Richard Florida burst into the mainstream with 2002’s The Rise of the Creative Class. Over the past decade, his ideas about what drives economic growth have spawned new policy prescriptions in American cities. Florida’s most controversial claim is that the urban “creative class” — which he says comprises 35 percent of the US labor force — is at the root of new economic growth.
For Florida, the “economic revolution” of the new creative economy is occurring in tandem with an “urban revolution.” Major metropolitan areas, he maintains, have become the de facto form of social organization in the post-industrial era; they are the place where the creative class lives, works, and most importantly, clusters together.
The essence of Florida’s idea is simple: creative class prosperity, located within the economic and social structures unique to the urban environment, attracts new waves of creative class immigration, in turn expanding urban colonies of prosperity. Thus, cities provide the scaffolding not only for the day-to-day life and happiness of the creative class; they are the engines of prosperity itself.
One can see the appeal of such an idea to urban policy makers as well as to the fortunate members of the creative class: they are the designated knights of a promising future, and they bear the bittersweet responsibility to better the world for us all.
Florida’s “Three T’s” — technology, talent, and tolerance — serve as the analytical factors that determine his “creativity index” of economic development in cities. It follows that progressive policy decisions aimed at nurturing an open-minded urban ecology of arts and culture that appeal to the tastes of the creative class — charming Wi-Fi equipped cafés, vintage boutiques, cozy galleries, and music venues — are seen not only as an effect of economic prosperity, as a cause of it.
At least from the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002 until the 2008 crisis, it seemed to follow that any downtrodden city possessed the potential to stem depopulation and instead attract the creative class with the right combination of infrastructure and cultural investments. The well-paying jobs would follow on the heels of their arrival.
Of course, the flipside to a successful city in the creative age is the displacement of the non-creative class and widening inequality in our cities, a problem that Florida freely admits. The popularity of his urban prescriptions have drawn ire from both the Left and Right, the former regarding him as a “neoliberal dressed in black”; the latter accusing him of neglecting family values through his trumpeting of hip gays and minorities as integral to urban economic growth.
No doubt Richard Florida is filled with good intentions. Yet the broadly progressive truism that he claims motivates his work — creativity, a universally innate human trait, deserves the chance to be realized — is challenged by his acceptance of neoliberal capitalism and market logic as the inevitable economic situation that the creative class is obliged to shape from within.
The shortcomings of such an understanding are glaring. We’re left to wonder how redistributive concessions could ever be won from above, without an account of non-creative class political agitation from below.
What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of my conversation with Florida, where he generously gave me the opportunity to ask him to elaborate on some of the political implications of his work.