The Interview: Joel Kotkin versus Richard Florida

By: on June 19, 2013 |

It has been said of politics in academia that the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small. One cannot say this in relation to arguments about how cities should be designed – given that so much of the world’s population lives in metropolises and thus is directly affected by theories put into practice in our urban environments.

Two combatants who are perhaps best known for their views on cities are Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin. They have been going back and forth on the cities topic for a century – this century anyway. Recently, Kotkin and Florida had a huge dust-up in The Daily Beast.

Author and consultant Florida of The Rise of the Creative Class fame has effectively influenced the way cities across North America seek to attract human capital by developing their urban forms. His basic message is that denser, mixed-use, more-walkable cities draw creative people into even more creative collisions, raising not only aesthetics but also productivity. It might be pretty and profitable to create bohemian cityscapes with the carrot of subsidy for urban redevelopments and the stick of regulation on greenfield suburbia.

In an extraordinary piece of self-criticism in The Atlantic in January 2013, Florida wrote that the fallout for working-class people might not be rosy. “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.” Taking data from across the United States, Florida showed that larger metros with greater talent clustering raise everybody’s wages, but unless you are a member of Florida’s creative class, meaning highly educated and working more with your mind than with your hands, increased housing costs in his ideal locations will leave you worse off.

Enter Joel Kotkin, Florida’s intellectual nemesis, proprietor of NewGeography and author of several books, including the brilliantly compact urban history The City: A Global History. Kotkin argues that cities perform many duties for many people and that utopian plans will end in tears or, more specifically, mismatches in supply and demand, shortages, higher prices and the delayed evolution of the urban form. Together, they represent the two sides of the debate about the role of urban planning in urban development.

For a few days in March, The Daily Beast hosted Kotkin’s claim that Florida had “conceded the limits of the creative class.” Florida’s retort: “Not so fast, Joel Kotkin.”

I contacted them with questions that each had left hanging after the Florida-Kotkin-Florida exchange.

Is Florida having a mid-life crisis where he has become worried about the effects of his policies on the poor? It seemed like it when I saw him speak in February, pleading with his 500-strong audience of Canadian municipal staffers to think of the disadvantaged. My queries: Did he really need to insinuate in his Daily Beast retort that Kotkin is homophobic? Was Kotkin too cute by half, pouncing on Florida’s candour for cheap points, points that he makes in every situation anyway?

My intent was to interview both gentlemen, but Florida’s press agent, after I had called and re-sent my e-mail, would only say, “Richard will pass on this one.”

That leaves us with Joel Kotkin. Kotkin reached me by phone from his home in Los Angeles. First up, he made it clear he is not planning another salvo in this exchange: “I work for several magazines; he works for several magazines,” commented Joel on the recent tête-à-tête, “so I’m not going to get into a sort of back and forth. I want to get these ideas out.”

From Kotkin, those ideas are that urban forms should grow organically to accommodate a range of different lifestyles. “What Richard did is he took a niche strategy, something I’ve written about over a decade ago, a hip, cool, inner-city demographic that works in certain industries during certain time periods, but then, it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of the population.”

Expanding Florida’s creative class to include the rest of us

Kotkin’s creative class is intended to fit a wider demographic than Florida’s is, e.g., “an accountant who lives in suburban Edmonton who goes to church, which you could see as a sign of less advancement, let’s put it that way, that person is creative class because they have a level of education.”

Kotkin might be clutching at a straw man here, but Florida did play the stereotype card in his Daily Beast response and in fact accused Kotkin of anti-gay motives in his view of cities:

Kotkin likes to distract people and play to class and other prejudices with inflammatory language about ‘hip and cool’ places versus suburbs and young sophistos, trendoids, and gays versus real families. It’s interesting, in that context, to note that his recent report on ‘post-familialism’ was supported by the right-wing philanthropist Howard Ahmanson. Kotkin’s report credits Ahmanson as a ‘philanthropist,’ but Salon dubs him ‘the avenging angel of the religious right,’ a large funder of antigay and anti-evolution groups and causes. I firmly reject such divisiveness.

