Intelligent design

Urban-studies guru says Sacramento should cater to its creative types

Richard Florida says that if cities really want to be vibrant and appealing, they should think small.<br><span style=Richard Florida photo by Jeroen Oerlemans Fotografie">

Richard Florida says that if cities really want to be vibrant and appealing, they should think small.
Richard Florida photo by Jeroen Oerlemans Fotografie

Richard Florida at the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall at UC Davis, 8 p.m. April 12, $14.50-$39. Call (530) 754-2787 for tickets.

In her State of the City address two Fridays ago, Mayor Heather Fargo began with the basics. “We are Sacramento, and we are proud,” she said. “We are not San Francisco. We are not New York. We are not anywhere else.” With that important primer out of the way, Fargo outlined the city’s plans for spending more than a hundred million dollars on its own redevelopment. “Our community self-esteem is up, and we know we’re worth it,” she added, sounding a little like a cosmetics commercial.

Not that the mayor is wrong. If you’re ranking cities for their creative climate, as urban-studies guru Richard Florida does, you’ll find Sacramento already in the top 25. And who these days would doubt the correlation between creative-climate rank and urban self-esteem? That’s thanks largely to Florida, who’ll be at the Mondavi Center in Davis on Wednesday to discuss the matter and maybe buy us all congratulatory lattes. The author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class, Florida’s the guy who finally took the time and brainpower to articulate the “Well, duh!” idea that applied creativity can be a prime mover of urban economic growth and that those cities that cultivate what he calls the three Ts—technology, talent and tolerance—will become, in every sense, where it’s at.

Florida sees cities’ futures in their street cultures, built from the ground up by his so-called creative class—artists, engineers, Web designers, scientists, musicians, writers, educators and others whose jobs require regular contributions of new ideas. His formula for job growth has been thoroughly disputed, but even prominent detractors acknowledge Florida’s ideas as “all the rage worldwide.”

2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit, the first official gathering of the creative class, assembled a “Creative 100” from 48 cities to write a treatise on maintaining economic competitiveness. Also that year, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities Initiative” prompted more than 120 cities in her state to apply for assistance starting up creative-cuddling projects. Others have followed. To wit: Cincinnati’s Creative City Plan, or Creative TampaBay or Creative Fresno.

Yes, Fresno. “What’s worked for us,” says Fresno City Councilman Henry Perea, who got all Floridafied on his own town a couple of years ago, “is that we haven’t taken the master-developer approach. We haven’t done an exclusive agreement with one developer. We do know what we want to do and where we want to have everything. But we go on a project-by-project basis. So it’s much more financially feasible.” And, presumably, it’s guided by the highly visible hand of the creative class.

Having been known to command more money for a single speaking engagement than your average barista-poet hopes to make in a year, Florida obviously has struck a nerve. He’s been called a visionary and a seller of economic snake oil, among many other things, and his books indicate a number-cruncher’s bona fides, or a charts-and-graphs fetish, depending on whom you ask.

In any case, he’s lively in conversation. Reached by phone at his home—presumably an airy, ultra-swanky live/work loft—in Washington, D.C., Florida takes a moment to put on some music before settling in to be interviewed, which in his case means some hybrid of delivering a lecture and shooting the shit.

“People create their identity in the city that they live in,” he says, “and they don’t want to take on something that’s forced on them.” Even as he cautions of tensions between the creative and traditional classes (he has pointed out in print that, for better and worse, the service class does the creative class’s chores), Florida is not above sweeping beatific pronouncements, like “Creativity defies all the social categories that we have imposed on ourselves.” Impressively, he can argue that what it takes to make a city great is to start thinking of amenities as necessities without sounding like an elitist crusader for widespread gentrification. Florida’s idea isn’t to push people out; it’s to bring them in.

“Now there’s a big debate, which is a good thing,” Florida notes of his own phenomenon. “The critics are reacting sometimes to things I didn’t write about. And some of my supporters have kind of got the message wrong—that what we really want is to have more coffee bars and bike trails, and all of a sudden we’ll have this magic place. It isn’t about creating a yuppie-friendly environment. It’s one in which every person’s creative industry can really contribute.”

“He’s a motivational speaker, if you’re one of the believers,” says Downtown Sacramento Partnership Executive Director Michael Ault. “Florida talks very broadly about all the elements coming together. To put the Florida vision in play requires a lot of people working cooperatively in ways that historically many cities don’t have.” Of Sacramento, Ault says, “There are a wide variety of people passionate about urban revitalization,” but his tone implies that the blessings of such passions can be mixed.

Passion and potential is all well and good, says J. Greenberg, who produced KVIE’s New Valley series and cites Florida as an inspiration for the founding of HQ, which Greenberg also directs. But, as he sees it, “there’s been a real lack of vision and leadership in town when it comes to supporting local businesses and commerce. Regarding Sacramento,” Greenberg continues, “I find it aggravating but promising. On the one hand, you have a perfect example of a smartly designed community in the downtown and Midtown areas. But developers on the city’s outskirts refuse to learn from it! Natomas, where I work, is mostly an abomination. And don’t even get me started on the Arden-Arcade part of town.”

Meanwhile, Greenberg observes, “‘Revitalize K Street’ has become a zombie-like chant in town, yet past efforts have proven unsuccessful, in my opinion, because they always stem from or emphasize the need to bring in some ‘big project’ rather than encouraging successful local businesses to start up or relocate there.”

As Florida himself would have it, “These big convention centers—the one big bet—just don’t really pay off. In a place like Sacramento, it’s the theaters, the small-scale shops, the music venues. I would encourage many more small-scale things. And I’ll tell you, not a single person that we interviewed ever said they moved to a town for its sports arena.” Florida is outspoken about what he sees as cities’ misplaced faith in new sports stadiums, particularly in a section of his first book called “Why Some Places Get Trapped.”

“I think he makes a determinative case,” says former California Arts Council Deputy Director Paul Minicucci, a longtime local advocate for state and city investment in cultural infrastructure, in an e-mail. “A lot of people refuse to believe his model, some who are in the arts among them, because it seems counter-intuitive to the traditional wisdom that says you should cut taxes, and government, and give tax incentives and other incentives to developers. But creative people do build a critical mass that drives lots of things, including property values.”

Minicucci favors what he calls “Culture Enterprise Zones, where artists can be given waivers from some zoning ordinances within certain designated zones (think R Street corridor) to do music rehearsal space, performing space and artists’ space.” And, he believes, “developers should be co-investors, not rapacious landlords.”

Most people, including Florida, stress the importance of available housing and recognize what a difference the cost of living can make. “A big benefit for Sacramento is the fact that the Bay Area has become prohibitively expensive,” Florida says. So, if we know what’s good for us, we’ll take a page from the book of Baltimore, which made itself a player by macking on Washington, D.C.’s creative sloppy seconds.

On the other hand, as Florida believes, “competition isn’t just something that pits Sacramento against San Francisco. It’s a worldwide game. Cities are being globalized in the same way industries are being globalized.” In other words, having risen, the creative class is now taking flight. The ultimate bourgeois-bohemian fantasy—to go live in some progressively urbane capital of Europe or wherever, just, like, doing your thing—has become so plausible a reality (at least for the highest achievers of the creative class) that it even threatens America’s cultural health.

For now, maybe thinking locally is best. As for Sacramento’s cultural health, Fargo said, in wrapping up her address, “I have a vision of our city in the next 20 years. Sacramento will be recognized as the most livable city in America.” We know we’re worth it.