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Richard Florida

Richard Florida is author of the global best-seller "The Rise of the Creative Class." His latest books are the "The Great Reset," and "The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited,"[…]

Richard Florida worries about the notion that you can rebuild Detroit around an urban farm. Why would you turn a great city into a cornfield?

Question: Will Americans ever get over their dependence on rnautomobiles? 

Richard Florida: I think we’re already rnseeing Americans start to get over their dependence on the automobile, rnand on the big house, in certainly the surveys of younger people. I was rnjust looking at the data the other day. About 67 percent of Americans rnown their house, but the lowest rate in a long time, of people under 35,rn only 38 percent, now they’re young. 38 percent of people under 35 own rntheir house. When you look at surveys of younger people, younger rnAmericans, they don’t want the house. My students tell me this all the rntime, they don’t want the debt. They don’t want the space that they’re rnnot going to use, that’s just there to impress people. They don’t want rntwo, three cars. Actually the studies show that if you want to look at rnwho saves versus the spends? The people who save are the ones who don’t rnhave cars. Cars are killers, one in two and three of those are killers rnfor family budgets. So younger people are already saying, “Enough’s rnenough! I’ll use a ZIP car, I might have one car, it’ll be a small car, rnwe may carpool and share. “ 

And I think one of the things that rnwe’re going to have to do is remake our geography. It’s not that we’re rngoing to live out there in the suburbs with no car and try to get aroundrn on our bicycles. I think what’s happening now is 60 percent of rnAmericans say if they had a choice, they’d want to live in a walk-able rncommunity. And I think we have kind of a false choice now. And I think rnit’s one of the things that’s really important about the next great rnreset and the next spatial fix. 

People think, well we’re either rngoing to move back to the city, or we’re going to go to the suburb and rnthey’re in conflict. There’s a suburban way of life and there’s the rnurban way of life, and this has been played out in so many conversationsrn and narratives. The suburban and rural versus the urban, it’s part of rnour history. I think what’s actually happened is, in some ways, and I rnsay this gently, that conflict doesn’t exist. Many of our cities are rnbecoming more suburban, and I say that gently. I had a caller today on rnan NPR Show saying, “My neighborhood in Brooklyn is starting to look rnless edgy and all these people with strollers and I feel like I live in rnan older, inner-ring suburb.” Well, that’s true! Cities are becoming rnsafer, they’re becoming more family friendly. Where I live in Toronto, rnit’s a completely family friendly city, with young people, old people, rnimmigrant families, wealthy families, low income families... But our rncities in the United States are becoming more family friendly, many of rnthem, and they need to do more, need to fix their schools and so forth. rnAt the same time, our suburbs are becoming more urbanized. When I lived rnin greater Washington, D.C., it wasn’t only the District of Columbia rnthat was becoming changed and transformed or perhaps overly gentrified: rnArlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and then Tyson’s Corner, the rnold, what they called the Boom Burg, the Ex-Urb, the Edge City—it was rntrying to make itself a more walkable, mixed live/work/learn/play rncommunity; Silver Spring, and Prince George’s County, largely rnAfrican-American, or predominantly African-American, trying to remake asrn walkable, denser communities around transit. 

In some ways, the rnhistory of capitalism is really a history of the more intensive and rnexpansive use of land and space. So what we’re seeing is, what we used rnto think of city versus suburb is going away and we’re getting denser, rnmore mixed, more—and I think this is a 20 or 30-year process—the word I rnuse for this, is we’re going to see the birth of the "mega-region." The rnmega-region. We grew up with "metropolis," the city and the suburb, New rnYork and its suburbs, LA and it’s suburbs, San Francisco, Chicago and rntheir suburbs, that hinterland. Now, I think we’re seeing these more rnlarge-scale units, like the New York/Boston/Washington corridor, the rnmega-region that runs throughout northern California, Cascadia from rnPortland to Seattle to Vancouver, across the border. Where I live that rngoes from Toronto to Buffalo to Rochester, up to Ottawa, across to rnMontreal. And then Char-Atlanta, you know, from Charlotte to Atlanta. rnThese mega-regions are becoming much more integrated economic units, andrn over time, I think that’s what we’re looking at, a denser place where, rnyes, certain parts of it are more city, certain parts are more suburban,rn but its much more of an integrated economic field, if you will. 

Question:rn What do you envision for Detroit? 

Richard Florida: rnLooking at the new economic geography and the new economic landscape of rnAmerica, suggests that two types of communities in the United States rnhave been very, very hard hit by this economic reset and actually this rnshift has been going on for a long time. I often say that the world is rnnot flat: it’s not that the world is becoming more spread out, in fact, rnthe world is becoming more concentrated and spiky and our economic rngeography is becoming much more uneven. In fact, our economic rninequality, our class, economic class, is becoming reflected in our rngeography. 

I think on the one hand, the Sun Belt cities, the rncities of the sand, that really thought they could be built around real rnestate, whether it was Miami in Southern Florida or whether it was rnPhoenix, whether it was Las Vegas, the Inland Empire in California, rnwhatever. People sort of believed real estate could become an economy, rnthat you could grow an economy by moving and selling and shifting aroundrn real estate and those economies had 30, 35, 40 percent of their people rnworking in or around real estate construction, real estate finance, realrn estate deals. That’s over. That’s over. And those economies are workingrn hard and I believe they can rebuild themselves. Even Las Vegas, around rnconferencing and business networking, global conference center, and thenrn gaming technology. 

