Book review., Books, Capitalism, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Economic Growth, History, Immigration, Jane Jacobs, Marxism, Nationalism, Politics, Richard Florida, The City, The City State, The Creative Class, The Mega-Region, Thomas Friedman, Who's Your City
[This is old material, being first published on Tychy in 2014 as part of a series on city states. For some time I’ve been wanting to reformat it as an independent book review.]
Jane Jacobs was, according to the verdict of the geographer PJ Taylor, “a revolutionary writer in the full sense of the word. She does not enter a field of study to revise or reform it; she turns it upside down.” Jacobs had studied the economy rather as Adam Smith had done, by observing it and speculating on how it worked, and her conclusions were naturally completely at odds with those of many professional theorists. Ironically, however, hers was chiefly a revolution in theory rather than in practice. Economists have been sooner to admire than to apply her ideas, and it hardly helps that the most prolific of her admirers amongst the Google generation is Richard Florida, the author of the 2008 environmental-psychology self-help manual Who’s Your City?
One cannot help prickling with snobbery at this and at times the snobbery is not without justification. Under the heading “The World at Night,” for example, Florida maintains that “stronger economic production” coincides with “higher concentrations of light” on global maps of light distribution. You might think that factories which leave all the lights on at night only offer evidence of carelessness, but let’s push on. Florida identifies “Jacobs’ most fundamental contribution” to economics as her claims for “the central role played by the clustering of people and their creativity on economic growth.” This is not necessarily Florida’s starting point, however, and for this we should look to the theory of “agglomeration economies” that was influentially propounded in Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890). Florida asserts that:
the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people. New ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to one another in cities and regions.
This appears to be a similar definition of the city to the one outlined in Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), completely intact despite the intervening years of deindustrialisation and monetarism. Jacobs could be allowed a little naivety – she was writing in the 1980s when the world was generally more naïve – but it is unexpected to encounter her ideas again on the other side of globalisation. So have they any greater purchase today?
For Florida, the clustering of creative people negates what have been sometimes perceived as the benefits beyond the city, the cheaper land and low-cost labour out in the sticks. He contends that conventional growth theories are wrong to dismiss “knowledge as something that flows easily from place to place.” Clustering is just as germane a topic for the geographer as for the economist. Florida observes clustering at work in Italy in the 1980s, when “companies like Armani, Prada, and Gucci benefited from high levels of productivity and innovation, but even more so from being part of a tight cluster of suppliers, users, and customers.” The hotbed of talent at Silicon Valley submits a particularly noteworthy instance of clustering. Florida holds up that old Silicon Valley saw about a successful company being based no further than twenty minutes’ travelling distance from its financiers.
There are obvious problems with where this is going. If everybody within a certain industry “clusters,” then the results might be conformity, group-think, and agreed limits upon creativity. There might even be pettiness and bitchy in-fighting. Of course, a frontier might equally unite those on it, and making a vice out of proximity reflects the same illogicality as promoting its virtues. Proximity is nothing other than a neutral factor. To rule that there must be less than twenty minutes’ travel between firms and investors is to localise investment. This may encourage investors to take greater risks or it may discourage adventure in exciting, far-flung economies.
In 2005 Thomas Friedman argued that the world had become “flat” and that “you can innovate without having to emigrate.” Florida’s book is part of a wider backlash against Friedman’s flat-earth theory, but it is reactionary rather than realistic, in erecting manmade limits upon freedom which can be pulled down again with human willpower. There is no earthly reason why any twenty-first century business cannot be glued together with email and Skype, other than possibly for the fact that the corporate world is not yet prepared to forego its traditional jet set lifestyles and monumental lunches.
This is a story in which we have to pick sides and Florida has already picked his. In Florida’s analysis, industry has returned, but it is no longer the same. The old mass employers, with their horrendous pollution and tiresome trades unions, have been replaced with something cleaner, more orderly, and more creative. The old industrialisation was, it seems, generally rather stupid:
In contrast to highly standardized work of the industrial age, in which knowledge could be codified in and taught through standardized procedures and engineering diagrams, creative work relies heavily on innate knowledge – the kind that can be found only in – and, as I like to say, “in between” – people’s heads.”
The rich elite are no longer exploiters and parasites, but they are instead the only creative class in town. Crucially, however, they can only be creative as a class, when they come together and their minds meet. This class are applied like Viagra to economies that are otherwise exhausted without them.
