Monday, February 24, 2014

The Outlier by the Bay

[Homonym alert -- I dictated this to my smart phone then edited it late in the evening.]

There's an energetic debate going on over at Andrew Gelman's site regarding Richard Florida's theories of the creative class. I can understand the urge to rise to Florida's defense. After all, there's great appeal to the idea that the kind of smart, innovative people who tend to drive economic growth are attracted to diverse, tolerant, livable cities with vibrant cultures. To  some extent, I believe it myself, but I find myself having the same problems with Florida I have with the rest of the urban utopianists: first that they have a tendency to take interesting but somewhat limited findings and draw impossibly sweeping conclusions and TED-ready narratives; and that these narratives often mesh badly with the facts on the ground. I've already discussed the latter (in probably overly harsh but still heartfelt language). Here are some thoughts on the second.

Part of my problem with a lot of urban research is that there just aren't enough major cities out there to make a really good sample, particularly when you have data this confounded and so many unusual if not unique aspects with each area. For some cities, with New York and San Francisco being very close to the top of the list, these unique aspects make it difficult to generalize findings and policy suggestions.

When I look at Richard Florida's research, at least in the form that made it to the Washington Monthly article, the role of San Francisco strikes me as especially problematic.

What is by many standards the most Bohemian and gay-friendly area in America is also arguably the country's center of technological innovation. Even if there were no relationship in the rest of the country, that single point would create a statistically significant correlation. That would not be so troubling if we had a clear causal relationship or a common origin. Unfortunately, the main driver of the tech boom, if you had to limit yourself to just one factor, would have to be Stanford University, while the culture of San Francisco does not appear to have been particularly influenced by that school, particularly when compared to Berkeley. In other words, had Stanford chosen to establish his college in Bakersfield, we might still have had Haight-Ashbury but we almost certainly would not have had Silicon Valley.

What's more, when we start looking at this narrative on a city by city basis, we often fail to see what we would expect. For example, if you were growing up in a relatively repressive area of the Southeast and you were looking for a Bohemian, gay-friendly metropolitan area with a vibrant arts scene, the first name on your list would probably be New Orleans followed by, roughly in this order, Atlanta, Savannah, and Memphis. Neither Cary. North Carolina nor Huntsville, Alabama would have made your top 10.

Rather bizarrely, Florida discusses both the Research Triangle and and New Orleans in his WM article, apparently without seeing the disconnect with his theories.:
Stuck in old paradigms of economic development, cities like Buffalo, New Orleans, and Louisville struggled in the 1980s and 1990s to become the next "Silicon Somewhere" by building generic high-tech office parks or subsidizing professional sports teams. Yet they lost members of the creative class, and their economic dynamism, to places like Austin, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Seattle---places more tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity.
There are lots of reasons for leaving New Orleans for Austin, but tolerance, diversity and openness to creativity aren't among them.

Even stranger are Florida's comments about the Research Triangle:
Kotkin finds that the lack of lifestyle amenities is causing significant problems in attracting top creative people to places like the North Carolina Research Triangle. He quotes a major real estate developer as saying, "Ask anyone where downtown is and nobody can tell you. There's not much of a sense of place here. . . .The people I am selling space to are screaming about cultural issues." The Research Triangle lacks the hip urban lifestyle found in places like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Chicago, laments a University of North Carolina researcher: "In Raleigh-Durham, we can always visit the hog farms."
Remember, Florida said "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't," so is this spot withering away? Not so much:
Anchored by leading technology firms, government and world-class universities and medical centers, the area's economy has performed exceptionally well. Significant increases in employment, earnings, personal income and retail sales are projected over the next 15 years.

The region's growing high-technology community includes such companies as IBM, SAS Institute, Cisco Systems, NetApp, Red Hat, EMC Corporation and Credit Suisse First Boston. In addition to high-tech, the region is consistently ranked in the top three in the U.S. with concentration in life science companies. Some of these companies include GlaxoSmithKline, Biogen Idec, BASF, Merck & Co., Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, and Wyeth. Research Triangle Park and North Carolina State University's Centennial Campus in Raleigh support innovation through R&D and technology transfer among the region's companies and research universities (including Duke University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).
This is not to say that there is not some truth to Florida's narrative or validity to many if not most of his insights. It does appear, however, that the magnitude of the effects he proposes are far less than he suggested and that the absolute claims he is fond of making are often riddled with exceptions.


  1. Hi Mark, I've read both your post & Gelman's post on this issue, and I really like how you are calling out the inconsistencies in Florida's theories. I'd like to add two comments:

    1) one way to get around the problem of heterogeneous units, such as cities, is to look at correlated changes over time. Does an increase in cool cultural institutions, like centers for the arts, good concert venues, & highly rated restaurants precede a tech revival? My feeling is that looking at correlations over time may be more valid than looking at things cross-sectionally.

    2) It seems like the argument you're making assumes independent, linear relationships between variables here, where it might be that there is a sort of gestalt going on where the ability of New Orleans to attract people as compared to Austin is due to the overall vibe of the city--yes N.O. has creative reputation, but it doesn't have an intellectual reputation, and the South as a whole has a reputation for being less creative-friendly. Maybe you need to have all of the boxes checked--creative, intellectual, embedded in a larger accepting culture--to get the benefits?

    1. These points are all valid but, just to be clear, my point in these posts is that the arguments of the utopian urbanists don't hold up in the simple and often absolute terms which they've been presented in. I suspect that you can make a very good nuanced case for the idea that efforts to increase livability, diversity, tolerance and cultural richness can pay for themselves by increasing creative output. It's the lack of nuance in the current debate that I object to.