Kotkin is livid, and spends several minutes on this, and he returns to the accusation more than once in the remainder of the interview: “I live in goddamn f#&%ing Hollywood. Give me a break! … I’m identified as being controlled by fundamentalist Christians when I’m pretty much a secular Jew …. He might as well call me anti-Semitic while he was at it.” Kotkin’s defence, and point, is that he has never written anything divisive in the sense Florida insinuates, and Google seems to agree.

Back to cities and whom they are designed for: Family formation does still matter to the urban form, asserts Kotkin, though “part of this is a simple disagreement about what happens to people when they get old, and my sense is that as they get older they begin to look more and more for a lower density way of life.”

Kotkin says this applies whether or not one has kids, but his point seems strongest when one does. “Look, if you’re an investment banker and you can afford a four-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue or Central Park West, and a country home, and send your kids to a private school, you can live in the city, but how many people have that kind of money? … I don’t know how often you have to say it, you know, once kids get to the age of five, housing them in a small apartment gets to be extremely unpleasant.”

Florida’s possible defence?

Had Florida agreed to my interview, perhaps right about now he would have used arguments from his specially prepared document on Kotkin Fallacies:

As I’ve written repeatedly, the most successful regions welcome all kinds of people. And they offer a range of living choices, from nice suburbs with single-family housing to hip urban districts for the ‘unattached.’ They have to. Only 23.5 per cent of Americans now live in a standard nuclear family with two parents and children at home.

It sounds like something Kotkin might have written in his report on post-familialism, triggered by the observation that an unprecedented proportion of women are eschewing childbearing.

So back to Kotkin and my question: Is the real division between Florida and Kotkin over the amount of power the planners have to say yes or no to a project? “Well, what am I trying to stop? I’m not trying to stop anything, but what I don’t think is right is to ask a neighbouring part of the city, particularly a working-class neighbourhood, to subsidize housing for yuppies. That I don’t think is fair. If you say, ‘We’re going to have high-density development in the central core,’ and you can fill those buildings and make money with it, then go ahead.”

If Kotkin does not want to stop anything, does Florida? Kotkin certainly thinks so: “There is a minority, you know, 8 per cent, 10 per cent, 12 per cent, who would like to live in high density. I think that’s great, and I think that they should have options, too. What’s happened and what’s changed is that we’ve gone from saying yes that’s an option, to this is the only option …”

The new urban priesthood

However, urban planning, according to Kotkin – Florida’s recommended planning in other words – has morphed into a kind of sacred order. “The problem that you have is that this is the type of theology, you know, very much like the Middle Ages [when] you had the priesthood at the University of Paris. They were inculcated with a certain theology, and they all praised the same God, and those doctrines were then adapted and adopted by the other powerful groups … the aristocracy and the kings and that’s what we have now. We have a theology that is accepted without even really thinking about what people want or what’s best for them. That’s what’s really interesting to me.”

What about the obvious Florida concession of late that began this whole saga: Florida’s drive for density, collaboration and creativity disadvantages the poor? Kotkin thinks that is an obvious and predictable result of a narrow focus on a city’s core: “Subsidizing downtown developers to build housing for yuppies and is orientated to industries that simply have very limited opportunities for a huge proportion of the population, it’s certainly not going to make the situation better.”

It is hard to disagree, but perhaps it is actually Kotkin’s suburban accountant who is being subsidized through inherent differences in infrastructure cost, rather than those downtowners. Is Kotkin’s laissez-faire approach to development actually a status quo of downtown taxpayers subsidizing suburban development? “Well there are a lot of things like that [at] first. When you densify old areas, you have to dig and put new pipes in. It’s actually more expensive.” One suspects this varies from instance to instance, but point taken, intensification is not inevitably cheaper.

The Florida-Kotkin-Florida dust-up reprised

Notwithstanding Florida’s highly disingenuous homophobia accusation, the real differences between Kotkin and Florida might be narrower than they seem. Each claims the other represents a narrower range of people than he does. In my reading of them, both are open-minded and say they want a diverse and adaptive urban form with a range of housing options. Where there is a difference is whether the market or the municipal prescription is more likely to deliver that. The problem for Florida is that he has now conceded that his prescription works for some at the expense of others. So, the winner? Kotkin, on points.
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David Seymour is Senior Fellow in Municipal governance at the Manning Foundation and issue editor for this edition of C2C.


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About David Seymour