Are American Cities in Crisis?

By
Richard Florida, arguing with himself. Photo: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

These are uneasy times for the American city, and especially New York. Officially despised, targeted for punitive cuts in federal funding, gentrified into a rictus of bland affluence, deeply segregated, crippled by crumbling rail lines, and blamed for rampant inequality, even one of the world’s most successful cities is falling victim to its own success. That, at any rate, is one conclusion in Richard Florida’s glum new manifesto, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It.

Florida lards his book with plenty of data-driven analysis to show that cities are suffering from what he calls “winner take all urbanism,” the idea that superstar cities, like superstar athletes, gorge themselves on money, starving their would-be peers. At the same time, a pampered corps of city dwellers prospers by chasing out others and impoverishing the rest, poverty and crime leach into the suburbs, and the slum-filled megacities of the developing world point to an ever more apocalyptic future. This is a book of lamentations — the last, half-hearted clause in the subtitle stands in for a last, half-hearted chapter full of solutions.

His pessimism is new. In 2002, even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pulling New York back from the trauma of 9/11, Florida issued an optimistic clarion call, The Rise of the Creative Class, that could almost have been a manual for how New York might rule the world. Fifteen years later, Florida is back with a Cassandra-esque sequel, while Bloomberg, together with former Sierra Club head Carl Pope, has published a book that glows with the optimism of levelheaded reason. “Cool heads can produce a cooler world,” Bloomberg and Pope write in Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet.

All through the 2000s, Florida and Bloomberg were singing the same happy song. They agreed that in the postindustrial era, a city’s most crucial resource was the mind — specifically, well-trained thinkers in the arts, finance, fashion, media, education, government, medicine, and tech. A convergence of this brainy elite would bolster a city’s fortunes, heal decay, and replace obsolete industry. Bloomberg hoped to make New York so clean, safe, green, and vibrant that the most desirable businesses would feel compelled to have a presence there. Florida hired himself out to mayors desperate to rejuvenate dismal downtowns. In some cases he was peddling false hope; not every depressed large provincial town can turn itself into an arts mecca or tech hub. But often those gambits worked and then, like marijuana tourists scarfing down pot brownies and getting hit with a delayed and too-strong high, some cities found themselves pummeled by success. As Bloomberg’s and Florida’s critics mercilessly pointed out, the new-urban-brain bling coexisted with tenacious poverty — and perhaps it even created more. Some see the result of their policies as an urban renaissance gone wrong. Pampered white millennials converge on superstar cities with advanced degrees and spending money, turning slums into industrial-chic playgrounds. Eventually, even Florida came to see that waves of prosperity lift some yachts and come crashing down on everybody else.

The New Urban Crisis reads as his act of penance, complete with maps and citations, updated buzzwords (The Patchwork Metropolis) and statistical concepts (The Global Creativity Index), all to acknowledge why he was wrong then and explain why he is right this time around. Unfortunately, Florida is considerably less confident and persuasive in his sweeping pessimism than he was in his more narrowly focused rah-rah phase. His turnaround is dizzying. Why would a scholar who really does get the contradictory forces at play swing so decisively from one simplistic formulation to another? He feints toward nuance. In the chapter promisingly titled “The Urban Contradiction,” he asks: “So, which is it: Are cities the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress that the optimists celebrate, or are they the zones of gaping inequality and class division that the pessimists decry? The reality is that they are both.” Yes, they are, but Florida drops that thought. He discusses persistent levels of poverty but hardly mentions immigrants, the great renewable source of urban strength. They arrive in cities with nothing, replenishing the low-income population and powering urban economies at the same time, then often move on to the suburbs, making room for the next indigent wave.

Few writers have Florida’s skill at distilling complex urban topics down to PowerPoint-friendly prose. But in his eagerness to treat cities as knowable systems, he sometimes loses track of the internal tensions that make them so magnetically mysterious. He knows perfectly well that alleviating one urban problem often produces others, but he writes as if he didn’t. Florida advocates better schools in poor districts, for example — and who would oppose that? He also remarks in passing that a good school is the ultimate gentrification magnet, and yet never pauses to wonder whether improving schools in some neighborhoods but not others ultimately aggravates inequality. Turn a dilapidated warehouse for jaded kids into an academic powerhouse and pretty soon, moneyed residents will converge on the neighborhood and drive up rents. Transit, too, serves the poor and punishes them at the same time, since gentrifiers hog the real estate close to subway stops. But nobody would advocate cutting service in order to keep a low-income neighborhood static. Florida’s answer is simply to meet the virtually infinite demand. “Prices are highest around transit lines because we don’t have enough transit,” he writes. (Similar statements of the obvious pepper every page.)

