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Want To Make A Creative City? Build Out, Not Up


Urban density spurs innovation. But it turns out that some kinds of density are better than others. In a piece for The Wall Street Journal, Richard Florida wrote that the skyscrapers of Shanghai, quote, "often function as vertical suburbs, muting the spontaneous encounters that provide cities with so much of their social, intellectual and commercial energy." New York, he argues, is less dense but more creative. Richard Florida joins us to explain from the CBC studios in Toronto. His latest book is "The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited." And, Richard, nice to have you back on the program.

RICHARD FLORIDA: It's great to be with you, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let's go on a little bit more about that New York-Shanghai comparison. There's plenty of high-rise buildings in New York too.

FLORIDA: Well, I think I wanted to write the piece because there's so much of a rush to density. And as cities have come back, which is a fantastic story, and as people have moved back to cities, there's this sense - and it's not so much in New York or Boston or San Francisco. It's in building these hundreds of cities in the emerging economies that bigger is better. And I think someone estimated that there's something like a hundred or more equivalents of the Empire State Building have been built over the past decade or so in Shanghai.

So the point was to try to - the piece was to try to point out that density, of course, matters. And there is plenty of rooms for skyscraper districts, and I also point the densification, the increasing density in Midtown East in New York and the rezoning makes perfect sense. But when you look at where innovation and creativity and new ideas come from, they typically don't come from the skyscraper districts. They come from older neighborhoods with mixed-use buildings that have warehouses and industrial areas, and those are the areas, which are not only dense - they're certainly much denser than a suburb - but where people can mix and mingle and interact, combine and recombine. And that's where the spur for innovation and creativity comes from.

CONAN: And a lot of people might ask, how are you measuring innovation and creativity?

FLORIDA: Well, most people measure innovation typically by looking at rates of patenting. Now people have become to track the number of start-up companies emerging in urban centers or the venture capital. And the good news is that cities are upping the ante. New York now, Manhattan is the second highest center for venture capital-backed start-up companies behind only Silicon Valley. But the other caution I wanted to make, and I think you know and folks listening know I'm a dyed-in-the-wool urbanist, that also places like Silicon Valley, which are somewhat car-dependent, can work. They can emulate many of the functions of the city.

So as we begin to build denser cities, the key is not just piling up people in buildings higher and higher and higher and creating vertical suburbs where people just interact in the building, it's to build cities that can be dense, that can have multi-story buildings, that can be close together. But having that interaction is a key part of keeping our cities innovation and creative not only here but in those emerging economies around the world.

CONAN: Is there a difference in expense as well? Some of those older buildings in New York, hardly any place in Manhattan that anyone would describe as cheap, but they're less expensive in SoHo or Chelsea than they are in one of those big high-rise buildings in Midtown.

FLORIDA: Well, I don't get into this in the piece, but I do know enough people who know more than I do about real estate, and they tell you that new construction is typically more expensive. If you look at the cost of some of these high-rises going up in Hong Kong or even in the United States, they're quite pricey, you know, quite well in excess of $1,000 or multiple thousand dollars per square foot.

You know, Jane Jacobs, who I invoke in the piece, and I look at this great report done by Peter Gordon in Sanford Ikeda, and they actually studied this and contrasted crude density, the piling and packing of people ever taller, what they call Jane Jacobs density, after the great urban theorist who wrote about Hudson Street in New York and the vibrancy of older areas. And she always said that new ideas require old buildings, that having affordable space with big floor plates that is reusable, that is, you know, connected to one another. And Google paid a remarkable sum. And for folks listening in, it paid $1.8 billion to be in the middle of, I guess, the intersection of Chelsea in the meat packing district. It bought the old Port Authority Terminal.

So some of these can be quite expensive. But if it doesn't happen there, it happens, perhaps, in Brooklyn. If Brooklyn isn't working, it moves over to Jersey City or an outer borough, and that's how cities grow and develop dynamically.

CONAN: There is also the price of housing. If you're going to have a cultural explosion, you need not merely moderately priced housing, you need cheap housing. Poets don't make a lot of money.

FLORIDA: No, absolutely, and then here's why I agree. You know, I don't want to try - I wanted to be somewhat subtle in nuance, and The Wall Street Journal encouraged that, which is great. Now, I don't - the urban economists who are arguing that we need more flexible land use, more flexible building regulations, that we need to build more housing in some of these very precious urban areas which don't want any. You know, don't put a new building or a big building next to me. I'm already in.

Clearly, these are very sought-after spaces. We have to increase density, but we can do it in different ways. We can build up mid-rise buildings. We can - as Mayor Bloomberg and the Bloomberg administration is doing in New York, we can put density in certain areas. But what I was cautioning against is, in a rush to density that particularly in other societies, not necessarily our country, in other societies which are building up, one of the remarkable things in America is during the urban renewal period, you know, people united in their neighborhoods to save these old districts. And what we find is that many of these old districts that were saved and weren't particularly advanced or particularly beautiful - those are the districts were now companies and high-tech entrepreneurs and in and(ph) outer areas, artists and musicians, are now streaming.

But the urban development process is quite dynamic. And these older industrial areas seem to play - in innovation and creativity, in arts and technology and entrepreneurship - they seem to play an increasingly very special role. And we just need to make note of that.

CONAN: And how do you plan for that?

