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‘We Need to Make More New Yorks’: A Conversation With Richard Florida

Vital City

June 26, 2024

The author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ makes the case for family-friendly cities.

The author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ makes the case for family-friendly cities.

Richard Florida has been studying and writing about cities for nearly four decades. He is best known for articulating the theory that urban economic development hinges on concentrations of artists, tech workers and other “high bohemian” members of the educated “creative class” — articulated in his best-selling 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

That theory had many critics. Indeed, Florida has since reconsidered his work and broadened his focus, thinking more intentionally about the interactions between members of the creative class and residents that tend to be less educated and have lower incomes.

In 2010, he published “The Great Reset: How New Ways of Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity”; in 2014, “The Rise of the Creative Class — Revisited”; and in 2017, “The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It.”

Of late, he has been a prominent critic of the “doom loop” theory, writing a three-part essay for Bloomberg CityLab under the headline, “This is Not the End of Cities.” (He also remains head of the Creative Class Group, a strategy firm.)

Florida, the city expert, like cities themselves, is complex, always evolving and always compelling. Vital City joined the Newark native, Columbia Ph.D., part-time Miamian and University of Toronto Rotman School of Management professor for a conversation. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Credit: Arthur Mount. Portrait of Richard Florida.

Vital City: What is the urban doom loop as you understand it?

Richard Florida: There’s more than a grain of truth in the doom loop theory. The pandemic is resulting in a decline in office occupancy and a significant hit to the central business district and commercial property values and tax revenues coming from commercial property.

Pundits love to cheer on the death of our cities. More than anything else, urban economics shows us that cities, or so-called “urban agglomerations,” are critical drivers of innovation and economic growth. Yet, so many cheer on their supposed decline. Maybe it’s a sense that cities have libertine values and are filled with crime and violence and disorder.

The first person who actually articulated the urban doom loop to me was Seth Pinsky, a Bloomberg administration economic development official. We talked about this in March or April of 2020 as the pandemic came down upon us, and Pinksy’s view — and I still think he has the best view of this — was that what made New York City successful was these “magnetic urban attractions”: arts, culture, dining, nightlife.

The idea was, once you cut that off, that would have an effect on tax revenues, but it would also have an effect on people wanting to live in the city. As Pinsky framed it, as offices shuttered, and restaurants and retail shops closed down because of the pandemic-induced shift to remote work, tax revenues would decline, services would have to be cut back, the downtown and the city would become less attractive, and the urban doom loop would set in. My take was articulated in a three-part series published in Bloomberg CityLab, “This is Not the End of Cities.” I’ve never lived through a pandemic. But my dad was born on the edge of the Spanish Flu and quit school to go to work during the Great Depression. He served in World War II and stormed the beaches at Normandy. London was flattened, German cities were flattened, Japanese cities were flattened. Cities have always recovered — and from far worse than the COVID-19 pandemic.

I figured early on that cities like New York and London, even San Francisco, were much more likely to rebound from the pandemic, not only because these are incredibly resilient places that have recovered from much worse, but also because they’ve been able to mobilize civic action. My view was that, if the urban doom loop was going to take place, it was going to hurt smaller cities, second-tier cities, cities in the Rust Belt that were already lagging. I think Chicago will end up being fine, but it is likely to be more of a challenge for it or even Pittsburgh, a city that I love.

I wrote about this great study that Paul Levy did for Philadelphia’s downtown association, the Center City District, where he showed that in terms of office work activity, on average, it was back at about 75% to 80% — San Francisco was lower, New York higher. But residents were back up in the downtowns of cities, more than 100% in almost every city except for one.

The big thing that was driving the recovery of cities was visitors. The study used cellphone tracking data from and found that workers make up about 20% to 25% of downtown activity. Residents make up about 10% to 13%. Visitors, 60% to 65%.

I think it makes sense that downtowns are the place that visitors want to go.

VC: Let’s return to the “superstar” cities that some people thought were susceptible, New York and San Francisco. Can you do a quick compare and contrast? Is San Francisco more vulnerable than New York?

RF: There’s a great paper from 1961 by Ben Chinitz, an urban economist: “Contrasts in Agglomeration: New York and Pittsburgh.” Chinitz contrasted Pittsburgh and New York and said, “Pittsburgh is a one-industry town. New York is a diversified, multisectoral industrial agglomeration. It’s more likely to be fine.”

I know San Francisco pretty well; neighborhoods like SoMa (South of Market) and the Mission were always challenged. They were always magnets for homeless people and drug addicts and zombies. This is nothing new. I would walk there and go, “Oh, yikes. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids here.” It’s gotten worse with the pandemic, but those neighborhoods were never a bowl of cherries.

While I certainly expected San Francisco to maintain its status as the world’s number one center for venture capital finance innovation, I did not expect it to be so dominant in artificial intelligence. According to the most recent data, it’s over 50% of all artificial intelligence-backed startups, which means, to my mind, that San Francisco is more dominant in artificial intelligence than possibly any other technological field. This goes back to AnnaLee Saxenian’s brilliant work a couple of decades ago: The difference between San Francisco and Pittsburgh or Detroit is that San Francisco may be a one-industry high-tech town, but it’s been able to change and morph its high-tech industries. It’s gone from semiconductors and semiconductor devices to mini computers, to laptop computers, to mobile devices, to handheld devices, to biotechnology, to social media, to internet search.

My view was if the urban doom loop was going to take place, it was going to hurt smaller cities, second-tier cities, cities in the Rust Belt that were already lagging.

Does the creative class still matter?

VC: What does San Francisco tell us about the limits of understanding cities through the lens of the creative class in this postpandemic era?

RF: We know that the people who are most likely to work from home are people with advanced college degrees, members of the creative class working in information technology and other fields. The other thing is that San Francisco was most vulnerable to the demographic time bomb that went off with the onset of COVID.

Back in the late 1990s, people thought cities were dead or dying. My argument then was that well, they’re not great places for families, and families probably aren’t coming back, but they’re very attractive to young people and empty-nesters. So those were the people who would spark the urban revival.

Well, San Francisco did that in spades, and New York, too. A professor at the University of Waterloo, Markus Moos, called it not gentrification, but youthification. The urbanist Joe Cortright found that 50% of the growth in urban centers in the early 2000s was composed of young people aged 24 to 35 with a bachelor’s degree. Well, all these people who moved to San Francisco in the 2000s when they were 22 after college, ten years later were somewhere between the ages of 32 and 42. What happens between the ages of 32 and 42? That young single computer scientist, artificial intelligence engineer finds a partner, gets married or otherwise settles down, and starts to have a family. What happens in America when people have families?

VC: They move.

RF: They move to the suburbs.

I think COVID did two things. The cities that had more of those creative-class or high-education technical occupations, and the cities that had more of this young urban cohort, are the ones that got hit the hardest. In the case of San Francisco, because it’s expensive, many of those people said, “Well, I can’t afford the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs. I’m going to move to Austin.” I think San Francisco got hurt more with residential out-migration.

That said, and when you look at the data now, a lot of the AI startups are still clustering in and around downtown San Francisco, which makes sense to me — because it still is a magnet for young tech talent from the U.S. and all over the world.

My dad, a guy with a seventh-grade education, worked in an eyeglass factory in Newark. He ended up working his way to foreman or supervisor of the factory; he was a pretty smart guy. He liked to say: “Technical skills erode fast. When you hire engineers, you want to hire young ones, because in five years their skills are out of date.” Now, I don’t know if my dad is right or wrong, but I think it’s true that the world changes so fast that young, talented people have a lot of horsepower, they have a lot of discretionary time, and they have a lot of new skills. So I think that San Francisco is still attractive to young techies the way New York is attractive to young people in finance and real estate.

I think that San Francisco will come back. To put the pin on this, if you look at the very small but interesting literature on civic structures, there are two or maybe three places in which the business community has long played a very vibrant role in saving or revitalizing cities. The brilliant economic geographer Michael Storper wrote a whole book comparing San Francisco to Los Angeles, which, basically, concluded that the big difference in San Francisco is its civic elite.

The other thing that struck me about San Francisco is that, yeah, there were a lot of techies on the right and on the libertarian side griping about its woke culture, but there would be a lot of people there who would say, “Yeah, you've got a point. Let’s get involved and make it better.”

You don’t have to look much further than the research of the urban economist David Albouy, who looked at the real underlying economic value proposition of cities and metropolitan areas, where he created an index of productivity plus amenity. He essentially said, “If you combine productivity and amenity, you get the economic value of a city.” San Francisco was very near the top of his list as a place with high levels of both productivity and amenity.

It’s the rents, stupid

VC: Productivity and amenity have a role in driving up the cost of living, which is extremely high in a place like New York. Are there natural tensions between a city being home to the educated, relatively well-off strivers and places where a working-class person can make a go of it, or are those symbiotic?

RF: This gets to the core of my work. In my 2017 book “The New Urban Crisis,” I argued that the old urban crisis was a crisis of urban failure, based on my experience of the city in which I was born, Newark. It was a crisis brought on by deindustrialization and suburbanization and economic dysfunction. The new urban crisis is a crisis of success, and its dimensions are increasing housing unaffordability, increasing economic inequality and increasing geographic inequality or segregation, the decline of the middle class and the separation of areas of concentrated advantage imprinted on much larger spans of concentrated disadvantage.

It is predictable in retrospect, but I did not expect a new urban crisis to become an across-the-United-States-everywhere crisis. Steve Case, who cares so deeply about the revitalization of entrepreneurial hubs across the country, refers to the rise of the rest. The rise of the rest became the rise of the rents.

I spend part of the year in Miami Beach. Greater Miami is now by some measures the most unaffordable housing market in the United States, because you have nearly New York prices, but incomes are lower.

I’ve been predicting for a while that we’d see the beginnings of a shift to the Great Lakes states and the Rust Belt, because the Pittsburghs, the Cincinnatis, the Clevelands, the Detroits — they have much lower housing prices, but also, they have nice urban bones, they have downtowns that are working now, that have enough amenities and restaurants, and they have very good suburban schools. And they offer all of this at a much more attractive price. Now we’re seeing some of the greatest demand and largest housing appreciation in the country in some of these Rust Belt metros.

VC: So is the creative class healthy or unhealthy for cities overall?

RF: In “Rise of the Creative Class,” there was a whole section of the original version on the division between highly educated people with college degrees in these knowledge-based professional occupations, and two other classes — the working class of people who work in factories and do construction and transportation, and the service classes that got cut for length. I published that in early 2003 as an essay in the Washington Monthly. That is now restored in the updated 2019 version of my book.

We introduced a measure of wage inequality which measured the economic gap between the creative class and the service class and the working class. Guess which were the most unequal metros? Austin, San Francisco, Boston, Ann Arbor, Boulder. You had almost a perfect correlation between the percentage of people working in creative knowledge and professional jobs.

Then later, I saw Enrico Moretti’s superb work. Enrico was arguing that technology-based innovation complexes created this incredible flywheel of positive effects, and they would pull up everybody by their bootstraps. I went back with a colleague, and we looked at the amount of money left over after paying for housing for the knowledge professional and creative class, the working class and the service class.

What we found — now, this was before the pandemic — was that almost universally, the creative knowledge and professional class people had enough money to buy or rent housing in high-priced metros. So the housing price really reflected the wages and incomes of this privileged third to 40% of the workforce.

The people who got fucked, sorry for my evocative language, were the working and service classes.

VC: The stereotype of San Francisco is that if you’re in the service class, you have to take BART or deal with a two-hour car commute from some faraway place to try to get into downtown San Francisco, if that’s where your job is.

RF: 100%.

