Your 1,200 word bluffer’s guide to Richard Florida’s new book

Richard Florida’s new book “The New Urban Crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class–and what we can do about it,” came out last week.

The book touches on many of the issues that are near and dear to us at City Observatory, and in the coming weeks, we’ll have much to say about the arguments, evidence and recommendations advanced in the book.

But today, we’ll start off with just a simple synopsis of what the book says.

If Florida’s 2002 “Rise of the Creative Class” was a manifesto, The New Urban Crisis is a lamentation and encyclopedia. The lamentation is that the continued and growing success of the creative class is widening the divisions in our country and within our communities. The encyclopedia is some 37 pages of references to much of what has been written about cities, poverty, inequality, segregation, and urban economic growth in the past decade.

The book is divided into ten chapters, each built around a single theme.

Chapter 1 describes an “urban contradiction”: Economic success is now driven by urban, knowledge-based economies, but as it is, success is becoming more concentrated in cities, and specifically in some cities rather than others, and within cities in particular neighborhoods. Cities are indispensable to having an innovative and globally competitive economy, but by their nature, they create divisions and inequality.

Chapter 2 argues that we live in a world of winner-take-all urbanism, that the economic advantages of being in a big city trump and undermine the competitive position of smaller cities. The kinds of industries that are now driving the economy flourish in just a few urban locations, where firms and workers cluster. Big, successful cities are taking an increasing share of the economic pie, and undercutting the economic position of everyone else.

Chapter 3 says cities are increasingly occupied by the elites, those with the highest levels of education, who are disproportionately members of Florida’s creative class. The super wealthy are concentrating in a few leading centers, as is much venture capital investment. But the concentration of wealth and talent doesn’t seem to be having a stultifying effect on creativity in these places.

Chapter 4 discusses gentrification. It relates the widespread media coverage of gentrification, including Spike Lee’s famous rant, and says that the pain the gentrification causes is real and should be taken seriously. It also cites literature pointing out that gentrification and displacement are extremely rare and restricted mostly to superstar cities. The growth of concentrated poverty is a bigger problem than gentrification.

Chapter 5 discusses income inequality in cities and presents measures of the degree of wage and income inequality. Like the nation as a whole, the distribution of income in cities is becoming more unequal. Florida argues that few cities are able to combine income growth with reductions in inequality.

Chapter 6, entitled “The Bigger Sort” looks at the spatial dimension of income inequality: economic segregation. Florida reports on the literature showing that within cities, rich and poor now live further apart than ever before. A similar widening divide separates American’s when they are divided into Florida’s creative class, the service class and the working class.

The Patchwork Metropolis, described in Chapter 7 is Florida’s classification of metropolitan spatial form into four different categories: based on the relative concentration of the “creative class” relative to others. The four categories are:

  1. Creatives “re-colonize” city centers,
  2. Creative live in the suburbs,
  3. Bifurcated metros, where creative are found disproportionately on one side of a metro area, and
  4. The scattered archipelagos of creatives.

Florida says the pattern in each metro is shaped by a combination of the strength of the urban core, the nature of the transit system, the location of universities and the presence of natural amenities.

Chapter 8 shifts our attention to the suburbs, and reviews evidence on the growing levels of poverty in the suburbs (as an aggregate). Once the bastions of the American middle class, now more poor Americans live in suburbs than anywhere else. Florida notes the environmental and social costs of sprawl and the political cleavages and emerging voting patterns.

Chapter 9 broadens the book’s perspective from its domestic focus to global cities. Florida presents the well-known statistics about the growing number of people living in cities globally, and focuses on the economic progress of those living in urban slums.

Chapter 10 is Florida’s policy recommendations, grouped under the slogan “Urbanism for all.” The chapter begins with a quantitative synopsis of the books findings called the “New Urban Crisis Index” which ranks US metro areas top to bottom; high scoring cities are where “the crisis is most acute.”

Here are the main recommendations:

  • Make clustering work for us. Florida argues the New Urban Crisis is due in part to laws that restrict the use of land where it is most valuable and in highest demand. He rejects both lasseiz-faire market urbanism (abolishing all land use controls) and hyper-density (urban economies are powered not by high-rise, but mid rise development, that reinforces a pedestrian scale.
  • Invest in infrastructure to support density. We should build more high speed rail to connect cities, and invest in more transit within cities to connect the poor to opportunities.
  • Build more affordable rental housing. Current housing policies are too tilted toward homeownership; more people, especially young one’s are renters, and an increasing number of renters are cost-burdened, especially in “superstar” cities. Rent control and inclusionary zoning have limited appeal and applicability, so government will have to pay for the new housing.
  • Turn low-wage service jobs into middle class work, by raising the minimum wage, and indexing it to local living costs. We’ll also need to re-engineer service jobs to make them more productive.
  • Florida straddles the “people v. place” controversy by arguing we should invest in both to reduce poverty. We need to spend more on places, especially schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods and in people through provide expanded early childhood education and implement a negative income tax.
  • Donald Trump’s victory caused Florida to re-write his final recommendation. There’s no hope of federal action to implement any of these recommendations, so Florida calls for “empowering cities and communities.” With America deeply split between red and blue, there’s no way to achieve a national consensus, so we should just revert to local solutions. It’s unclear what form this empowerment might take; one example: Florida suggests that groups of cities and suburbs would oversee transit and transportation. The burden of solving the New Urban Crisis falls upon mayors and other urban leaders.

The New Urban Crisis Index

An Appendix includes the methodological details and ranking of each of the nation’s 359 metropolitan areas according to Florida’s New Urban Crisis Index. The Index itself is a composite of four equally weighted sub-indices: 1. Income inequality, 2. Wage Inequality, 3. Income Segregation and 4. Housing affordability. According to this index, Bridgeport, CT, Los Angeles, New York and Gainesville have the most acute “urban crises” while Jefferson City, MO, Fond du Lac, WI and Wassau WI have the least.