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.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.