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Do cities have to be ‘cool’ to heat up their economies?

February 6, 2016

Cool Cities‘ was the name of a talent and tourism attraction initiative of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. It was a concept inspired by the work of a professor named Richard Florida, who claimed in The Rise of the Creative Class that the path to prosperity lies in cultivating what he calls ‘the Three T’s‘ – Technology, Talent and Tolerance.

The latter of these three metrics is often conjoined to statistics like ‘the gay index‘ hat purport to show that the hottest local economies – think Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s ‘Research Triangle’ – are also welcoming and inclusive, as measured by the presence of same-sex households.  In other words, places that make outsiders feel more welcome and that embrace all forms of diversity attract talent, and talent creates the technology that powers 21st Century economic growth.  Ergo, if same-sex couples feel welcome, a place must have the kind of atmosphere that also attracts the mobile, urban professional class who will act as the drivers of future prosperity.

Trendy ideas come and go in our society, and this one may end up being yesterday’s news sooner or later.  For the present, however, ‘Creative Class’ thinking is quite popular, and the underlying concepts are accepted and acted upon by many people in positions of power and influence.  Ideas have consequences, and those emanating from ‘Creative Class’ thinking have earned the theory its share of detractors, many of them fellow academics of Professor Florida.

(In fairness to Professor Florida, an author’s ideas and theories can be interpreted in ways never intended by their creator; Florida acknowledged as much in one of his writings when he quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s summation of this phenomenon:  “The Law of Maximum Possible Misunderstanding.”  They are not alone; before his death, Karl Marx, after seeing to what uses his ideas had been put in certain instances, declared that he was not a Marxist.)

The results of some research conducted on Florida’s theory (Hoyman & Faricy, 2009) show that older measures of future growth potential, such as ‘Human Capital’ and ‘Social Capital,’ are as predictive as ‘Creative Class’ metrics, or more so.  This is especially true of ‘Human Capitol’ measures, which focus on the incidence of college degrees in a given population as a predictor of future economic growth.

This may be an example of ‘the ecological fallacy’ – the idea that what works in one instance will work in others, without sufficient regard to differences in place, time, or other factors.  Thus, what works in Silicon Valley may not be the success formula for Rustbelt towns trying to revive their economies (and vice versa).  One can see how this would be the case if we were to imagine a future researcher being impressed with the steady economic growth of Salt Lake City, the low crime rate, et cetera, and were to conclude that we need to look to the outstanding characteristics of Salt Lake City’s population and then design ‘attraction strategies’ to induce people with those characteristics to see to what lengths people can go to when they mistake coincidence with causation, imagine that the elements of success in one locale are of universal value, and so forth.

An alternative to trying to attract a share of the finite population of techno-hipsters that are supposed to be the workhorses of the New Economy might be to groom another source of talent, already in our midst.  In doing this, we can turn to Michigan Lt. Governor Calley and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bernstein for inspiration.  They have crossed partisan lines to work together to encourage employers to hire the disabled.  Their message is that the talent we need to succeed may already be here, hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to shine.  In reaching out to ‘the poor, the blind, the halt and the lame’ they encourage us to more than a moral or religious duty; they encourage us to make good public policy.  Unlike ‘Creative Class’ thinking, which focuses on attraction of outside talent, a renewed emphasis on helping our neighbors to succeed returns our focus to a group often ignored by proponents of ‘talent attraction.’  The effect of affluent new arrivals in a locale is not always an unmixed blessing, as rising rents, clashes of culture, gentrification and displacement can all have negative impacts on those least able to recover from them.

The irony of this last set of observations is that the late Jane Jacobs, whom Professor Florida refers to from time to time, said as much in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Instead of strategies designed to ‘bring back the middle class,’ Jacobs, in 1961, suggested that municipal leaders would do better to create conditions in their cities that would induce people already living there to stay if and when they entered the middle class and would then have had the choice to leave.  (She wrote this in reference to slums and un-slumming activity in neighborhoods, and her belief was that what would help a place to rise and prosper was being able to keep those who could afford to leave –  the middle class – rather than focusing on strategies to get outsiders to move in.)

In heeding Jacobs and following the example of Calley and Bernstein, we can save ourselves the trouble of trying to turn every place into a latte-haven for itinerant hipsters and focus instead on uplifting those who already dwell amongst us.

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