Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
The shift toward a more inclusive urbanism has begun. But it will require time, commitment from city institutions, and political agency at the local level.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted version of the epilogue to the newly released paperback edition of The New Urban Crisis.
A colleague who heard me speak shortly after The New Urban Crisis was published in hardcover approached me at a follow-up event a few months later: “You seem a lot more optimistic than you did the last time I saw you,” he remarked. “What happened?”
His question took me aback, and I hesitated for a moment before venturing an answer. Then all at once it struck me. “You’re right,” I blurted out. “It’s because I’ve been traveling and visiting cities all across the country.” I’d been amazed at how willing people were to take ownership of their role in the new urban crisis, and how ready they were to devise new strategies to come to grips with it.
Over the course of my career in urbanism, I’ve constantly been inspired by cities’ capacities to adapt. For the past 20 years, an incredible number of cities big and small have successfully transformed their post-industrial neighborhoods into vibrant hubs of culture and commerce, in a process that is still ongoing. They worked hard to turn their downtowns and neighborhoods around, and now they are ready to take the next step, which is to create a more sustainable kind of urbanism that spreads its benefits more broadly—what I’ve called an “urbanism for all.”
My objective in writing The New Urban Crisis was to try to nudge the prevailing narrative about urban development toward a more inclusive paradigm—to make equity a principle concern of economic development. Now it’s happening in real time, right before my eyes. As one senior economic development professional put it to me, “For too long we’ve emphasized economic growth, and that has helped accentuate many of the problems we now face. Our profession is called economic development, and that’s what we should emphasize—not just growth, but the full development of our people, neighborhoods, and communities.”
This shift to more inclusive development will take time. Just as it took the better part of two decades to turn cities around, the shift to more inclusive urbanism will also likely take a decade or more to gather steam. But I am convinced that the shift has already begun.
So what will it take? It will require all of the parties that were involved in the urban revival to reorient their missions toward inclusivity.
Anchor institutions, particularly universities and medical centers (or so-called “eds and meds”), have played a large role in revitalizing their cities and neighborhoods, but too often, the changes they produce only benefit the affiliates of those institutions. Instead of just providing subsidized housing to faculty and students, universities should also help local residents afford increasingly desirable areas.
A few schools are already showing the way forward. In partnership with Johns Hopkins University, the East Baltimore Development Initiative has constructed housing for lower-income families and senior citizens, as well as graduate students, in Baltimore’s Eager Park. In Columbus, the Weinland Park Collaborative enlisted the help of local anchor institutions to offer $3,000 in down-payment assistance to Ohio State University employees who purchase homes in the University District. In West Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, and the University City Science Center have undertaken substantial efforts to create affordable housing for neighborhood residents and university workers as well as faculty members.
Eds and meds aren’t a city’s only anchor institutions and can’t shoulder the entire burden of creating more inclusive prosperity. Real estate developers, who have benefited so mightily from the urban revival and the subsequent rise in real estate values, also have a major role to play. When constructing new buildings, especially in mega-developments like Manhattan’s Hudson Yards or Boston’s Seaport Innovation District, developers should do everything in their power to avoid turning these areas into isolated pockets of wealth. Like it or not, they will increasingly have to embrace practices like inclusionary zoning, dedicating a proportion of units as affordable.
In the Bay Area, a number of for-profit developers have agreed to designate half of their total units as below market-rate in exchange for an expedited entitlements process. And in many places, developers have agreed to lease ground-floor retail to non-profits and small businesses. Cities have plenty of other carrots to encourage these kinds of practices, like allowing increased density, or using valuable public infrastructure like parks and transit to extract benefits from developers.
Tech companies must act as urban anchor institutions and better urban citizens, as well. As they rapidly expand their footprints in cities, they face a considerable backlash in hubs such as San Francisco and Seattle. These companies can no longer view cities as merely interchangeable locations where they can attract talent, extract value, and then move on. There is much more that they can and must do.
For one, they can work with non-profits and local governments to help to finance and develop “workforce housing” for all of their lower-paid service workers, as well as affordable housing for local residents. Instead of creating their own private bus systems, they can work with local governments and metropolitan transit agencies on the development of better transportation infrastructure.
Perhaps most importantly, they can work to transform the low-paid service jobs on which their offices, campuses, and knowledge workers depend into higher-paying career pathways. They can act more like the SAS Institute in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which instead of contracting out its cafeteria and groundskeeper workers, hires them directly into higher paying, stable jobs—a practice that pays off in reduced worker turnover and more productive employees.
The longer-run solution will require a shift in power from the federal and state governments to cities and communities. More than two decades ago, economist Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution made a powerful case for devolving education, housing, transportation, social services, and economic development programs from the national government to the states, whose leaders, she said, are closest to the conditions on the ground. In recent years, arguments for devolution have emphasized the role that local government can play.
While top-down national governance tends to impose one set of choices on all of us, localism respects our differences. Mayors are pragmatic, not partisan or ideological. Their policies are a reflection of what they feel will best serve the needs of local residents. Little wonder local government has emerged as a grounding political force at a time when trust in the federal government has reached a historic low. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans express trust in their local government, compared to just 55 to 65 percent in state governments, and around a fifth to a third in the federal government, according to surveys by Pew and Gallup.
While our people and our parties are horribly divided at the national level, devolution is something liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans can work to achieve together at the local level. The most pressing governance issue of the 21st century is developing a new kind of federalism that can meet the needs of our highly clustered and geographically unequal knowledge economy.
Ultimately, devolution is not a matter of simply taking power from the federal government and handing it over to cities. It means making the best use of the complex vertical separation of powers among the federal, state, and local levels. So transit and transportation investments, for example, could be overseen by the networks of cities and suburbs that make up metropolitan areas, or even the groups of metropolitan areas that make up mega-regions. Housing investments, whether publicly funded or channeled through public-private partnerships, can be tailored to local conditions—detached houses and garden apartments for more spread-out places; high-rise rentals for denser and more urban locations.
Pointing out the dimensions of, and the potential solutions to, the new urban crisis does not represent my mea culpa for getting the urban revival wrong, as some critics have suggested. On the contrary, if anything, my mistake was that I sorely underestimated and under-predicted the strength, depth, velocity, and ferocity of the urban revival, and the unintended and unexpected consequences that came with it. In this moment in urbanism, our challenge is to continue the urban revival and make sure it works for everybody.
Our cities are never complete. They are continual works in progress, always being built and rebuilt to fit changing needs and conditions. Just as the urban revival took the better part of a generation to achieve and required the hard work of many local actors—mayors, council members, civic activists, labor leaders, city-builders, anchor institutions, the non-profit community, local residents, and more, the shift from winner-take-all urbanism to a more inclusive urbanism will take time. But it will only be achieved through the hard work and close collaboration of local stakeholders who see the shared benefits of making urbanism work for everybody.