Hyping the Hip

Cities need to attract both the "creative class" and blue-collar manufacturing to survive in the 21st century.
October 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

Should cities be cool or uncool? If they need to be cool, do they make that happen with art galleries and restaurants? Or with sports stadiums?

A few years ago, Richard Florida - then a professor at Carnegie Mellon University - turned the world of economic development upside down with his book "The Rise of the Creative Class." Florida argued that the engine of the American economy is the highly educated group of people who create things - artists, scientists - that are then transformed into new products. Florida's argument has been widely interpreted to mean that cities, in order to attract this "creative class," must provide a whole range of hip and cool amenities, including bars, restaurants and art galleries.

Florida's ideas have hatched a whole new generation of intellectuals articulating the value of creativity in economic development. Witness the recent hullabaloo in New York, for example, over the publication of "The Warhold Economy," by Florida protege Elizabeth Currid, which manages to combine hip, on-the-scene descriptions of the New York art scene with sober analysis of the role that the arts play in the city's economy. And the Florida view also has led to a whole new generation of economic development practice, which is focused on developing the urban amenities that Florida's creative class supposedly desires.

Not surprisingly, the cool-cities trend has led to a counter-trend, both intellectually and in practice, that advocates the deliberate creation and nurturing of uncool cities. The most public advocate of the uncool city is Joel Kotkin, the often contrarian commentator on cities and economic development. Kotkin has always been a defender of what he calls "nerdistans": boring suburbs that nevertheless house some of the most powerful drivers of the American economy, especially in the tech sectors. He has frequently argued that the decline of manufacturing in the United States is over-hyped, and more recently he has criticized rebuilding efforts in New Orleans for focusing on what he calls "the ephemeral city" - essentially, the bread and circuses of the creative class rather than the nuts and bolts of basic infrastructure.

So who's right? What's best for the American economy? Do cities need to be cool or uncool? They need to be both, because the economic processes that will sustain cities in the 21st century involve both.

Let's begin with the "creative class." Florida's basic argument has gotten a bit twisted in interpretation. He's not suggesting that arts and culture in themselves should be the basis for a city's entire economy and that therefore the entire point of economic development should be to nurture that sector of the economy. Rather, he's saying that a wide variety of urban amenities, including art and culture, are required to attract and retain a multiplicity of creative people - not just artists but research scientists, designers and all kinds of other people.

I think he's right. Not long ago, I was giving a speech in just about the most blue-collar city you can imagine - Buffalo - and I made the Florida argument. New York State was investing hundreds of millions of dollars in life sciences research in Buffalo in an effort to compete with Georgia, Arizona and California in this sector of huge economic opportunity. I pointed out that the prevalent new development pattern in Buffalo was the creation of three-acre suburban lots but that research scientists trying to cure cancer did not want to spend all weekend on a riding mower.

Afterwards, one woman came up to me and told me she works at a cancer research institute. "You're right," she said of the scientists. "At the end of the day, all they want is a restaurant, a gym and a loft."

Yet coolness alone will not make American cities work in the 21st century. The coolness must generate research breakthroughs, which must be pushed through the product development cycle and then manufactured and brought to market. Although manufacturing employment worldwide is declining because of productivity increases, manufacturing will continue to play a role in future U.S. prosperity.

But not if it is disconnected from the "cool cities" research process. Product assembly will probably still drift overseas. But the intersection between research and products - where skilled workers take the research breakthroughs and turn them into products - can remain in the United States. This is the high-value-added part of manufacturing anyway, the part that can afford to pay high wages.

So American cities need to listen to both Florida and Kotkin. And if that means that a factory worker goes to the opera every once in a while, or a scientist goes bowling, that's even better.