The debate over the future of American cities -- big cities and small cities, new high-tech cities and old manufacturing cities, Sun Belt cities and Rust Belt cities -- is getting livelier and more interesting. Part of this is the impact of the recession, which has been a wake-up call to cities that thought they were doing fine, or at least OK. Part of it is the growth of the blogosphere and the appearance of some truly first-rate urban analysts. Part of it is the fact that some faddish solutions have been tried and haven't worked.
Here in the Midwest, many tired old cities had been kidding themselves that they could stagger on with the traditional industries. They felt they were weakened, but not fatally so. Now the recession, coming on top of damage done by the Rust Belt era and globalization, is forcing a lot of heads to be pulled out of the sand. Everywhere I go now, concerned citizens worry not just about what their town will look like in the future, but whether it even has a future.
Can cities make it on their own, or only in broader regional collaboration? Should they hold on to old industries, or let them go? How do declining cities keep their bright young people or attract talent from outside? What draws in educated people -- culture and recreation, or just good jobs? Should cities be dense, with teeming city centers, or can they sprawl and thrive at the same time? How do cities pay for everything they need, from good airports to better schools, in an era of fiscal starvation? Have cities following the 'shrinking city" formula latched onto a key to survival, or is this just civic desperation? Are some cities indeed doomed to terminal decline?
The most famous and best-paid player in this game is Richard Florida, an American economist, now teaching at the University of Toronto, whose writings on "creative cities" and "the creative class" have entered the vocabulatory almost as much as Tom Friedman's "flat world" metaphors. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser talks about "educated cities," not "creative cities," and says the best way to get educated citizens is to already have a lot of educated citizens. Ryan Avent', who writes The Bellows (www.ryanavent.com/blog), is gaining a reputation as one of the more thoughtful urban economists. Aaron Renn's blog, The Urbanophile (www.urbanophile.com) is unparalleled for its discussion of Midwestern cities. In the manner of bloggers, these writers link to each other, so the result is a conversation and debate, not a bunch of pundits preaching to their own isolated choirs. For that matter, most cities in the Midwest also have their own blogs, many of them linked to this website.
Florida is easy to lampoon. Handsome and articulate, he has turned himself into a brand -- even a showboat. He trumpets the virtues of urban amenties, to the point that some cities where he has spoken came away thinking that all they had to do to attract the creative class was to put in a few bike trails and coffee shops: Michigan took this to ludicrous extremes with its rather pathetic campaign to create "cool cities." More recently, he has drawn flak for writing that the recession is putting existing civic trends into overdrive: cities like Chicago that were already growing will keep growing, while cities like Detroit and Cleveland, which were crumbling, will now crumble faster. Extrapolating existing trends is always dangerous: trends have a way of reversing themselves. And there's a fatalism here: Cleveland and Detroit are doomed anyway, so why bother?
Florida may be most notorious as the popularizer of the "gay index" -- the idea that the more gay-friendly a city is, the more "creative" it will be. Not that gays are necessarily creative, though many are. Rather, a large numbers of gays indicates a high level of civic tolerance, an open-arms approach to different lifestyles, that attracts creative peope. This has a plausible ring but doesn't square with the fact that some stuffier cities, like Indianapolis, seem to be doing just fine.
Florida tends to get carried away in articles and speeches. His books are much more nuanced. He does stress the need for creative people -- human capital -- but says there are many ways to get them and keep them. He promotes amenties, like good recreation and culture (and, yes, coffee bars) but also argues for solid infrastructure, like broadband. By veering so close to self-satire, he often undercuts his own valuable arguments. Check out those arguments at http://www.creativeclass.com.
Ed Glaeser is the unFlorida, presenting arguments that sound much the same as those of his Toronto nemesis but without the razzmatazz and metaphors. Glaeser says cities must seek the "educated class," basically people with college degrees: he says these people want safe streets and good schools more than blues bars and good restaurants. But his argument is circular: the best way to get college grads, he says, is to have lots of college grads, because educated people only go places where there are other educated people to talk to. Unhappily, some cities have grads and others don't, and that pretty much is that. Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities (www.ceosforcities.org) has been pushing an idea called the "talent dividend," which says cities can boost their GDPs dramatically with a mere 1% increase in their college grads: Glaeser would say this increase probably isn't going to happen, no matter how hard a city tries.
Glaeser, too, is a fatalist, especially where the Midwest is concerned. More and more educated people are going to "educated" cities, especially on the East Coast. This is great, he says: by moving, these people become more productive, and so does society, so why worry? If the cities left behind suffer, that's because they were meant to suffer.
There's a good deal of East Coast snobbery in Glaeser's approach, most recently seen in his opposition to high speed rail. The really important part of the country, which is the BosWash corridor between Washington and Boston (where Glaeser lives) already has a moderately fast train, the Acela. Cities in the rest of the country, like the Midwest, are mostly too far apart from each other and too sprawly to benefit from high speed rail. So there's no need to spend good money on linking these cities because they wouldn't no what to do with it anyway.
Aaron Renn's blog deals with all manner of urban issues -- is regionalism a good idea? Should cities be dense? Is sprawl necessarily bad? What about high speed rail? What cities are making it? What does urban design have to do with it? It's consistently intelligent and provocative stuff. He also reads widely and posts links to writers he admires, like Ryan Avent. A recent example was his reprint on The Urbanophile of Avent's response to an attack on Florida in The American Prospect magazine. (I told you that all this adds up to a conversation: the decline of print journalism is rightfully lamented, but newspapers never gave us this sort of unedited conversation.) Renn has less of an urban philosophy than some of his more academic colleagues, but his blog is a must read for Midwestern city-dwellers who want to know what's going on.
Are there any overriding thoughts emerging from all this? Maybe a few.
Mostly, the debate continues. The future of cities, especially Midwestern cities, is still being invented.
Some thinkers, like Glaeser, have pretty much written off the old Midwestern industrial cities as dinosaurs that will never ever attract the educated classes the future needs. There may indeed be an invisible hand at work here that makes this bleak assessment inevitable. But it's not a conclusion that can recommend itself to those still living in the Davenports, Rockfords, Daytons and Muncies of the Midwest, who like their old towns and aren't willing to give up yet. The lesson here is that the Midwest might be smart to spend less money to bring in thinkers like Glaeser and Florida and pay more attention to home-grown advisors.