FLORIDA: Well, I think, you know, the great thing about cities is they're diverse. There's diverse people in them. They have incredibly diverse economies. And I think the best thing I can say, and urbanists would say, is that when you have a diversity of neighborhood types and a diversity of building types, that's when you have a great city. So I think making sure that that diversity is maintained...

And the other thing that I really want - and it doesn't come up in this piece, but it comes up in other things I've written in a bigger conversation. In this rush to shrink some of the - they called it the shrinking cities, some of our older industrial centers, like Detroit or Buffalo - that many of these older neighborhoods are the neighborhoods that are being cleared and older buildings are being knocked down.

And in this rush to shrink, I think, the other caution is that that many of these neighborhoods, one can never predict and one wouldn't never predict - because they're been to comeback centers of so many communities - that they have just the sort of buildings that often are affordable and reconfigurable and exciting to people that bear the seeds of a comeback.

So I think thinking about the diversity of cities, but particularly these older warehousing and industrial areas, which were where food was distributed, where products were distributed in cities which - and many cities are rundown in an afterthought - they play a very, very special role in generating innovation and creativity. And in a rush to density, we should make sure to have that diversity and to make sure they're productive.

CONAN: So this is not just the mega cities of - that you write about so much, the New Yorks and the Chicagos and the Shanghais, for that matter, and the Londons, but places like Buffalo and Cleveland.

FLORIDA: Yes. And I think it's very interesting. When I looked at what really gives the U.S. competitive advantage in the world economy - and I have to think after the tough time we've had and that we still have, so many people are struggling in so many communities - what creates an enormous competitive advantage is the diversity within our cities, of building forms, of people, but also the fact that we have so many cities.

So in this recovery, the knowledge centers, not only the Silicon Valleys, but so many of the college towns. I was struck in my own research and in this revisited look at "The Rise of the Creative Class," how spectacularly a community like Ann Arbor has done, right in the shadows of Detroit; or a community like Madison, Wisconsin, or Gainesville, Florida, or Lexington, Kentucky, never mind Boulder and Austin. And the other kinds of communities that have done very, very well in the United States are the natural resources communities in the Houston area and the Texas area, parts of Oklahoma.

So what I think gives the United States a lot of its vibrancy is how diverse our communities are within themselves and the fact that we have so many different kinds of city. When one type of city is down, an industrial city, a Sun Belt city of sprawl, another kind of city seems to be bouncing back and recovering.

CONAN: That said, and all very interesting, if diversity and density are two of the key elements, how does that explain what you describe as the suburban Nerdistan of Silicon Valley?

FLORIDA: Well, it was...

You know, they think they are the cool. They do have the schools, but yeah.

Well, it's clear, now, that the Nerdist Stand model of technology development was been very successful. Silicon Valley, like it or not - and I'm an urbanist. I prefer big cities. I prefer San Francisco or New York - where we're talking from today, Toronto. But you have to give it credit, that the Silicon Valley model has been inordinately successful. And certainly, if you compare it to our new competitors in Shanghai, or Sao Paolo, or Mumbai or Bangalore, that model, which is far less dense, is quite successful.

What is happening, of course - and I'm writing more about this and will write more about this - is that we do see a move, a - maybe it's an inflection point, where more and more technology based companies are seeking out older city neighborhoods with this medium-rise mixed use industrial buildings. You not only see it in Chelsea, in Tribeca, in Midtown south, in the Flatiron District of New York, you see it in the migration of companies back into downtown San Francisco. You see it in the migration of companies from the Route 128 band of suburbs that surrounded Boston, back into downtown Boston and Cambridge. And you're even seeing little dribs and drabs.

You see, well, a bigger burst of this in Pittsburgh where I lived for many years. But you're even seeing a little bit of that kind of activity happening in a place like Detroit where a few little start-up companies and a big installation, Quicken Loans, and moved back downtown. So it's a balanced approach. It's certainly a certain big floor plates, an Apple computer, a Microsoft that employs a lot of people needs to be in a suburban area. But other companies and installations thrive in urban centers.

CONAN: So as those big vertical suburbs go up in midtown, again in New York City and other cities around the world - you talked about some of them - can there be anything to ameliorate, to help along, this innovation and creativity, even those big high-rise buildings?

FLORIDA: Well, I'm not so worried about New York or even London, and London could certainly use a little bit more verticality to it. I think that what smart urban designer - it's like a fellow named David Lewis, who's taught at Carnegie Mellon. David is in his 80s. He would always say that even when you pack density, the street level, the storefront level, the ability for people to mix and mingle and not be, you know, stuck in these giant plazas, no man's land, that is between big buildings, you know, these wind-swept corridors. That if you activate the street level - and I think in New York, I think New York is doing it right. You know, I think New York is really - had a phenomenal comeback.

But if you can think about it as a series of districts or a series of neighborhoods, some with large skyscrapers and towers, others with these more historic and warehousing districts with - in many cities, not so much New York - many cities with less expensive space... Another example of this would be greater Miami, which has built a very, you know, high-rise towers, has brought people back into the downtown core and has a culture and entertainment district and sports arena. But it has the Wynwood Arts corridor where artist studios and galleries are very affordable. And the Design District, which has design companies, and now has a commercial renovation.

So I think the best cities are a mix - mixture of the areas' kind of building types. And it's important to preserve that diversity, not just build a homogenous city of skyscrapers or a homogenous suburb of sprawl.

CONAN: Richard Florida, as always, thanks very much for your time.

FLORIDA: It's great being with you, Neal. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Richard Florida joined us from the CBC studios in Toronto. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.