An interview with Richard Florida

In his new book, Who’s Your City, Richard Florida says the creative economy is making where you live the most important decision of your life. The world is not flat but spiky, he argues, as today’s key economic indicators—talent, innovation and creativity-- are concentrated in strategic areas, not spread out evenly across the world. He brands the mega-regions in the world, including the Chicago- Pittsburgh corridor (Chi-Pitts) which is the third largest. And he ranks American cities for best places to live at different stages of life. Regions, like people, have distinct personalities, according to researchers. While New York and the west coast have a concentration of those open to experience, our region is dominated more by conscientious folks.


From the wealth of place to the geography of happiness, Florida spins a new way of looking at our place in the world today. Is it for real? Or as Steven Colbert joked at the end of his humorous interview, which is in the book, is he simply a "gay, bohemian artist who just wants to sell his house?"

We recently interviewed the author who went out of his way to point out that the good life can be found in places like Cincinnati.


(Note: In some cases, Mr. Florida’s responses are edited and condensed for space.)


So now that you were on the Colbert Report, does that preclude you from going on the Daily Show?


No! We wondered that, too! We’re working on that as we speak.


You write that the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people and that today’s global economy is powered by a surprisingly small number of places. So what’s to become of the rest of the world?


Well, I'm scared, and one of the reasons I wrote this book is because I'm scared. The book is an empirical observation, the way the world is, not the way I wish the world would be.

Look, if we believe in this mythology that the world is flat, that anyone can plug and play and compete from anywhere, we're missing the point that economic resources, resources required for invention, are really concentrating in a way that few people, even leading urbanists, understand.


More than 50% of us live in urban regions. These 40 mega regions (around the world) with less than 20% of the population account for about 2/3 of the world's economic output.


What the book says is either we have to figure out a way as a world, which looks like a long shot given the bandwidth of our national politicians, to push up the valleys, or we have to understand that, like it or not, their (people’s) economic future may depend on their ability to move.


Help me better understand the connection between living in a powerful mega-region like Chi-Pitts but in a city in that region that’s in transition.

 

Chicago's growth really sucked up all of the services and headquarters functions and lawyering and financial and accountancy that used to be done in the Detroits, the Pittsburghs, the Cincinnatis, the Akrons, the Toledos. Chicago has become in a way the business and financial center for the Chi-Pitts regions, and it's become extraordinarily expensive.


So, one can make quite a nice life in a Cincinnati if they find ways to connect to that Chi-Pitts mega region. The places in the mega region that are really at an advantage are places like Ann Arbor. So, the college towns in that mega region have a particular advantage.


How can a city in this mega-region, like Cincinnati, Detroit or Pittsburgh, better compete in the global economy? Is it a matter of amenities or mindset or both?

First of all, I think they all have this great advantage, in a nearly 2 trillion dollar mega region which is one of the most innovative on the planet. They’re also close to the second largest mega-region on the planet, the number one in North America which is the Bos-Wash (Boston-Washington). The question is how do they want to compete?


I was just in Cincinnati and in Dayton, another city I love. They’re historical centers of innovation, every one from steel innovation to aluminum innovation, to electronics, to the Wright Brothers, to the car. This is one of the greatest innovative and entrepreneurial centers in the world. They have probably one of the greatest clusters of universities, in the history of the planet. They're producing phenomenal talent, but unfortunately, that talent leaves. So, in Rise of the Creative Class, I said the one thing that it needs to become is more open minded and tolerant. It needs to be more diverse and inclusive.


Some of that's happening in certain parts of the region. More foreign people are moving in, though not enough, in the Cincinnatis and Pittsburghs. They're becoming more open minded to the gay and lesbian population, though by no means, not enough. I don't think it's a question of making jazzier restaurants or hipper bike trails. I think it's a question of being more open-minded.


Another thing the region suffers from is really poor leadership. And I think the reason that is, it really bears the imprint that as the economy is changing to newer things, away from manufacturing, the leadership still reflects that top-down, vertical, 1950s organization mentality so you get these conflicts between old-style democratic political machine and business-led organizations. Those conflicts become very dysfunctional. I think one of the other things is that if older cities could achieve better leadership, leadership that was more in tune with the future.


We were working with 30 community catalysts in greater Dayton a couple weeks ago and I was blown away by what's happened in downtown Dayton. It’s a more interesting and exciting place, filled with arts and restaurants and renovated houses and buildings. But too how these thirty catalysts, black, white, young, old, Hispanic, Latino, how much they cared about making their city better. And I think that's the kind of thing you see in parts of Ohio and Illinois, there's this incredible sense that people care, and I think unleashing that energy in people is really key.

 

In your book you map the different personality types dominant in different parts of the country.

Every region has every personality type, some high concentrations of certain personality types. Those regions have had a high concentration of manufacturing; they needed very conscientious people to work in those industries. I think that what's happened over time is that the ‘open to experience’ people, who are the most likely to move, are the ones who have moved away.


What about the theory that it’s easier to affect change in a place like Cincinnati?

 

I hear this from people at the absolute tops of their careers. First of all, the pull of home should never be minimalized. The fact that every close friend or family member you leave behind costs you $100,000 in psychic income. I'd be the last person to put a dollar value on friendship and family ties, but if you're leaving 6, 8, 10 people behind, that's a lot of psychic income. Second thing is, people want to be in a place they can affect change.


This quote that I've always loved--this young man in Providence said to me, "Rich, I was living in San Francisco. So I can take San Francisco from an 8.5 to a 9.2? When I moved back to Providence, I had a place that is a four that I could make an eight."


I think this ability to be involved, to be physically involved, to be socially involved, involved with your friends, your family, and be in a place that's easy to navigate. The problem with New York or even Washington, where I lived, is that they're not only hard to make it (change), they're hard to navigate.

Tracy Certo is the Managing Editor and Publisher of Pop City, Soapbox's sister publication in Pittsburgh.

Photographs of Richard Florida and The Cobert Report courtesy of www.creativeclass.com

Photographs of Cincinnati by Scott Beseler

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