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.

 
 
 
 

The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, or be extended as far as Quebec City, some 400km away, to replace the existing commuter rail network. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.
Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do will already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. As things now stand, it appears the city’s bus network will be forced to integrate with it, removing redundancy and ensuring that users won’t have much choice but to use it.

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.