Patrick Ishmael
Just the other day, The Daily Beast published an outstanding piece on redevelopment trends in our urban communities. Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, wrote the article, which addressed the idea that, as Kotkin put it, "the 'creative class' of the skilled, educated and hip would remake and revive American cities," and that governments should pursue projects that would bring them to their urban centers.
Urbanists, journalists, and academics — not to mention big-city developers — were easily persuaded that shelling out to court “the hip and cool” would benefit everyone else, too. And [development consultant Richard] Florida himself has prospered through books, articles, lectures, and university positions that have helped promote his ideas and brand and grow his Creative Class Group’s impressive client list. ...

Well, oops.

Another way I would describe this development strategy: "Warehouse lofts over warehouses."

Indeed, the recasting — and really, inversion — of the American city by contemporary urban planners does not share a great deal in common with why American cities developed in the first place: because that is where the jobs were. As transportation and communication became more expansive and readily available, living in or near the city center for work became less of a necessity and more of an active choice. In a time where "creatives" can give a presentation over Skype and telecommute to work, location-location-location ain't as necessary as it used to be when it comes to jobs. Moving downtown in the 21st Century oftentimes has less to do with labor needs as it does with identity preferences.

And that is, of course, the development quandary. My proximity to my place of work is going to affect where I live greatly if my job is in manufacturing. Indeed, many cities were purpose-built for the manufacturing industry: shoes, cars, etc. But manufacturing is not the industry cities seem to devote too much attention to these days, and unfortunately for cities, the "creatives" they are trying to attract do not exactly have development coattails.

Indeed in many ways the Floridian focus on industries like entertainment, software, and social media creates a distorted set of economic priorities. The creatives, after all, generally don’t work in factories or warehouses. So why assist these industries? Instead the trend is to declare good-paying blue collar professions a product of the past. If you can’t find work in deindustrialized Michigan, suggests Salon’s Ray Fisman, one can collect “more than a few crumbs” by joining the service class and serving food, cutting hair or grass in creative capitals like San Francisco or Austin.

The story actually quotes Florida, one of the lead movers in the "hip" development scene, admitting to a serious flaw in the last decade's worth of development fads: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.” In other words, if you build it, the "creatives" might come to your converted warehouses and niche dining establishments . . . but that is about it. (Emphasis mine.)
Yet this footprint of such “cool” districts that appeal to largely childless, young urbanistas in the core is far smaller in most cities than commonly reported. Between 2000 and 2010, notes demographer Wendell Cox [who has written for Show-Me], the urban core areas of the 51 largest metropolitan areas — within two miles of the city’s center — added a total of 206,000 residents. But the surrounding rings, between two and five miles from the core, actually lost 272,000. In contrast to those small gains and losses, the suburban areas — between 10 and 20 miles from the center — experienced a growth of roughly 15 million people.

The smallness of the potentially “hip” core is particularly pronounced in Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and St. Louis, where these core districts are rarely home to more than 1 or 2 percent of the city’s shrinking population. Yet the subsidy money for developers is often justified in the name of “reviving” the entire city, most of which has continued to deteriorate.

More on this topic shortly.

About the Author

Patrick Ishmael

Patrick Ishmael is the director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute.