Stop me if you've heard this one before: an economist walks into an
auditorium of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and more, and tells
them that they, not large corporations, hold the keys to revitalizing
their "Shrinking City." Everyone applauds. New to you? I thought
CreateDetroit, a partnership
of the Detroit Regional Chamber, local businesses and institutions,
and the City of Detroit, in conjunction with the Governor's 'Cool Cities
Initiative', recently hosted a lecture by Professor of Economic Development
at Carnegie Mellon, Richard
Florida, author of "The
Rise of the Creative Class." Florida, who has become a leading
figure in the movement to revitalize and reimagine older urban environments,
spoke to to a packed house at Orchestra Hall's Max Fisher auditorium
on March 3. The following day, Florida conducted a workshop for some
350 participants, designed to raise awareness about how to affect change
Detroit's world-renowned Mosaic Youth Theater kicked off the Wednesday
night lecture with a phenomenal performance that combined song and dance
and served as a true testament to the potential for creative expression.
Christina Lovio-George delivered a passionate speech which she concluded
by proclaiming "I am Detroit". A chorus of Detroiters in the
audience rose to their feet to echo her words. (For those more comfortable
showing their pride rather than voicing it, T-shirts emblazoned with
that slogan are available.) The Mayor dropped in to introduce Florida
and added his own twist, "We are Detroit and Detroit is all of
Florida then took the stage, working the room like a motivational speaker.
As a researcher of economic growth, Florida looks for answers to the
question "How do you make cities grow?" Traditional answers
have included building fortress-like corporate headquarters, giant destination
projects, and developing high-tech corridors. While the author acknowledges
that such "monolithic" projects can provide benefits, Florida's
research has led to a new conclusion. "People are the only economic
resource that matters. People drive economic growth."
Florida claims that companies today don't relocate because of incentives
or stadiums, but because a city already possesses "a readily available
pool of talent." In other words, jobs go where the people are.
Florida proposes that what thriving cities have and struggling cities
need to create is an environment for interaction and cooperation. A
place where people are able to "work, live, learn, and play."
Essentially, the economist has adopted the vocabulary of an ecologist,
stressing that a city is not a collection of isolated, disconnected
parts, but rather, a complex ecosystem in which each aspect of the community
serves an integral role in the health of the whole.
Florida points out that the number of people involved in creative work
(this includes everything from art to computer programming) increased
from just 5% in 1900 to 15% in 1980. Today some 33% of the working population
is among what Florida calls the "Creative Class."He stresses
that this label is not intended to categorize people, only their professions.
For, in his words, "every single human being is creative"
and represents a resource to be harnessed. As such, he says, he is not
"pro business, but pro people. A good city is good for all the
Florida identifies four factors that he claims are necessary for a
city to prosper today: Technology, Talent, Tolerance, and Territory
Assets. He defines Technology as the ability to generate new research
and inventions, and then make these ideas commercial. Talent refers
to the capability (education/expertise) of a population. Florida may
be most emphatic about Tolerance - an openness to all kinds of people.
He claims that an environment in which all people are able to express
themselves and their ideas freely allows for the sort of creative interactions
that make a city vibrant. Territory Assets refer to quality of place,
an area that provides things people want to do.
Florida and his team have developed a number of indices intended to
measure how cities stack up in such categories as High-Tech , presence
of Talent, Composite Diversity, overall Creativity, Brain Drain/Gain,
and the Bohemian index (this last one is defined as the percentage of
people working in artistically creative fields in an area.) The Brain
Drain/Gain index reveals that talent turns out to be most cities' biggest
export: 90% of young talent goes to just 10% of American cities. Florida
says that places like California, which have let their education systems
crumble, are subsidized by importing people from places like Michigan
which spend a lot on educating their youth, but can't entice them to
The participants at Thursday's all day symposium contributed to Florida's
continuing research. Armed with "American Idol" style keypads,
attendees were asked to cast their predictions as to where Detroit's
creative fitness ranked alongside other cities. Later the actual data
was compared to the voters' responses. Each table of attendees was then
assigned the task of working together to develop a means of improving
one of Detroit's "Ts."
As if to reinforce Florida's point that technology alone will not make
a city, before the accumulated data from the day could be shared, all
the computers and the backup computers crashed irreparably.
So now that Florida and his crew have packed up their fickle computers,
pulled up the tent stakes, and moved on to their next destination, what
can Detroiters take from this visit and make our own?
addition to providing a new framework to ask questions, a few central
issues recurred over the two days. Florida states that the city needs
density to create connections and interactions - the sprawl that defines
our region must stop. We need to value the city at night, after people
have gone home from work. Preservation is essential, as old buildings
become retooled to house this creative class. Mass transportation received
the strongest, united rallying cry as an urgent and necessary measure.
This tied in to the understanding that without a regional approach,
few real problems will be adequately addressed. Florida insisted that
while "Big projects are important, small ones are even more important."
Finally, on the day after Mayor Kilpatrick stated his opposition to
gay marriage, Florida repeatedly stressed the importance of tolerance,
stating that a place either expands rights to all its people or goes
on a backwards slide, deterring many groups from making a region their
Florida's position as an economist, and not an artist or community
proponent, is of vital importance. Although solutions like, "If
you build casinos, a stadium or two, they will come" may not have
flown with the audience present, these big box projects still dominate
revitalization policies. When a celebrated economist says cities need
to pay attention to the people, policy leaders start to listen. While
too few of those people were in attendance (note the Mayor's brief appearance),
Florida's words and ideas can percolate to those levels.
True, attendees were the choir to Florida's preacher. The audience
for both days consisted of members of community organizations including
Detroit Synergy, small business
owners, artists, designers, musicians, and more that are already doing
much of what Florida says is necessary. As Jenenne Whitfield of Tyree
Guyton's Heidelberg Project said,
"All of us here, already know this!" Florida offers outside
validation that they are on the right path and something more - a call
to arms to take themselves seriously as an economic force.
Some attendees expressed disappointment with the fact that while Florida
posed a lot of questions, he didn't offer many answers. But this speaks
to the heart of his argument, that there is no single solution that
will revitalize Detroit, but that real solutions come from people making
difficult choices each and every day. Ultimately, a city's most important
resource is the hearts and minds of its people.