality, and housing unaffordability not only in superstar cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but in Chicago, Miami, and Memphis. (While interesting, many of the maps and charts could have benefited from better graphic design, and most of the data cited are for U.S. cities — a weakness in a book that purports to be about global trends.)
But what most readers will be looking for is a solution (or solutions) to this complex crisis of inequality. On that score, the glass is half full (or empty, depending on one's perspective). Florida points to the tension between the kind of "urban density and clustering that innovation and economic progress require" — and a "New Urban Luddism" — as the greatest impediment to the kind of equitable development and opportunity needed to overcome rising inequality. He has little sympathy for these twenty-first-century Luddites, who live in well-off communities and neighborhoods and are quick to say no to projects that may pose inconveniences but whose benefits in terms of the greater public good are indisputable. As he writes at one point, "If we are to...enjoy a widely shared and sustainable prosperity, we must become a more fully and fairly urbanized nation."
With that tension in mind, Florida sets out seven strategies designed to foster a "more productive urbanism for all": 1) make clustering work more efficiently by switching from a property tax to a land value tax; 2) invest in urban infrastructure to support greater density and growth; 3) build more affordable housing; 4) convert low-wage service jobs into living-wage work by raising the minimum wage; 5) address urban and suburban poverty by investing in people and places and providing a universal basic income; 6) shift development policies from nation-building to city-building and mobilize behind a global effort to build more resilient, prosperous cities; and 7) empower cities and communities by devolving political power from states and national governments to cities themselves.
As wide-ranging as these solutions are, the recommendations at the core of Florida’s books are fairly straightforward: governments and the private sector need to make investments in new and upgraded infrastructure and adopt tax and land-use policies that encourage increased density. Around the world, he writes, "strategic investments in basic infrastructure can help connect [poor people] to jobs; leverage their talent and productive capabilities and enable them to become more fully engaged; and, ultimately, turn the vicious cycle of urban isolation and poverty into a virtuous cycle of urban progress." In an American context, that means moving beyond the longstanding practice of encouraging suburban sprawl and expansion into rural areas and, instead, putting a new focus on the country’s neglected urban cores — a re-urbanization movement, if you will — that creates jobs and opportunities for all Americans.
While The New Urban Crisis may not be the twenty-first-century equivalent of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Lewis Mumford's The City in History, it is an interesting and highly readable update of Florida's creative class concept and an excellent introduction, for those not familiar with his earlier work, to how a new generation of knowledge workers and creative class types are shaping our economy, our cities, and, for better or worse, our future. The challenges posed by this development are profound, both in the U.S. and around the world, and The New Urban Crisis is a welcome contribution to the conversation around the best ways to address those challenges.
Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.