Monday, December 22, 2014
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Is the Twin Cities metro really a haven for the creative class?
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Economist Richard Florida has written extensively about his notion of "the creative class," a subset of society that works primarily with ideas and information. (Image courtesy of Richard Florida)
Economist Richard Florida has declared the Twin Cities a world leader in attracting creative people. Florida draws a connection between the health of cities and their ability to attract what's defined as "the creative class." He describes the creative class as an increasingly mobile, educated and well-paid section of society. But a Minnesota economist says while it's a nice idea, the creative class theory just doesn't hold water.

St. Paul, Minn. — On a blustery rainy afternoon, journalists tour the new Guthrie Theater complex. Set for completion in June 2006, the Guthrie is just one of half a dozen cultural landmarks that are significantly expanding.

The city of Minneapolis is working to promote the cultural explosion in the hopes that these new landmark destinations will draw tourists, conventions, and businesses to the area.

On a recent visit to the Twin Cities, economist Richard Florida pointed to the thriving cultural scene as one of the key components that make the Twin Cities attractive to what he calls the "creative class."

"Of all the cities in the United States that received high scores on creativity -- in other words, high technology, lots of innovation, attracting young people, tolerant place for racial and ethnic people, gays and lesbians -- one stood out. And that was the Minneapolis St. Paul Twin Cities," Florida says.

Florida is the author of both "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "The Flight of the Creative Class." So what is the creative class?

"That's really people who think," says Florida. "People who create value by using our minds and our innate human creative capability."

Florida includes in this group everyone from engineers and technicians to doctors and lawyers. In other words, people who tend to work more with ideas.

"But it's not just those things," says Florida. "It's people who work in arts and culture, design and entertainment. Entertainment as an economic field today is bigger than the steel industry or the auto industry."

According to Florida, such people are interested in living in places that excel at the three "T"s: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. They seek out cities that offer dynamic cultural lives and are welcoming to diverse populations, particularly gays.

Florida says until recently the United States has been a haven for people of the creative class. It's open, melting-pot culture attracted intellectual talent from around the world to its universities and medical schools. Many of those international students found work and settled down in the U.S.

But Florida says under the Bush administration, tightening national security and anti-gay marriage legislation are creating a barrier to newcomers and making some currents residents feel very uncomfortable.

"Why not hang a sign and say, 'Creative people not welcome here?'" Florida asks. "Why not just commit economic suicide?"

As a result Florida says many people are choosing to live elsewhere, taking their money and their talent with them.

Professor Ann Markusen, an economist with the University of Minnesota, has known Richard Florida's work for years, but is dismayed by his creative class theory. She recently challenged Florida's theories in an academic paper. She says she would have felt much more comfortable with Florida's theory if he confined it to artists.

"But instead, his definition includes this wide group of people - scientists, engineers, accountants, lawyers," says Markusen. "And actually it's pretty easy to show that some of those groups are not attracted to diverse and highly urbanized places."

Markusen points to gated communities and suburban environments in places like Colorado Springs and San Diego, filled with engineers and other high tech workers who have no desire to live in diverse, artistic communities. Markusen says "the creative class" by Richard Florida's definition appears to be anyone with an advanced education.

"If he just said that higher education is what's important that would be one thing," says Markusen. "But he uses this notion of creativity and inventiveness as the core idea. And I think it's very objectionable to conflate that with levels of education."

Markusen says it's simply wrong to say that people with a higher education are more creative than those without. She compares an accountant to an in-home health care worker. She says the health care worker uses a great deal more creativity in his or her work, even though it doesn't require nearly as much of an education.

In addition, Markusen takes issue with Florida's notion of diversity. He argues that his creative class is more attracted to diverse communities.

"The problem is that diversity to most people means age, gender, ethnicity, race, or sexual orientation," says Markusen. "What he's done is just to take one of those, and within that, only men. He only counts gay men who say they are partners when responding to the [national] census."

Since a disproportionate percentage of gay men are highly educated, Markusen says Florida's theories again seem to be oriented around education and class rather than real creativity or diversity.

"Even more troubling," says Markusen, "is that other indicators of diversity, particularly race and ethnicity,do not end up being correlated at all with the places that he identifies as highly creative."

Markusen has conducted several studies linked to the presence of artists in communities, and she believes they are a much more important indicator of quality of life and economic health than the presence of high-tech or degreed workers. She says Florida's work seems to let the highly educated get a free ride on the coat tails of artists.

"Why have so many artists and art loving people migrated toward the Grand Marais area and bought homes and become permanent residents?" asks Markusen. "It's because of the high visibility of the arts there."

Markusen hopes city administrators will think carefully about who they are attracting, and why, before they latch on to the notions of a creative class.

That's happening already in Bemidji, thanks to the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. Director of Programs Marty Sieve says economist Richard Florida's work inspired the foundation to look at quality of life in the region.

"We had come to realize that in the new global economy, what was going to drive the economy in the future was the availability of knowledge and talent," says Sieve.

The study asked residents of the area why they had settled there, and what kept them there. The results have led the foundation to invest more in social and environmental programs.

"We're not real strong on the arts and culture side of things," says Sieve. "We would like to concentrate more there, but that hasn't traditionally been a strong area for us."

Sieve says the foundation hopes to fund more artistic programs in the future.

Economist Ann Markusen says she's happy to see cities taking a new interest in using quality of life to draw employees and business, rather than focusing simply on industry.

And she agrees with Richard Florida that legislation banning same-sex marriage can have a negative impact on the economy.

Canada's House of Commons has passed legislation that would legalize gay marriage; its Senate is expected to pass the bill into law by the end of July. Both Richard Florida and Ann Markusen anticipate this will inspire many gay Americans to move north across the border, and take their businesses with them.

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