Thursday, May 12, 2005

You know you're in trouble when your city goes "creative"

Is London's Creative Cities proposal an admission of failure?

Thanks to Dick from the Velvet Lounge for pointing out this excellent and relevant article by Joel Kotkin from Metropolis Magazine. Here are some excerpts from The Rise of the Ephemeral City, which I would recommend to all Londoners as a counterpoint to the breathlessly uncritical coverage the proposal has been receiving by the local media and city council.

Having lost the economic and demographic initiative to the hinterlands, cities have two alternatives. They can work to become more competitive in terms of jobs, attracting skilled workers and middle-class families, or they can refocus their efforts on providing playpens for the idle rich, the restless young, and tourists. All too often the latter strategy is what many municipalities appear to be adopting. A number of cities now regard tourism, culture, and entertainment as "core" assets.

[…] In a globalized economy, certain cities — Paris, San Francisco, perhaps even Berlin and Montreal — have a chance of making this work. Given their reservoirs of great entertainment, cultural institutions, and "hip" districts, they may be able to attract a sufficient customer base from tourists, young professionals, and a growing population of older affluents hoping to experience a more pluralistic way of life. Far more likely to fail, however, are the attempts of places such as Manchester, Cleveland, and Detroit to tie their futures to becoming "cool." With an emphasis on what the Romans would have called "bread and circuses," leaders in these old industrial centers think cultivating their cultural cachet will lure enough skilled workers and affluent singles to their towns. And indeed, subsidies for this kind of development — lofts, restaurants, clubs, and museums for sizable gay and single populations — have succeeded in creating at least a chimera of an urban renaissance. But over time this form of culturally based growth will do little to halt the slide of these cities toward greater irrelevance.

Just look at the sad example of Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm's "cool cities" initiative, which stresses the development of the arts, hip districts, and downtown living. Despite the hoopla, Michigan's "cool cities" — Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Grand Rapids, and even Lansing — have experienced some of the most severe job losses in the nation during the last few years. Under the leadership of its young "hip-hop" mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit continues to fall toward what former Comerica Bank chief economist David Littman calls "a graveyard spiral."

Cleveland and Philadelphia have opted for "ephemeral" strategies: the usual assortment of convention centers, museums, arts festivals, and central city lofts. But what have the results been? Cleveland's widely praised attempt to become hip has not prevented the city from entering the twenty-first century with the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any large American city. Its population and job base continue to decline almost inexorably. […] "There are simply not enough yuppies to go around," demographer William Frey says. These "cool city" wannabes are unlikely to be anything other than "me too" copies of hipper, more alluring places. It would make more sense for these cities to work on the basics — public safety, education, regulations, taxes, sanitation — so they could woo entrepreneurs and cost-conscious homeowners. The amenities will follow once there is a market to consume them.

[…] Perhaps most important, an economy oriented to entertainment, tourism, and "creative" functions is ill-suited to provide opportunities for more than a small slice of its population. […] To retain an important role in the future, a city needs upwardly mobile people whose families and businesses identify them with a place. A great city is more about clean and workable neighborhoods, thriving business districts, and functioning schools than massive cultural buildings or hipster lofts. […] The great work of cities is best accomplished in small steps, block by block. It confirms a sense of place and permanence. Rooted in ephemera, a city can only lose its historic relevance, or at best fade into a graceful senescent dowager who everyone admires but no one takes seriously anymore.
As Dick nicely put it,
Great cities are more than the basics - they're based on creativity and culture born from an active citizenry. And that is something that is certainly not manufactured from City Hall.