Florida labours to generalise a paradox that is largely unique to this class. “We” are, he proposes, increasingly liberated from needing to live or work in a particular location, but place remains “more important to the world economy and our individual lives than ever before.” Florida insists that “my research and personal experience have convinced me that socioeconomic mobility and geographic mobility are interdependent and far from mutually exclusive.” Dismissing the “notion that we move for jobs,” Florida cites evidence from a 2002 survey that “three-quarters of recent college graduates first choose where to live, then look for a job in that market.”
Relocation remains a viable option only for those who are so poor that they have nothing to lose or else for those with enough money to smooth away its associated inconveniences. Florida predominantly concerns himself with the latter. He concedes that the inflated property prices in wealthy cities are, for many people, the most daunting barrier to relocation, but there are other, more overt examples. The UK recently placed a minimum income requirement of £18,600 per annum on those who it describes as “non-EEA national spouses/partners and children applying to settle in the UK with someone who is already resident here.” In one WTF moment, Florida remarks in passing that “theoretically, we can choose to live virtually anywhere.”
Florida recognises that, “changing technology, increased trade, and the ability to outsource routine functions have made highly skilled people less reliant on the location of the unskilled and moderately skilled.” He glances back over his shoulder at those left behind, to worry “how will the growing division between the mobile and the rooted affect the very fabric of society?” There is at least a theoretical need for political intervention in case the masses ever exert their power to disrupt:
In today’s spiky world, social cohesion is eroding within countries and across them. Little wonder we find ourselves living in an increasingly fractured global society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote – or tear – down what they perceive to be the economic elite of the world… Managing the disparities between peaks and valleys worldwide – raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks – is surely the greatest political challenge of our time.
But Florida is not interested enough in these problems to devise solutions to them; he merely wishes to help his readers select the best peak. We might persist in looking to the nation-state to ensure that clusters thrive or that wealth is redistributed beyond these clusters, but Florida shares Jacobs’ indifference to the nation. The whole point of economic development is that it unfolds outside and beyond of this redundant frame.
Florida reasons that, “national borders also have less to do with defining cultural identity. We all know how different two cities can be despite being in the same state or province, much less the same country.” Scottish nationalists will know this too, of course, since their inheritance and legacy is the eternal puzzle of melting Glasgow and Edinburgh into a plausible nation. Florida whips the nation off “the core of the U.S. and North American economies” to reveal “roughly a dozen mega-regions that stretch into Canada and in some cases Mexico, and generate the great bulk of the country’s economic output.” The mega-region amounts to:
more than just a bigger version of a city. In the way that a city is composed of separate neighbourhoods, and like a metropolitan region is made up of a central city and its suburbs, a mega-region is a new, natural economic unit that results from city-regions growing upward, becoming denser, and growing outward and into one another.
The significance of the mega-region is that it combines a productivity that Jacobs had insisted was exceptional to the city, with a scale and power that she had warned was fatal to its success. The reader of her Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985) might conclude that the city is too puny to measure up to corporate capitalism. Yet a mega-region, with conscious political leadership, could have what it takes.
At this juncture in history, the mega-region can be tentatively identified as a streamlined or perfected nation. Wolfgang Nowak, from the Urban Age project, warns that “compared with cities, nation states are “young” enterprises that have yet to prove their viability.” When human history comes to be counted in millennia, the nation, far from assuming today’s ahistorical proportions, might instead represent a brief or transitional stage of human development. And to understand just how transitional, only 10% of the world’s population had lived in cities in 1900, whist the UN predicts that this figure will rocket to 75% by 2050. In 2009, the UN estimated that, “by mid-century the world urban population will likely be the same size as the world’s total population was in 2004.”
Such is the newness of the mega-region that Florida is more competent at outlining its theoretical workings than distinguishing examples in the field. He refers to the “British mega-region stretching from London through Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and into Birmingham,” which overlooks the famously indestructible North-South divide. He unites Edinburgh and Glasgow into a mega-region that looks conspicuously like the nation of Scotland.
