Reimagining the Urban: Margaret Crawford

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center is co-sponsoring the upcoming symposium Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Margaret Crawford, Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: Creative class

In 2002 economist Richard Florida published the Rise of the Creative Class. In it he argued that the best way for cities to revive their ailing urban economies was to remake themselves in order to attract a social category he called “the creative class.”  At the core of this group were innovative and creative workers whose importance in the new knowledge-based economy could produce new companies, attract jobs and residents, and expand consumption. These benefits would then trickle down to re-ignite local economies, based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” principle.  In spite of the fact that a number of previous “silver bullets,” also guaranteed to transform cities (festival marketplaces, sports stadiums, waterfront redevelopment) had largely failed, many cities enthusiastically adopted Florida’s prescriptions.  Planners and politicians, hoping to create the kind of vibrant place that would to appeal to the “hip and cool” instituted a range of policies that ranged from subsidizing the arts to fostering the staples of bohemian neighborhoods, such as cafes, trendy restaurants, and loft-style apartments. 
Ten years later, after scholars had questioned nearly every aspect of Florida’s claims, the concept was largely discredited in academia. One the ground, the evidence was not much better.  The results could be either tragic (as in Michigan’s “cool cities” campaign, subsidizing the arts in Detroit), unnecessary (as in planners’ support of Brooklyn’s “edginess”), or, more often, simply ineffective. One observer summed up its outcomes as benefitting the Creative Class while exacerbating inequality. Creative Class policies were particularly damaging to poor and minority areas, pushing up rents and displacing local businesses and residents. Although Florida’s current academic position as the head of the Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto might already seem like a parody, his most incisive critic is the anonymous author of the parody twitter feed dick_florida. Described as “Talker. Doula for the creative utopia growing inside your city.  Champion of the privileged since 2002. America’s #1 Virtue Industry” his tweets effectively skewer Florida’s mixture of enthusiasm and obliviousness. 
Today, the concept of the creative class survives largely among real estate developers as the icing on the cake of standard development practices, used to sell projects to city officials and citizens. To more effectively brand their proposals, they’ve expanded their vocabulary to include “creative experiences,” “creative currency,” “creative environments,” “emerging economies,”  “innovation” and “incubator.