Gentrification and the new urban crisis

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 31 July 2017

Fifteen years ago Richard Florida, one of the world's leading urbanists, urged city leaders to make urban areas more attractive to the creative class; college-educated millennials, entrepreneurs and artists.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, he argued that these people would help revitalize blighted urban areas and help under resourced communities.

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Photo: RNZ

The creative class came, and instead of transforming cities to benefit all, they accelerated gentrification, unaffordability and inequality. 

He explains how he got it wrong 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.

He says fifteen years ago “cities were failing” and people were moving to the suburbs.

“What has surprised in the intervening period since I wrote that book has been an urban revival on steroids.”

He says the logic of urban revival was always there and it has taken its natural course.

“The reason people moved back to urban centres is they were more productive places to be.”

In the early noughties he met with Peter Jackson in New Zealand.

“It hit me when I visited Peter [in Wellington] he said I could have done this in LA but I decided to do it in my hometown.”

Florida says this was a sign, seen all over the world, of the creative industries moving to the cities and creating new kinds of work.  

But that has driven a kind of cultural/political backlash, which he first saw fifteen years ago in Toronto when populist Rob Ford was elected mayor.

“That was my wake-up call.”

He says Ford even used the term “urban elite” we would hear years later From Donald Trump and the UK’s Brexiteers.

The cities where the so called creative classes gather – New York, London, San Francisco, Seattle – tend towards the progressive side of politics and yet are increasingly devoid of working and middle class people, he says.

“These are the most progressive parts of US but also the most unequal. We have to move from winner takes all urbanism to an urbanism that is more inclusive.

“The creative economy confers advantages on about a third of relatively advantaged people and two thirds of society are falling behind and they’re angry.”

The New Urban Crisis - Professor Richard Florida.

The New Urban Crisis - Professor Richard Florida. Photo:

He says the backlash from the populist right has been visceral driven by geographic and wealth segregation.

“The decline of the middle class say in Toronto, a city that’s somewhat comparable to Auckland, the middle class was about three quarters [of the population] in the 1970s now roughly a third of Torontonians are middle class.”

This demonstrates what he calls a contradiction in modern capitalism.   

“The very force that generates our economic wealth, carves these divides in our societies which generates a backlash called populism which threatens to undo all of the great things - innovation, progress, tolerance and civilisation - that come from urbanised cities in the first place.”

He says to build a new urbanism the kind of politics that has fallen out of fashion needs to return such affordable housing building programmes and a push to make low pay service jobs - essential to a city’s efficient running- well paid the way manufacturing jobs once were.

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