Incidentally, if the mega-region supplies a solution to the innate disadvantages of the nation, we might like to give it a grander name. It sounds like a geopolitical entity with fries and coke. The English language has not kept pace with history, in still only permitting a choice between nations and cities. There are now cities in existence with populations far surpassing those of nations. London’s entire metropolitan area, for example, has a population over double the size of Scotland’s, a larger GDP, and greater political influence.
London may possess a culture and a character that are just as independent as those of Scotland, but it is not a nation. It does not send a football team to the World Cup or a song to the Eurovision Song Contest. Our difficulty is that the distinction between a mighty city like London and a small nation like Scotland seems, when measured by any objective criteria, to fade away into nothing.
Perhaps London merely needs to realise that it is a nation and then it will suddenly become one. In 1983 the anthropologist Benedict Anderson disputed the idea that the nation is a place. He had discovered the “imagined community,” a fictional reality that is published and distributed along with the newspapers in which it appears. In this analysis, a group of people living in a designated geographical area would not know that they were a nation unless they had some means of reading about it. No feature of this definition prohibits the city from also becoming an imagined community. Indeed, the city might be better qualified for such a role than the nation.
A farmer on the Isle of Lewis and a software designer in Edinburgh’s TechCube may have little in common aside from the same type of passport. Indeed, they otherwise inhabit different historical periods. City-dwellers may acquire a more practical and substantial sense of an imagined community than nationalists, not only because most of a nation’s life unfolds in the city anyway, but because they live in a city rather than belonging to it. The Lewis farmer has to feed the pathetic flame of his nationalism with little symbolic offerings; he feels Scottish, if he ever wants to that is, by reciting Burns or munching on haggis. City life, on the other hand, is not sustained, or polluted, by experiencing randomly ascribed items of culture in this ritualised way.
The danger of accompanying Florida on his journey to the mega-region is that we wander or march far into right-wing territory and come to accept its development as a natural process. In Florida’s analysis, mega-regions have developed fine by themselves, thank you very much, without their own political leadership. Mega-regions slop messily about, somehow evading all state planning, whilst political leaders are left behind in their anachronistic world of cities and nations.
Within Florida’s analysis, a lot of processes that would have been once considered political are now naturalised. Towns grow into cities and these in turn grow into mega-regions; urban blotches thus appear on the surface of the planet like mould. Florida cites a study led by Geoffrey West that had explored “whether cities and mega-regions, though not literally living things [Florida has to point this out!], might function in a similar way. Do their metabolisms increase as their populations and, therefore, their productivity and innovation grow?” West et al concluded that cities are even more efficient than “biological organisms” because they do not “slow down as they grow larger.”
Jacobs ultimately defines the city as a natural unit and the nation-state’s redistribution of its wealth as an unnatural contrivance. She nonetheless regards the city system as being naturally creative whilst Florida reduces this system to a question of class. The economist Sanford Ikeda puts his finger on the dividing line:
…the idea that what has made cities engines of discovery and incubators of ideas is the existence of a creative class, is, I believe, in an important sense deeply at odds with the Jacobsian attitude… the marvel of living cities is not that they attract extraordinary people, they do, but that they enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Florida does not acknowledge the possibility that a provincial town might manufacture its own skilled, creative people through political willpower and with an education system. He prefers to think of creative individuals as arriving innately talented, and yet he paradoxically portrays them as free agents who are mechanically programmed to seek out the environments in which they can function best. This confusion produces one of the more ludicrous implications of Florida’s book – that bold, creative thinkers need to read a manual to tell them where to live.
Florida’s mega-regions seem to pick up characteristics of their own, by themselves, and this process soon acquires a deterministic momentum. And so neurotic psychoanalysts percolate naturally to New York and trendy corporate lawyers wind up in Seattle. Florida regales us with “Personality Maps” which reveal the geographical clustering of Extroverted, Agreeable, Neurotic, Conscientious, and Open-to-Experience people, and it seems that pigeonholing is being turned into a science. This might offer a fresh alternative to clichés about “national character,” but there is the same old determinism in Florida’s suggestion that a region comes with “deep seated characteristics that cannot be altered easily or quickly, and are not amenable to direct public or private action.”
As a final complaint, conducting your own research to fathom a city’s “personality” before you go and live there deglamorises the process of exploring it for the first time (Florida even recommends visiting the local A&E on a Saturday night to check out the waiting times). Rather than ensuring that the city reflects your own personality, you might submit to be challenged or to even have your mind changed by the city.