American cities are in crisis. So why is Richard Florida exporting their lessons?

A row of abandonded buildings in Detroit, Michigan, 2011.

American cities are in crisis. Those that muddled through the financial crash are now facing fiscal and infrastructural challenges. According to UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, “the criminal justice system [in many American cities] is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty.”

So it might come as a surprise that Richard Florida, self-styled guru of the so-called “creative class,” argues that cities in developing countries should follow America’s lead in his new book, The New Urban Crisis: How our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do about It.

America has historically exported its model of urban development. Take suburbanisation, for example, an urban model that originated in the United States, and which later became a global phenomenon. Thanks to suburbanisation, cities across the world have become sprawling car-centric metropolises.

The largest and fastest growing conurbations are found in low- and middle-income countries. But many of these cities face a series of environmental, economic and political challenges that cannot be addressed by importing American models of urbanization.

First and foremost, the rapid outward growth of cities threatens local ecosystems, and makes them vulnerable to shocks and stresses wrought by climate change.

Second, American cities were centres of industry whose growth fuelled the expansion of the middle class. While mass production remains a driver of economic growth, automation and deindustrialization threaten to inhibit developing countries from pursuing this development model.

Finally, many residents of cities in developing countries live in dense ‘informal’ popular neighbourhoods, often referred to pejoratively as slums. These can offer a vital foundation for support and social life, particularly for people who have recently migrated from rural areas.

City elites tend to favour large-scale real estate projects at the expense of informal settlements, and this has provoked violent backlashes from Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro to Phnom Penh and Johannesburg.

In his new book, Florida describes a brief sojourn to Medellín, Colombia. He was enthralled with what he found beyond his creative comfort zone of pop-up art galleries, Korean taco trucks and cucumber-infused table water. He recounts “thinking and writing nearly non-stop about the issues that had been discussed there” for an entire month.


The result was a eureka moment: “The crisis of global cities and global urbanization, I was starting to see, was a huge dimension of the New Urban Crisis, substantially bigger than the serious urban and suburban challenges in the United States.”

Florida laments that the focus of American urban policy has remained largely domestic. He asserts that “it is time for it to take on a more global dimension,” advocating for a U.S.-led effort to build new cities in “fragile and broken” nation-states.

There is a long history of building new cities. In most cases they have fallen victim to the same problems they were erected to counter. Florida’s enthusiasm in his book for a network of mini-Miamis dotting Africa’s coastline seems to come from a naïve belief that they would incubate his creative class.

Yet rather than dream of new utopian cities for African elites, the U.S. should focus on making its own cities liveable again. The extreme socio-spatial segregation of Detroit; Houston’s unwillingness to implement basic zoning laws; the endless sprawl of Los Angeles; endemic corruption and the recent race to the bottom to attract an Amazon headquarters are not models for replicating elsewhere.

As difficult as it may be for American urbanists like Richard Florida to admit, the seeds of urban transformation are not found in the U.S.

In fact, cities in developing countries are charting new innovations and practices that stretch far beyond the fantasises of American urbanists. American cities could learn a lot about transportation and public housing from Asian cities, or about low-cost off-grid energy systems that are being pioneered in African cities.

Richard Florida’s public persona is a never-ending celebration of creativity, so it is ironic that he fails to recognize the creative ways that people around the world are trying to adapt to climate change, foster equitable economic growth and advance political claims. Were more American planners and urbanists willing to listen, learn and experiment, they could find useful lessons in other parts of the world.

A longer version of this article appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research titled ‘Florida in the Global South: How Eurocentrism Obscures Global Urban Challenges – and What We Can Do about It.’

Seth Schindler is Senior Lecturer in Urban Development & Transformation at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. He previously coordinated the Global Studies Programme at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Jonathan Silver is Senior Research Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.