Richard Florida describes himself as a thinker. “I sit in a little room with a computer and think thoughts and write them down,” he told a capacity audience or more than 200 in the Lubar Center of Marquette Law School during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program on Thursday.
But his thoughts have made him an influential and widely-followed analyst of the trends shaping urban life in North America. His 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, predicted that there would be a surge of vitality in cities where creative people – tech innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, and so on – clustered.
“I really under-predicted,” Florida told Gousha. In following years there was “an urban revival on steroids.”
The trends he foresaw have shown up in Milwaukee. “It’s amazing what’s happened here,” Florida said, mentioning some of the things he had done and seen since arriving the previous day. “Milwaukee has done a fabulous job of reinventing itself.”
But the boom in urban living and economic vitality has brought with it downsides, Florida said. All you need to know is the title to his new book to catch his concerns: The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It.
Florida told the Eckstein Hall audience, “There was this unanticipated or unintended consequence that out of this smaller group, the creative class, about a third of us – a little bit more than that in Milwaukee – began to benefit from the urban revival. The gap between the affluent third and the remaining 60 percent grew across our entire country. Inequality grew. Segregation of groups living like-minded with like-minded, like-income with like-income, grew. Our middle class declined, our housing became less affordable.
“So the urban revival was great, but it conferred a disproportionate share of benefits on one group.” In recent years, the United States has become more like two countries, one thriving and one struggling, he said. Those who are struggling are disproportionately from minority groups, those with lower levels of educational success, and those who worked in the kind of industries that have declined.
In the new book, Florida, who lives now in Toronto and has university professorships in Toronto and New York, refers to what has happened in many places as “winner-takes-all urbanism.” Milwaukee, he said, hasn’t seen this as powerfully as some places have, but there are signals of the problems here.
And, Florida said, it’s important to respond positively. He told the audience, “We have to move from a winner-takes-all urbanism to an urbanism for all. We have to move from a divided society to an inclusive society. We have to bring together inclusion and prosperity.“
Florida said the answers are not going to come from the federal government or, in many cases, from states. And he said they aren’t going to come from him, although he outlined during the program and in the book areas that need to be addressed, including availability of transportation, affordable housing, and high quality early childhood programs. He said the answers are going to come from local governments and from private sector efforts. He hopes his new book will spur such efforts.
“There’s no model for doing it,” he said, and no one and no city is doing everything right. But, overall, he is optimistic, and that is based on what he sees and thinks can happen in places including Milwaukee. Florida said, “I’m just so incredibly heartened by what I see in so many communities around this country and around the world.”
Video of the one-hour program may be viewed by clicking here.