New Urban Crisis – Plurality Analysis Needs Wholistic Integral City Frame

Professor of Cities, Richard Florida has reconsidered the consequences of cities pursuing the creative class as a desirable strategy for their success (subject of his book The Rise of the Creative Class). In his new book 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 faces some of the unintended consequences of what I would call a “mono-culture” approach to city design (also seemingly attractive to Elon Musk and his neo-city ideas and China with their empty ghost cities).

After exploring the data, he has collected on the many ways he observes multiple types of segregation impacting US cities (including extreme competition, elites, gentrification, inequalities, suburban malaise), Florida arrives at Chapter 10 where he proposes 7 pillars for creating conditions for “urbanism for all” (primarily in the USA).

Briefly the strategies are as follows:

  1. Make clustering support city wellbeing by changing the way we tax high value inner city land. Florida proposes we change from a property tax to a land (taxing what is built on the land) to a land value tax. He (and several key economists) contend this would recognize the scarcity of land and produce revenues that would strengthen city economy through shifting building to where it is needed and increase density that could be aligned with the pedestrian scale (a Jane Jacobs guideline).
  2. Invest in infrastructure that promotes density and growth, particularly through mass transit. Florida, to his credit, in recognizes that not all cities are created equal. A one size fits all approach will not work for all cities. In this pillar, he considers that cities with populations less than 5-6 million people can still work for car-based transportation systems. Exceeding this threshold, he argues that mass transit is critically necessary to gain effective mobility. Florida considers the value of mass transit particularly in the megalopolis zones (like NYC, Boston, Washington DC) to connect one city to another and allow for density and clustering as envisaged in Pillar 1.
  3. Most US cities are in desperate need of more rental housing – it should be built. This seems to be a direct consequence of US tax incentives that allow homeowners to deduct mortgage interest from their taxes. This was policy was purposefully implemented post WWII and re-enforced post 2008 financial crisis, in order to encourage home ownership in the suburbs. This policy has reinforced the American dream to own a house, but it has also encouraged massive urban sprawl, where cities originally emptied from the core to the suburbs (creating racial segregation in the bargain) and required infrastructure to support progressively distant housing developments. To encourage the building of rental housing that would offer new less expensive options to the middle class, Florida dares to suggest supplying housing vouchers to middle class citizens along with a basic income via negative income tax. He contends such changes in expenditure flow would encourage the badly needed investment to build rental housing.
  4. Having opened the genie of economic restructuring, Florida’s 4th Pillar considers the conversion of low-wage service jobs into middle class work that pays wages capable of supporting families. He likens the economic recalibration of family-supporting wages to the conversion of low-paid factory work to blue collar jobs that could support a middle-class family. Florida quotes Henry Ford’s wisdom on this insight “that assembly-line workers should be paid enough to buy the cars they were making”. In modern America, what would be the equivalent insight? “Walmart cashiers should be paid enough to house, clothe, feed and maintain their households?” Florida points to progressive retail and hospitality companies that have developed “good jobs strategies” – like Whole Foods, Zara, Costco, Trader Joes, Four Seasons. He contends that corporate America has the power to make this change and reap the benefits of increased productivity and profitability into the bargain. Again, to his credit, Florida discusses a minimum wage, that recognizes the geographic differences in suggests that would need to be considered so that minimum wages would not be one size fits all – but vary by the cost of living conditions from city to city.
  1. Florida wades into the tackling of poverty with a deeper discussion of the negative income tax – but he ties it directly to a need for America to address its flagrant inequality of access to excellent schooling. He points to American’s reliance on property taxes to fund schooling as a strategy that perpetuates the cycle of poverty across many generations, and condemns students living in poor economic areas (aka low property tax zones) from gaining the schooling they need to get better paying jobs. Florida advocates for early childhood education (that is also caught in this death spiral) to be available for all children. He returns to the negative income tax and cautions those Americans who worry that it discourages active work, by suggesting it would decline as incomes would rise. (He cites economists from both conservative views like Milton Friedman and liberal views like James Tobin who supported the negative income tax.)
  2. Florida steps out of the American-centric strategies to propose that American should lead a global effort for more resilient cities in parts of the world where urbanization is progressing. He points out (as we have done in 2013 when we considered cities to be both Tipping Points and Trigger Points in their nations stability and economic success). In fact, Florida suggests that the US would be more effective at city-building than nation-building!!
  3. Florida’s final pillar relates to the redistribution of power from nation and state to city and community. He argues that tax dollars and decision-making powers need to be recalibrated so cities have the power to design new tax strategies, build needed infrastructure and gain a seat at the decision-making table. He points to Britain’s pursuit of a “Senate of Cities”, Australia’s creation of a federal “ministry of cities” and Canada’s strategy for affordable housing as examples of how redistribution is happening elsewhere.

Florida concludes with a grand sweep across history that shows cities have always been the engines of “innovation, economic growth, diversity, tolerance and social progress.”

Integral City would suggest that in order for this to happen these 7 Pillars could be strengthened in these ways:

  1. Beyond being city-centric or meta-city centric or even trans-nationally city-centric, cities need to consider their contribution to the wellbeing of Gaia. What would happen if we reframed our urban crises in terms of finding the wellbeing and direction in our cities for them to become Gaia’s Reflective Organ? How would raising our context for change shift our overview of impact and outcome?
  2. While Florida has noted that the super cities he names have discovered planet-scale purposes (like trade for NYC and finance for London), it should be the job of all cities to discover their greater purpose in service to the planet. From there, they could develop a shared vision with the 4 Voices of the city and a strategy to implement it that would make effective use of city resources.
  3. Florida (and some other urban thought leaders) has considered the psychology of the city (as in Who’s Your City?and he demonstrates that he values schooling and early development for children. However, he appears to be uninformed about adult development and the implications this has for cities. So many of his arguments could be reframed and recalibrated if only he recognized that the great divides in cities are often (if not always) rooted in consciousness and culture. Only when we are able to act on those developmental patterns by finding the centre of (developmental) gravity that influences worldview, relationships, values and decision making, will we have the means to implement Florida’s ideas for change.
  4. Because Florida does not offer a planet-centric overview to context the life of cities, he is lacking the power of the Master Code (Taking Care of Self, Others, Place, Planet). Therefore, Florida’s strategies also lack the energy of Placecaring that is a prerequisite to the kind of Placemaking that he envisages.
  5. Florida’s depth and breadth of data and proposals for change suggest a plurality of approaches to city change. For the most part, they are rooted in the right-hand quadrants of the Integral City model (Map 1) – focused on Placemaking (in many healthy ways). But they largely lack the left-hand quadrants of Placecaring as noted in Item 4.
  6. Florida’s plurality of Pillars cries out for a view of the city that is wholistic. An Integral City framework can provide that model – and with its 5 Maps, shapeshift around the qualities of living systems, complexity and Integral realities that help us to understand the dynamics of cities that enables them to survive longer than either nations or organizations (according to Geoffrey West). You can find the Integral City framework and impact designs in our 2 books here.

About the Author:

HI I am the Founder of Integral City Meshworks Inc. and Chief Blogger. Working with cities and eco-regions, I ‘meshwork’ or weave people, purpose, priorities, profits, programs and processes to align contexts, grow capacity and develop strategies for sustainability and resilience in the Integral City. You can read more details about me here http://integralcity.com/about/about-the-founder/

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