Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Who's Your City?

Author and urban geographer Richard Florida with Indigo CEO, Heather Reisman. Remember, when you think books, think Indigo*!

A small and varied crowd gathered at Indigo Bay/Bloor for a chat with urban planner and author Richard Florida, currently a professor at the Rotman School of Management at UofT.

The son of a factory worker with an eighth grade education, Florida has risen to intellectual prominence on the strength of his ideas on the 'creative class', a demographic Florida believes is replacing the traditional working class, something he's argued in his previous two books, "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "The Flight of the Creative Class". Florida's latest work, "Who's Your City?" goes in a slightly different direction, examining what makes a city valuable to different demographics, and what makes a city successful.

The talk was a bit of a meandering affair, moving from his work, to the global economy, to American politics, but started with what Florida considers the creative class to be, something that's been mentioned on this blog before. For Florida, everyone has creative energy that can be tapped and unlocked, something he learned not from artists or designers, but from Japanese factory workers.

"I learned this from watching Toyota," he said, "[workers] told me 'we'll beat the Big 3 because you think [the best] ideas come from the executives. We know they come from the factory floor.' Imagine if we lived in a city where everyone believed that?"

To Florida, the most successful cities are the ones that best embrace the people who fall outside typical quantifiable norms: "Creativity can't be captured in the social categories we impose," he said. "Places that are more tolerant and diverse can unlock the creative energy of the people living there." Such are the sorts of factors that can influence a person's decision on where to live, and whether to move, as 15 million North Americans do every year.

According to Florida, there are three times in your life when you need to take a long hard look at where you live and where you would like to be. The first is when you graduate college, something Florida believes of paramount importance: "I think the decision of where to live after college is far more important than which college to attend." He believes not enough young people consider that if they want to do certain things with their lives, they need to be in certain places. "If you want to work in technology you need to be in Waterloo, if you want to do music, you need to be in a place like Toronto, or Nashville or London," adding that he and his team predicted the musical boom in Montreal a few years ago based on one factor: affordable housing.

Affordable housing is something that weighs heavily on Florida when looking at the next two times to evaluate your place in the world: when it's time to have kids, and when those kids leave the nest. In the former, you obviously want to live somewhere suitable for raising a family, in the latter, you have the freedom to choose again. But he warned that cities function best when citizens choose accordingly.

"I get flack all the time for living in a single family house with a yard," he said, "but I like my single family house with a yard. [People think] I should live in a loft in a trendy neighbourhood. I'd be pretty ridiculous at fifty living in a hipster haven."

He added, "I worry about the Baby Boomers repopulating the good neighbourhoods, putting up expensive condos." When asked by Indigo Prez [and expansive estate owner] Heather Reisman why he worried about it, Florida replied, "I worry about young people being able to afford to live in the places best suited to them."

This economic divide is something Florida seems to worry about a lot, attributing it to the current political climate in his home country. "People who are doing well are more liberal and forward thinking. People who have been left behind are voting for the past. They're saying, 'if I could only get back to the glory days of the fifties when things were good...' They don't want the changes they see," he said, adding that the backlash you see to globalization isn't limited to the developing world, but in France and the US as well: "It's white, working class anger."

Most interesting for our purposes, a question was asked about Detroit, specifically the strong racial divide there, and how to include and unlock people's creativity when such a divide exists. Florida spoke seriously of the family his wife has there, and how the business class has failed the community: "The real tragedy of Detroit is the business leadership. Anyone who can destroy the Big Three...and you know how they did it? They did it by saying, 'We're not going to do it like the Japanese, we're not going to eat in a common cafeteria, we're not going to give up our parking spaces..." For Florida, inclusion is of tremendous importance, and he believes the way the executive class in the automaker boardrooms ignores the men and women on the plant floor is a major reason for their current troubles.

All in all, it was a fun hour, concluding on an optimistic note with Florida discussing mayors, and how he would like them to have more power, because "mayors are the only politicians who think alike. You put a bunch of them in a room and Republican, Democrat, Liberal, NDP, Green, it doesn't matter. Their priorities are the same." When national leadership is failing you, you elevate the local.

So who are you, Windsor?


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