Over a century ago, New York built out a robust transit network. People say it’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s not always efficient, but it works.

Appreciating New York’s strengths

VC: New York arguably has fewer of these problems, given that it has high-quality public transit and five boroughs that are knitted together, where some of those are semi-suburban.

RF: I think you nailed it. Once you get to a metro area of over 5 or 6 million people, transit and trains and mass transit become critical. Over a century ago, New York built out a robust transit network. People say it’s dirty, it’s smelly, it’s not always efficient, but it works.

I’m sure lots of people would flock back to New York City if they could all have a wonderful townhouse on the Upper East Side, but who can afford that? You have to be rich. But what New York offers professional knowledge-based people is the ability to live in a really nice suburb at a price which is comparable to a Sun Belt city.

I think even for moderate-income working-class people, they can live in places like where my dad bought a house, like North Arlington, New Jersey. The scale of New York and the differentiation of its housing market, those distinguish it.

Then there’s a big rental sector and there’s an affordable housing sector. It isn’t perfectly alleviated, and people are still struggling, but I think New York, for a superstar city of its size and scale, yes, I think it is able to have workarounds for just that problem.

VC: How should New York be thinking about how to remain a place where people from around the world come to make a go of it?

RF: New York has to take these demands for higher wages for gig workers seriously, for affordable housing. New York has a long history of social and public housing, of affordable housing. When I taught at NYU, I had subsidized faculty housing. Then when I left NYU, we rented an apartment in SoHo. It was expensive, but in that building, 20% or 30% of the units were affordable. Now, maybe not for the poorest New Yorkers, but for people who work in the nonprofit sector, people who work in education. I think that New York has a long history of doing this.

What does it need to do? This is the same problem as the 1920s and the Great Depression, and again, I’ll just evoke my dad. My dad said, “I got a job in this eyeglass factory at age 13 because your grandpa couldn’t afford [raising a family on his income alone]. All seven of us kids had to go to work, my five sisters and my brother and my and my dad to make a living wage then to pay for that house. So I didn’t get to go to high school or college.”

He said, “But after I went off to the war and I came back from the war, something happened as if by magic: the unions and FDR. And all of a sudden our wages started to go up. We used to have short-term balloon mortgages, but then we got 30 year mortgages from the VA (for Veterans’ Administration) and the FHA (Federal Housing Administration). So now, we’re living in a house that was a farm.”

VC: What do the wealthiest residents do for (and to) cities?

RF: Let me give you the example of Miami. Miami used to be a reasonably affordable place. There were poor neighborhoods, but middle-class people could move from New York and buy a home.

Now you have let’s call it “the capitalist class” descending upon Miami, price-oblivious. “Would you like $50 million for that lot?” “Yes, I’ll take it.” And so what that does, that kind of concentration of wealth, we’ve seen that in New York City where people take an old townhouse that used to house three, four or five families and make it a single-family, now you’re taking four or five houses off the market. I think the extreme obnoxious concentration of wealth is distorting the market for everyone.

I’m sitting here in a house in Toronto that’s probably worth three times what I paid for it 15 years ago. I didn’t do much to improve it. The structure hasn’t increased in value. It’s the dirt that’s increased in value.

If you read Marx, Marx divides the world into two classes: capitalists and workers. He argues that what the capitalists do, their trick so to speak, is they take the surplus that’s created from the labor, and capture it for themselves. I’ve become quite a fan of Henry George, whose theory is even a better fit for today’s superstar cities. George says the reality is that there are three classes, not just two. The real villains in his story are not capitalists or laborers, but landlords. The people who make out with the surplus in modern capitalism are landlords.

I think George’s theory is a much better fit for today’s knowledge-based capitalism. The economy is the most productive and innovative it’s ever been, but where does that productive and innovative surplus go? It goes into dirt — real estate. Instead of it going into more education and training and better ways of life, better quality of life, better healthcare, it just goes right into dirt. Now, we’re just paying more money for the same dirt. I’m sitting here in a house in Toronto that’s probably worth three times what I paid for it 15 years ago. I didn’t do much to improve it. The structure hasn’t increased in value. It’s the dirt that’s increased in value.

