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.