In 2002, Richard Florida had imagined cities becoming forges of prosperity through talent, technology and tolerance. They did. But inequality also came along. In this interview he explains how to restore fairness, and where to start.
It is an essay on city issues, but there is more tension than in a thriller in Richard Florida‘s The New Urban Crisis, whose cutting-edge analyzes and inexorable warnings are scary. Especially because to form them is the professor-guru, or if you want, the hipsters’ father: the man who had forseen, in his equally loved and detested The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), the transformation of cities into wealth-generating centers through technology, talent and tolerance. One who, as founder and director of the Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, advises governors, mayors and heads of state; and whose Twitter account, according to Time, is among the 140 most influential in the world.
Professor Florida, what went wrong?
«The distribution of the new wealth. Instead of creating inclusive prosperity, the latest generation urbanism – the one that developed around tech companies – is about “the winner takes it all”: a relatively small number of cities (indeed, I would say almost neighborhoods ) has garnered all the benefits of the tremendous economic development generated by technology, talent and tolerance. It is a geographic inequality that affects the whole world: with 50 superstar cities where only 7% of the population lives that generate 40% of the world economy and 40 mega-regions where 18% of the population produces 85% of innovation. But it is also a segregation: gentrification has become “plutocratization” in the metropolis, house prices in some neighborhoods have risen to such an extent that the less wealthy have had to abandon them, speculators turn buildings into investment and homes are left empty. All this has decimated the middle class: for while some of the wages have risen, those of people employed in basic services – education, car, transportation, security – have remained still or have fallen. These people, almost half of the population, are understandably angry: they thought they were part of a club, believed in the promise of well-being for everyone, and now they are left out. And there is a part of right-wing capitalism – the oligarchs in the extractive industry, energy, real estate, weapons – which supersedes populist leaders to transform resentment into hatred and anger: against talent (see the denigration of experts and scholars and the propagation of fake news) and tolerance (the socio-democratic values and civil rights of which cities have always been sanctuaries). Not addressing this problem would be suicidal not only economic but also political terms: it would mean taking a step towards totalitarianism. And it does not help that so much of the left refuse to forge a connection between the creative class and that of the services, pointing in the first the cause of all the ills of the second. And, in fact, further fomenting the divisions».
Some argue you feel guilty for believing in the past that the creative economy could self-regulate itself and are now apologizing.
«I’m neither sorry nor I think I have to apologize in any way. It would be like saying that without my analysis the development of star cities would not have happened. And I had already explained about the risk of the spread of inequality on the Atlantic in 2003. Although I admit that the speed with which this phenomenon has imposed itself has surprised me».
Reading your book makes one feel like we are at the end of an era.
«We are. But also, at the dawn of a new one, it is up to us to make choices that bring inclusive prosperity. A technology invented in the early 1800s was followed by the industrial revolution and capitalist economy that has generated enormous wealth and unfair poverty and inequalities for decades, followed by world wars. Then someone – with the New Deal in America, social democracy in Europe – decided that workers had to be paid better, well cared for and educated, and the middle class and a more equitable and richer society were born. Now, in the face of new technologies and the new capitalism of knowledge, for which talent and innovation produce more wealth than traditional means of production, history is repeating itself. We need someone to make a new generation of New Deal by leaping the passage of the World War. Hopefully.»
Anyone springs to mind?
«People like Bill De Blasio, Sadiq Khan, Anne Hidalgo, Ed Lee. The progressive mayors of star cities around the world. Because the solution will not come from the state, but from a communion of intent among the local actors: businesses, administrations, citizens. A joint boost from the bottom and the top. It is useless to carry on believing that what serves those who live in the country also works for those who are in a degraded suburb or in the center of a city. Or that Detroit’s problems are the same as those of Los Angeles. Today’s great disparities are of income but, when it comes to opportunities, they are above all related to geography. And politics: there are those who would be happy to pay more taxes so that everyone can have health care, university access, or better public transport. But there are also those who want to keep everything for themselves. Then I say: Let the free mayors act to accomplish what is best for the community that sustains them. And then we get the sums».
It sounds a bit like: everyone for himself.
«Everyone is responsible for whoever they vote for. And if the progressive recipes work better then nothing prevents people from changing their minds. But in general I think local administrators – of any color – are well aware of what their city needs. And if there are certain extremist mayors they will certainly not bring about the same damages than those of a president who wants to impose a retrograde pattern on everyone and deny acquired social rights».
You are talking “devolution”, a theme that in Europe is very dear to right-wing movements, often xenophobic ones. How come that you, who are openly democratic, have now become its harald?
«True, the right always wants to take power from the national state, cut taxes, manage everything locally. But devolution can also be articulated in a progressive way as demonstrated by the choice of some governors and mayors to distance themselves from President Trump when refusing to address climate change. A progressive devolution does not mean locking ourselves in our own garden but allowing those who rule cities to experiment with ad hoc solutions, working in conjunction with other metropolises in the world. In addition to strengthening the Global Parliament of Mayors, which already exists, we should create a World Bank for Cities, a mechanism that enables metropolis to help each other and develop their global agendas».
What should city administrators do?
«First of all, we must act decisively on the housing problem that is the basis for segregation. In my book, I propose land taxes so that the surplus value generated by house price escalation goes to local communities, infrastructure investments to re-abilitate the outskirts, building new homes at popular prices, a low-tax negative taxation system, low rent for renters. It is also necessary to act on wages, to guarantee those who work in services – from transport to distribution, from education to health – an adequate salary so that they are not forced to move out of urban conglomerates. And investing in school quality and public transport: those who live in the suburbs should have the same access to the city’s services as residents. Because it is from the density of diversity that generates well-being».
And who will pay for all this?
«In part the big tech companies. They have brought billions of dollars into cities like San Francisco or neighborhoods such as Manhattan (which in 2016, with 7.6 billion in start-up investments, surpassed Silicon Valley). They have the money, they are largely responsible, they now have to act to save that tissue that has helped them grow».
Why should they?
«They are already seen as new exploiters, who pay a few people a fortune and a host of contingent poorly treated collaborators. If they do not change course soon and with realistic projects of real impact, their brands will begin to lose perceived value and will be struggling to recruit the talents they always desperately need. Because living in a city converted into oligarch enclaves does not interest anyone».
Making the private sector work with the administrations and charging them the costs for transports and services. Increasing taxes for the rich to allow the poorest to live better. Redistribute wealth. You make it sound easy. Is it?
«It is not at all, in fact, I take my time talking to administrations, institutions, citizens. And I assure you that many city mayors where the new urban crisis is more evident – New York, London, Paris – are already active on these fronts. And I think tech big techs are smart enough to welcome them, though only for interest. Moreover, they are often together against Trump».
What’s left of your optimism?
«My trust in cities. It seems a paradox, but if we have a more egalitarian policy it will start from the metropolis, from where the divisions are more obvious because it is here that the strength of density is felt. History shows that bottom-up pushes work: the creative class was not interested in shopping malls alongside highways, garden houses, passing cars. And for its retention, industrial spaces have been recovered, street culture has been promoted, crafts and artisan boutiques have emerged, organic farming has grown, bike paths have been built and public transport has been enhanced. I am convinced that the urban progressive people will trigger the change that will solve the problem».