We’ve got to figure out a way to alleviate that tension. It was easier in my father’s day. In my father’s day, cities were not that big. You could clear the farms and build these Levittown-like houses in the suburbs. That’s harder now.

I think the real key is: How do you get beyond the traditional American dream of the single-family home and the car and build family-friendly cities? That, to me, is the big question, But our cities in America, aside from maybe New York, are not particularly family-friendly at all.

Lose families, lose the city

VC: If someone from a city moves to a suburb and is going to work from home, is that a victory for the metro, or is that a loss for the city, or is it both?

RF: Both. The definition of a metro area is a physical cluster, a combined commuting shed. So if you can move out of the metro to the fringe of the metro, and you’re no longer a part of the tax base, that’s a problem for the city. The sad reality is families have little choice, unless you’re extraordinarily wealthy, but to move to a suburb. And I think the real question is: How do you make cities more family-friendly and suburbs more citylike?

It’s the American Dream of a house and a car. But it’s changing. What I hear people saying today is “We want to have a car. We want to have a house. We will even take a condo or apartment, provided it’s big enough. But we don’t want to live in a suburb suburb, we want to live in a suburb that has coffee shops and restaurants and places to work out — an urban suburb is the word they use.”

The really interesting thing in the United States today is that we are having a debate between two kinds of places. There is the 15-minute city, which I think a lot of people desire to live in — a neighborhood where you can walk your kids to school and walk to the grocery store and walk to the sandwich shop and walk to whatever religious organization you belong to, walk to the ball field or maybe take your bike or a short car commute.

I think the real question is: How do you make cities more family-friendly and suburbs more citylike?

And then there is what I like to call the one-minute city where you essentially live inside your own suburban home with a big backyard and a swimming pool, with your own gym, and an indoor recreation room, an indoor playroom for the kids, a home theater, indoor studies and what not.

VC: You get everything you need delivered.

RF: Uber and Instacart deliver your food. You live in a one-minute city completely isolated from everyone else. As someone who cares about social connectivity and the loneliness epidemic, that’s a big issue.

VC: Should we aspire to create more 15-minute cities?

RF: I love Carlos Moreno. I think his concept, the 15-minute city, is right, but a city should be a series of 15-minute neighborhoods connected to something larger, which is called the city center. My biggest revision of my own work, other than recognizing the central importance of families, is that I really poo-pooed the idea of entertainment and sports and arenas. I argued vociferously with Dan Doctoroff in the 2000s against his idea of building stadiums on the West Side. I argued for a Jane Jacobs-style live-work neighborhood. I argued vociferously against subsidizing the stadiums in downtown Pittsburgh, in Detroit.

Those advocating for such attractions were right. Remote work and the challenges to commuter workers mean that the real function of the center city is to host entertainment, medical, academic, or intellectual anchor institutions. The best place to put such attractions from the point of view of transport and transit and other amenities is the urban center.

VC: Crime and perception of crime are intertwined with urban doom loop fears. Crime in cities is not what many people think that it is, particularly in New York City, where by most measures it’s quite low. It did spike during the COVID years, but it’s come back down and we’re in the midst of a pretty dramatic decrease in some types of violent crime. Still, the perception is stubborn — and disorder and quality-of-life crimes are a persistent aggravator. What do you make of it?

RF: It doesn’t matter so much for young people or empty-nesters; it matters for families with kids. Young people are sort of crime-oblivious. Empty-nesters are concerned with it. But when crime really concerns you is when you have kids. It does not have to be violent crime; it can be homelessness and other kinds of urban disorder. As the mayor of one large city said to me, “I’m dealing with COVID crazy.” There’s a lot more anxiety, there’s a lot more people going off — or at least it appears that way.

