- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Carlos Falcon is a storyteller: He paints people’s lives on T-shirts, jeans, shoes — anything that can be worn. Artists like the Paraguayan-born Mr. Falcon, who lives in a high-rise in Arlington, could be the key to the District’s economic future, Richard Florida says.

A professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Florida is the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which advances one of the hottest theories in the field of urban development.

Creativity is the key to prosperity, Mr. Florida says. That simple premise has made him one of the most sought-after speakers for cities hoping to revitalize their economies.

Mr. Florida redefines traditional labor terminology, dividing workers into three classes: service, working and “creative.” The creative class includes traditional artists such as painters and musicians, as well as scientists, software programmers and even business managers. This creative class, he says, makes up close to one-third of the country’s working population.

“Creativity … is now the decisive source of competitive advantage,” Mr. Florida writes. “In virtually every industry, from automobiles to fashion, food products, and information technology itself, the winners in the long run are those who can create and keep creating.”

This is the age of the creative economy, Mr. Florida says, when workers are motivated less by financial incentives and more by the content of the job and the company culture. Workers seek flexibility, challenge and openness to diversity, he says.

Instead of moving to cities where the jobs are available, these creative workers are choosing to live in cities that offer the lifestyle amenities they seek — parks with bike trails, vibrant local music scenes and a plethora of restaurants. As a result, Mr. Florida says, businesses are moving to “creative centers” chosen by the top talents.

The result? A city’s prosperity depends on its ability to provide a cultural ethos that values open-mindedness, diversity and tolerance — the types of cities that “gays” and “geeks” choose to inhabit, he says.

These ideas have propelled Mr. Florida into the national spotlight, but he does have critics.

Mr. Florida’s work is “overly simplistic,” says Joel Kotkin, author of “The New Geography.”

“There’s an element of truth to it, in the sense that places that are hip and cool have this kind of appeal to some people,” Mr. Kotkin says.

To say that an accountant or lawyer — “anybody with an education” — is part of the same class as artists and musicians is inaccurate, Mr. Kotkin says. “The category is much too broad.”

Edward Feser, executive director of policy, research and strategic planning at the North Carolina Department of Commerce and associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees some truth to Mr. Florida’s ideas but says regions develop for different reasons.

“Richard does a good job of encapsulating a phenomenon that definitely is relevant for some cities and regions,” Mr. Feser says. “But it’s like a lot of things. It’s not a panacea, although there is some truth in what he is saying. Perhaps it is not as widespread as he may imply.”

Cities that are not so hip also have experienced considerable growth, Mr. Kotkin says, noting that people are moving away from metropolitan areas and into smaller cities.

Mr. Florida says his calculations have a “high-tech bias,” which may explain why Houston (No. 7) ranks above New York City (No. 9) on his Creativity Index.

The technology boom of the late 1990s was a period when “the laws of economics were supposedly revoked,” Mr. Kotkin said, but a return to normal economic cycles has created new factors.

Mr. Kotkin pointed out that San Francisco (No. 1) and other cities ranked high on Mr. Florida’s list fell into dire economic situations a year after the book’s publication.

“If this was a paradigm shift, it certainly was one of the fastest paradigm shifts in history,” Mr. Kotkin says.

Apart from its novel economic categories, Mr. Florida’s book suggests major social change. He reminds the reader that only about one in four Americans lives in a traditional nuclear family — a “Leave It to Beaver” family, as Mr. Florida says — and that the next generation of Americans is cultivating weaker social and civic ties.

These lifestyle trends affect how and where workers live, he says. “People want to live in a place with like-minded people who reinforce their identity,” Mr. Florida says.

After September 11, Mr. Kotkin says, Americans began seeking stability and different qualities in cities.

“I think a lot of [Mr. Floridas theory] is about a hope that somehow being hip and tolerant is going to save your city,” Mr. Kotkin says. “That’s a lot easier than answering the hard questions such as how to be safe, how to grow your economy so that there is opportunity for people and how do you provide housing that is affordable for the middle class.”

Washington, D.C., has a long-standing reputation for being a serious city of power lunches, but Mr. Florida says the hipness quotient is high. The Washington-Baltimore region ranks No. 8 overall on his Creativity Index.

Washington is transforming from a “stuffy, boring town” to a “mosaic region” with tremendous diversity, a world music scene and a street-level music scene, he says.

“D.C. is evolving,” said Mr. Falcon, who has lived in the area for six years. “It’s becoming more and more the type of place creative people want to live in.”

“The fact that you have 38.4 percent of your working class in creative occupations, that basically says what has generated Washington’s turnaround,” Mr. Florida says.

Washington has a high percentage of immigrants, a large homosexual population and a substantial black middle class.

“Washington is attractive to all types of people,” Mr. Florida says. “You can go out any night of the week and meet someone fascinating.”

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