Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Creativity is not manufactured at City Hall

[Thanks to Dick both for the title and for an excellent post and attendant comments on the subject.]

London city council's public commitment to popular urban planning theory is mercifully much greater than its will or ability to act upon it — the contribution to implementing the Creative Cities Task Force is a relatively innocuous $100,000 in the 2006 budget. As grateful as Londoners might be for council's forbearance with our taxes on this particular matter, the retarded pace of implementation of the proposals is cause for much greater appreciation. Joel Kotkin, writing in The Australian on February 20, is not kind to the hip or artistic pretensions of dirigiste planners.

From For thriving cities, it's not enough to be cool: Dense, arty neighborhoods have failed to attract talent and capital. What people really want is affordable space:

[F]rom Sydney to San Francisco, the political imperative all too often has been not to look for ways to stay safe or competitive, but instead how to make cities cool and hip. To many public officials, the key to building a great city in the 21st century lies in cultivating the arts and entertainment venues that appeal to a so-called creative class of youngish, hip professionals.

The pied piper of this theory, the American academic Richard Florida, has some cities sold on the notion that "without gays and rock bands" they are doomed to lose "the economic race" in the new century. Across the world, cities have adopted strategies such as promoting gay districts, focusing resources on building cool downtown lofts and investing heavily in the construction of arts palaces and other such cultural ephemera. "Instead of having the arts we can afford," gushes one true believer, Andrew Refshauge, former deputy premier of NSW, "we need the arts for the economy to bloom."

Of course, this kultur uber alles approach negates the pattern traceable as far back as ancient Greece that arts and culture do not foster, but follow, the growth of economic and political power.

[…] Perhaps most troubling, the craze over coolness stops cities from focusing on the fundamentals — such as investing in basic infrastructure, education, broad-based economic development, good parks and efficient sanitation — critical to their long-term prospects. These basic functions affect the lives of most adults, including members of the bohemian creative class, once they begin to worry about buying a decent house, expanding a business and the imperatives brought on by raising a family.

[…] City leaders in the private and public spheres need to recognize three basic things about making modern, successful cities. First, cities must be allowed to grow naturally into the surrounding countryside in order to allow the continuous construction of housing for upwardly mobile middle and working-class families. Second, they must provide a tax and regulatory environment that encourages entrepreneurs to build companies and expand employment. Third, and most important, they need to understand that economic reality matters more than artistic pretence.
For the sake of space I've omitted the examples Kotkin cites that demonstrate the economic failure of "creative cities" policies and that make for the most entertaining and pointed reading — they can be read in the article's entirety here. Other excellent articles by Kotkin on the subject of creative cities include The Rise of the Ephemeral City, Ideological Hurricane, and The War Against Suburbia — excellent reading all.


Mike said...

Ooga booga! Me tax you to pay cousin to draw painting of deer on cave wall. This bring big herd of deer for us to hunt, move us forward, and make cave world-class. Ooga booga booga! First though me tax you to hire nephew to make study of which kind of charcoal work best to bring deer to community. Booga booga!

From Wikipedia:

In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors and airmen use. They carved headphones from wood, and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. The cultists thought that the foreigners had some special connection to their own ancestors, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size mockups of airplanes out of straw, and created new military style landing strips, hoping to attract more airplanes.

Dick said...

Wow! How often does one get a favourable first sentence on the London Fog? Thank you very much. I am honoured and humbled.

I am well aware of Joel Kotten... and put him and Richard Florida in exactly the same category. Both are the most recent incarnations in a long line of soothsayers of the simplistic sort offering the answer to all things urban through paint-by-numbers theories. Happily for me, they both also continue the long tradition of slinging mud at each other. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, in fact I believe they both add value to the urban discussion. The question is to what degree.

As my previous posts have outlined, I have little time for the ‘rock star theorist’ Florida. Kotten’s right when he says Florida diverts attention from the fundamentals of city-building. Ironically, the same could be said for Kotten. While I’m sure his agenda is rooted in good intentions, it is as generic and inoperable as Florida’s – aside from the ‘tax and regulatory environment that encourages entrepreneurs to build companies and expand employment’. I don’t know a soul who would disagree with that lofty goal. One could write a book on such things, but I’ll keep it brief.

First, I agree that ‘cities must be allowed to grow naturally into the surrounding countryside’, indeed they have been for millennia. However, what’s been different about suburban development since World War II is the level of government subsidization which comes with it. Massive sunk costs in infrastructure (expressways, rail, water, sewer, etc.) and services (transit, schools, etc.) are required to build the far-flung growth – which is ironically paid for by the existing city… think Fanshawe Park Road. A great deal of the ‘natural growth’ of the past 60 years would have been unprofitable without government subsidization. If people want to pay for it all, that’s fine. I just wish that was once the case.

In fact, it is Kotter’s ‘natural development’ which is fostering the greatest urban problems today. The endless suburban tracts of Rexdale and Scarborough, built in the 1960s and 1970s, are being passed over by his coveted middle class and upwardly mobile in favour of farther suburbs. The housing stock is decaying as a concentration of poor and criminal elements move in. The neighbourhoods are not adaptable (in either form or location) to the emerging market realities. The problem is exasperated as residents have little access to services, transit or employment… the densities are just too low.

While it may sell a lot of books, planning is a little more complicated than black-or-white subsidized growth or artistic pretence. It takes a little of both – and a lot of neither. The fundamental role of planning is to understand history and the successes and consequences of developing a very finite resource. Land use is a fickle beast governed by tangibles and intangibles such as location, compatibility, aesthetics and personalities. Kotter is a private land use consultant after all, and it is clearly in his self-interest to promote the status quo of ‘natural’ development and its allocation of resources from the public purse.

While Kotter advocates the faltering status quo, Florida’s solution is equally inept as he seeks to apply Mission Hill and Williamsburgh cookie-cutter style across the Continent. Cookie-cutters don’t work, while understanding local communities does. That is why ‘natural’ soothsayers and ‘rock star’ theorists always end up as hacks in the planning world.

Ooga Booga!

MapMaster said...

I admit that I haven't read Kotkin's consulting work and must defer to your reading. His policy prescriptions are not present in the opinion pieces that I post and enjoy — however, it is his proscriptions that I do find there and with which I agree, as apparently do you as well. But I do appreciate the insight into Kotkin — government subsidization of private interests is, as you know, anathema to me. That is the sort of politically-motivated perversion of market forces that gives capitalism a bad name — but I'll still give him a nod for his opinion pieces.

Otherwise, I don't think that I could add anything in your analysis of subsdized urban expansion — it is typically incisive. Thanks.