Rise and Shine Detroit!
Professor of Economic Development Offers Advice to CreateDetroit
by Nick Sousanis


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 so.

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 in Detroit.

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 us."

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 people."

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 stay.

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?

In 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 home.

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.

For more information and ways to get involved:
Detroit Chamber
The Rise of the Creative Class

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