In his final chapter, “Urbanism for All,” Florida proposes a handful of strategies that fall into three distinct categories. The first is vague and aspirational: “Turn Low-Paying Service Jobs into Middle-Class Work,” by which he means reorganizing the world so that minimum-wage workers are paid enough to support a family, as unionized factory workers once were. The second category is old news, such as “Build More Affordable Rental Housing.” That idea serves as the de Blasio administration’s multi-billion-dollar raison d’être, and while it promises to improve the lives of those lucky enough to win long-odds housing lotteries, it has yet to put a dent in inequality or homelessness.

The final heading on Florida’s policy menu is fantasy. “Fundamentally, poverty is the absence of money,” he writes, in one of his more circular pronouncements. His plan to break the cycle is what he calls a “negative income tax” and Republicans call “handouts,” i.e., giving cash to the poor. A universal basic income might be an idea worth exploring, but in Trump’s America, a law guaranteeing unlimited ice cream for all has a better chance of passage.

With a closing flourish, Florida places most of his chips on one political move: devolution. The idea is a kind of neo-Federalism, decentralizing political power by stripping it from Washington, bypassing statehouses, and delivering it directly to mayors, because they are smart and not slavishly ideological. He has a point. New York City can’t install speed cameras, fund pre-K, set tolls, or manage its subways without asking Albany, and nobody can fix Penn Station without money from the feds. Yet the kind of devolution Florida has in mind would have been a tough sell even before profoundly anti-urban Republicans controlled the White House, both houses of Congress, most state legislatures and governorships, and the Supreme Court. Now the idea of empowering cities is unicorn-level wishful thinking. He also doesn’t mention that handing power to localities carries the same illiberal risk it always did: that it can empower local stupidity. Although some creative-class magnets would use their new political muscle to build public transit and fund school libraries, others would promote abstinence-only family planning and teach evolution as a point of view.

On some issues, cities have already rushed in where Washington fears to tread — climate change, for instance, which the author doesn’t even consider. While Republican politicians scoff at science and deny the obvious, cities all over the country feel the effects of global warming in dramatic but radically different ways. Droughts parch Los Angeles, floods devastate New Orleans, Oklahoma City hits 100 degrees in February, Fairbanks sinks into melting permafrost, coyotes migrate into New York, lake-effect snowstorms pummel Chicago more fiercely, heavier rains wash away portions of Seattle, and rising sea levels threaten to drown Miami. Density increases a city’s risk, since one calamitous storm can affect millions of people and cause billions of dollars in damage. To millions of urban Americans, climate change is not a theory about the future; it’s a certainty they need to cope with now.

Urban areas also bear disproportionate responsibility for planet-destroying pollution: Buildings alone account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, and globally cities pump out 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. That combination of vulnerability and blame has persuaded cities to act, taking advantage of both their local nimbleness and worldwide ideas grapevine. Until a few months ago, local efforts to combat climate change enjoyed federal support. After Superstorm Sandy hit, in 2012, the Obama administration sponsored Rebuild by Design, a competition to develop resiliency projects all around New York Harbor, and followed up with $1 billion in funding for the winning projects. (Construction will begin soon on the “Dryline,” which will protect Lower Manhattan with a system of landscaped berms, contoured parks, and deployable barriers that can drop down like garage doors from the underside of the FDR Drive.) But even if the Trump administration turns off the money spigots, cities have plenty they can do on their own. They aren’t going to suddenly decide they don’t care about clean air or lower energy costs just because Washington has gone into a paroxysm of denial.

Florida barely mentions the environment, even though it’s a fundamental aspect of the inequality he claims to battle: poor neighborhoods tend to have more noxious air, which makes their residents sicker. Bloomberg and Pope, on the other hand, confront this most difficult and discouraging of topics head-on. Keenly attuned to political realities, Climate of Hope bypasses the fraught debates over long-term climate change, focusing instead on the immediate consequences of pollution. Eventually, burning coal will harm the planet; more immediately, it’s killing and choking people every day. Bloomberg and Pope make a market-driven argument, rooted in Florida’s old creative-class formulation: Competitive cities need to attract talented people, who don’t want to live where they can’t walk or breathe. Planting trees, reducing air-conditioner exhaust, limiting car traffic, keeping mass transit in good working order — these are investments any business-minded metropolis would make. Business will ignore the federal government’s retrograde leanings and promote clean energy because that’s where the money and the growth are.

Like a pair of dads trying to cajole their kids into an unpleasant task, Bloomberg and Pope take a pragmatic approach that verges on the bouncy. Let’s save the world, it’ll be fun! Their attitude is bracing, if not entirely convincing: Washington’s hostility to cities and the environment can do plenty of long-term damage. Florida is more confused. He wrote most of The New Urban Crisis in the hope that it might shape President Hillary Clinton’s agenda. After the election, he hurriedly revised, but not thoroughly enough to deal with the reality of a president whose urban policy consists of blackmailing cities into submission. That’s what makes this pair of books ultimately so depressing. When the world’s most famous mayor writes off the U.S. government as a partner in the battle for clean air and the world’s most famous urbanist falls back on a set of tooth-fairy political fixes, then maybe cities’ best option really is despair.

Are American Cities in Crisis?