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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.