And the other one that was hard hit were thern old Rust Belt centers. Detroit is the poster child; it by no means has rnthe highest rate of unemployment. Other cities in Michigan have higher: rnFlint. In Ohio, Toledo. In Elkhart Indiana. Many of these old rust belt rnauto-dependent, heavy industry towns have been buffeted because of the rnoff-shoring and the movement of manufacturing work, not only it’s rnbecoming more automated, but the movement to China and other places. Thern reality is those places are hard hit. They’ve lost their economic rnreason and I lived in Pittsburgh for 20 years, I saw what happened when rnPittsburgh lost its steel industry. And for years and years and years, rnPittsburgh thought it could protect its steel industry and go to rnWashington and put up tariff barriers and somehow we’re going to rnrebuild. And people finally accepted the fact that steel was going to bern a much smaller part of the economy, they had to rebuild around rnuniversities, high tech, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh. rnAnd the other thing that these cities, and in Detroit, with the auto rnbail-outs, the idea that auto can be, it’ll come back... it can’t. It’s rncertainly a part of the economy and the economy has robust research and rntechnology and design in automotive and it has... what’s nice, it has rnglobalization, so global headquarters have come in and Fiat and the rnKorean manufacturers and Japanese, but it’ll never be the manufacturing rnbackbone that it was and you can’t prop that back up. 

But the rnother mistake those cities make is they think that they can rebuild in arn quick fix, silver bullet. And the thing that really drove me crazy in rnPittsburgh, and I see it in Detroit. "We’re going to build a new rnbaseball stadium and that’s going to bring our city back. We’re going torn build a new football stadium. No, we need a convention center. You rnknow, a casino now. The casino’s going to bring the city back with two rnhotels attached to it." It’s insane. That stuff just, it’s like just rnburning money. 

So what happens, of course, and I think what willrn happen... what happened in Pittsburgh, is people said, "Well, what can rnwork to build our city?" Focus on research, technology, build our rnclusters, but also help to strengthen the neighborhoods, adaptive reuse,rn historic preservation, all these small things, arts and culture, rnbegin—and one economic developer, I quote him in the book said, “If you rnbelieve that you can bring back these industries with mega projects, rnmove to China.” That’s where all the big, industrial mega projects have rngone. Economic development today is about literally hundreds and rnthousands of little things that you do to slowly and cumulatively at thern neighborhood and community level. Building partnerships involving rnuniversities, building clusters, many, many small things that rnaccumulate, that create some economic viability. It’s the stuff Jane rnJacobs, the great urbanist, called just plain old "good urbanism." rnThat’s what Detroit has to do and in the book, I talk about all the rnassets Detroit has. It has a spectacular airport. That’s still a hub forrn global commerce. It is the 11th largest region in the country, it’s rnstill much bigger than Pittsburgh ever was. It has large constellations rnof human capital in many of its outlying regions. I talk about rnBirmingham, Michigan having a similar level of Bethesda, Maryland. It rnhas spectacular universities like Wayne State, it has the Cranbrook rnAcademy, the center of modern design, industrial design, and furniture rndesign. It has two of the greatest research universities on the planet, rnvery close by at Ann Arbor and Lansing, the University of Michigan and rnMichigan State. And it has a fabulous design/architecture community, rncreative energy in its low income communities, a tremendous, really rnresilient African-American community, a phenomenal Arabic community thatrn will do anything to save and pitch in... but it has this legacy of rnmusical talent that is just incredible and it continues to propulsively rncreate new musical styles. 

All of those things add up to kind ofrn creativity and innovation being in Detroit’s DNA. But it’s not going torn come from a federal bail-out from the auto industry, it’s not going to rncome from a big casino and convention and stadium project, it’s going torn come from really the small-scale efforts that when people are rnempowered, where neighborhoods are empowered. I do worry. And I’m so rnpassionate about this, because my wife’s family, they all live there andrn I visit so much and I so care about Detroit. I think there’s some rnmistakes being made, I think this idea that you can grow a city by rnshrinking it, I don’t like it. And a woman named Roberta Gratz has just rnwritten a fantastic piece on this, it’s on my Web site if people want a rnlink to it, about the urban renewal and shrinking cities has never, rndemolishing things, that’s always been an abomination. Where those rnbulldozers have gone has been a disaster. 

And the other thing rnthat really worries me, although I believe that you can do some level ofrn farming, I think it’s nice and people have a garden and a roof garden, rnthe idea that you can rebuild Detroit around an urban farm. Why would rnyou turn a great city into a corn field? And I’m not trying to be overlyrn dramatic, but the whole approach just strikes me as bizarre. That rndoesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have more urban farming, that you rnshouldn’t have more urban gardening, that sustainability is critical, rnbut the idea that Detroit is going to somehow come back by shrinking rninto oblivion, annihilating neighborhoods and starting urban farms, whenrn you have some of the greatest research universities on the planet, somern of the greatest design talent, where you have people with manufacturingrn knowhow in that community... it all has a role. But the ideas that are rnbeing discussed just leave me so perplexed and I find that now some of rnus urbanists are beginning to speak out and say, but I think that rnDetroit can be rebuilt and the lessons there—you can learn from Europe, rnyou can learn from Pittsburgh—they’re going to come from empowering rnpeople and neighborhoods and communities and as I said, not giving big rnfederal bail-outs or big state bail-outs to all declining industries or rnall declining sports stadiums. 
Recorded on April 27, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman