Winner-takes-all urbanism and superstar cities: on Richard Florida’s “New Urban Crisis”

Richard Florida speaking in 2011. Image: Getty.

The city, the late political theorist Benjamin Barber argued in his 2013 book If Mayors Ruled The World, would be our salvation: while nations concerned themselves with sovereignty, wars, and other forms of political dick-waving, it would be cities that would have to address global problems such as climate change.

There was, though, a slight kink in this argument: a big reason cities were best placed to reduce emissions was because cities were producing most of them. The city, as Barber himself acknowledged, has always been an ambiguous and contradictory idea – representing, on the one hand, civilisation, opportunity and freedom; on the other, decadence, poverty, isolation. There’s little point trying to work out which view is correct, since clearly both are. The true meaning of the city is simply a matter of taste.

It’s another contradiction that’s at the heart of The New Urban Crisis, the latest manifesto from Richard Florida, an American  urbanist and guru of the “creative city” approach to urban regeneration. Cities now house around 55 per cent of the world’s population; the most successful – London, New York, San Francisco – are today as sought after as ever, sources of growth, innovation and cultural vibrancy.

So used are we to this state of affairs that it’s easy to forget how big and how recent a turnaround this is. Just a generation ago these same cities were characterised by industrial decline, crime and depopulation as their citizens fled to the suburbs. Between 1939 and 1988, London lost a quarter of its population.

In the 1990s, that changed. Living downtown became aspirational again – I’ve always suspected New York sitcoms to be the culprit, although the departure of foul-smelling industries should probably get some credit, too. Crime fell; populations rose. Today, while Britain’s international stature may have faltered, London is one of the few serious candidates for most important city in the world. Together, Florida says, these “superstar cities” are so successful that, with just 7 per cent of the world’s population, they can generate 40 per cent of its GDP. It’s stirring stuff.

That’s the good news. The bad – the crisis of the book’s title – is a messy set of connected problems. One is the failure of urbanism in the developing world where, in contrast to earlier phases of history, cities are booming without much in the way of economic growth. Florida credits this, as he does so much else, to globalisation: why develop your own resources when you can just buy them in?


Another concern is the scale of the drop off between the most successful cities and the rest. In a pattern familiar in the UK, the ambitious, talented and creative are drawn to those centres where productivity, and wages, are highest. The resulting brain drain makes it even harder for the places they leave behind to catch up.

This “winner-takes-all urbanism”, as Florida terms it, would be bad enough if the two sides contained equal numbers of cities, but they don’t: the few-dozen cities with high wages and booming tech scenes are dwarfed in number by those where wages are low, deindustrialisation is still a concern, and the new urban crisis looks a lot like the old one. The cities in the latter group include many that were recently unexpectedly enthusiastic for Brexit on one side of the Atlantic, and for Donald Trump on the other.

Perhaps the biggest issue of Florida’s new urban crisis, though, is that winner-takes-all urbanism doesn’t even seem to be working for the people who live in the superstar cities. The clustering of economic activity in a relatively small number of cities has sent land values through the roof. The result is that, even though average wages are higher, after housing costs the poor are effectively worse off in New York than in, say, Houston.

Not for the first time we’ve managed to construct an economic system that’s brilliant for wealthy landowners but terrible for pretty much everyone else. “Class today,” Florida writes, “is not just about the kind of work we do, but also the places in which we live, which shape everything from our access to jobs to the schools our kids attend and our prospects for upward mobility.” It’s a sort of Marxist theory of place.

Like the problems Florida identifies, his solutions are many, varied and intimidating. They include a land-value tax and better public transport, to enable more people to live and work in these big, productive cities; a new generation of subsidised housing for key workers in danger of being priced out of places that wouldn’t survive their departure; higher minimum wages and even that perennial favourite, a universal basic income.

It’s not that these ideas are bad, or unambitious: quite the opposite. What’s not clear is how we would implement them. There are still some winners in the current system – and those who can afford to grab a slice of the superstar cities include much of the West’s dominant political class.

Florida’s new urban crisis is, he claims “the defining issue – and struggle – of our time”. Perhaps he’s right. But while one side of that struggle has the numbers, the other wields all the power. We may be struggling with these particular urban contradictions for some time to come.

“The New Urban Crisis: Gentrification, Housing Bubbles, Growing Inequality and What We Can Do About It” by Richard Florida is published by Oneworld.

This review originally appeared in our parent publication, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.