Certainly, I can tell you in a city that had very little crime, Toronto, we’ve had an epidemic of car theft. We had two cars stolen. Now, people are breaking into homes to get the keys to take the car. In my neighborhood here, there was just a meeting of the federal government, the provincial government, the city government, and our neighbors to try to quell rising anxiety. What I say is: “I grew up in the United States. You don’t want to have a replay of this movie here. You want to get a handle on this stuff now, because once it’s set in, it’s hard to abate.”

I wrote about this in 2017 for the New York Times, and I titled the op-ed, “The Urban Revival is Fragile.” The headline writer there changed it to a better one: “The Urban Revival is Over.” I argued then, three years or so before the pandemic struck, that what was going to threaten the urban revival was the combination of increasing housing prices and the perception and reality of increasing crime. Because already, then, sociologists who study crime and neighborhood disadvantage, like Robert Sampson and Patrick Sharkey, were showing it was trending up.

I think crime matters a lot, and I don’t think the reality matters as much. I think the perception of urban disorder is enough. When people feel scared, they’ll move. People feel their kids are under threat, they will move, and they will go to a place that they feel safe.

I think the big question for American cities is: Can we build family-friendly cities on a significant scale, not just one or two? Can we really make our cities the kind of places where families feel comfortable? I don’t know. The jury’s out on that.

New York is a place where generations upon generations of people can live, so I think we need to make more New Yorks.

VC: What are the elements of a family-friendly city that you think New York is most missing?

RF: First and foremost, price. It’s not just because the price of dirt has increased, but because people want more space. I grew up in a small house with five rooms — a kitchen, a living room, my mom and dad’s bedroom, my brother and I split a bedroom, and a bathroom. I think it was less than a thousand square feet with a basement, and that seemed like, “Wow, I’m living in hog heaven.” Now, people want to live like a Kardashian. They want to live in a palace.

I actually think New York is our best chance. The question I would ask is, how do you make more New Yorks? People think, “Oh, my. New York is so dysfunctional.” But it’s hard for me to think of another metropolitan area that’s as functional as New York.

Another good thing about New York is you have an abundance of parks. I think that this is something that really matters, as Eric Klinenberg has written. Social infrastructure is where people come into contact with other parts of humanity, and I think New York does that really well.

The other thing New York offers is world-class health care. That is expensive, but accessible, and that is a big deal.

You look at the traffic in Los Angeles, look at the traffic in Chicago, look at the traffic in Miami, look at what’s happening in Houston. I love all these places, but in many ways, to live a life from being a kid through adulthood, New York. Think about your kids. I think about where my kids are likely to live. New York is a place in which generations upon generations of people can live, so I think we need to make more New Yorks.

VC: Just to come full circle, tell me the thing that you’re the most worried about for cities in America right now, and New York in particular.

RF: I’m really worried about crime and violence. I am.

And the other thing is community. I believe in mobility. We live in the most mobile society on earth; Americans move more than any other people. What wakes me up at night is, how do I give my kids a sense of rootedness? We’re not really from Toronto; we’re not really from Miami. I’m from New Jersey, but only my brother lives there. My wife’s family lives in Michigan, and I love Michigan. Could we go back there?

I think we’ve become sort of rootless. Now, I’m not saying we should go back to living in the traditional community. Lord God, do I want to go back to the traditional Italian-American community in Newark? No. And pickleball is a terrible substitute.

In a way, I used to argue against Robert Putnam, who I think is just an amazing scholar, and he was right about the big question: How do we create community? Where do I give my kids community? I think that’s what’s behind so much of this urban disorder and social fracturing.

Here’s my reading of Jane Jacobs: She was terrified by the advance of modernity and the rise of large-scale organizations. I think this scared her to death, the rise of bureaucracy and large-scale organization and then the rootlessness that she saw. I think she believed that the one thing that could save us was the urban neighborhood. The one place where people could build community, strangers could come together and become part of a community. This is what I think is super hard in our society, and I think it’s very hard to do in a car-dominated suburb. You become a really isolated human being, and that’s what worries me.