by Michael Lowrey
Got a column out today for the Carolina Journal on the Creative Class. I’ll reprint it in full:
In Raleigh, it’s being heralded as the next big thing, a relocation decision that could help redefine and redevelop the old warehouse district near downtown.
Last year, Citrix Systems, which is based in California and Florida, bought the local information technology firm ShareFile. In August, Citrix announced that its newly acquired division was moving into a converted warehouse on West Street, near a planned transit hub.
“It can really start a domino effect that is going to bring a Raleigh version of what Durham has done so well,” Citrix vice president Jesse Lipson told Triangle Business Journal. “It’s going to start a trend of these companies moving outside of Research Triangle Park and the suburbs and moving back into the downtown area.”
Lipson’s comments were mild compared to those of David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, who told The News & Observer that “this is the first gunshot in the land stampede that will come to West Raleigh.”
Normally, local corporate moves don’t generate much public reaction, but this case is clearly different. For that we can thank urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s concept of the “creative class.”
Florida argues that knowledge workers, intellectuals, and artists of various sorts will be the leading force for economic growth in coming years. The places that can attract the creative class will prosper, he says, while those places that can’t attract these individuals will stagnate.
Local government officials often take this theory to mean that communities are essentially in a bidding war for the creative class. They must provide more of the urban, bohemian amenities — restaurants, loft apartments and condos, mass transit — the creative class is said to value or risk the economic consequences. Younger creative types are especially sought. That is why Citrix Systems’ move was seen as a win for Raleigh in general and downtown Raleigh in particular.
There’s one problem: Florida’s theory is just silly. Its flaws should be obvious to anyone who spends some time thinking about the implications. As members of the creative class age from their 20s into their 30s, they do what the general population does in their 30s (if not earlier): settle down, get married, and have kids. And once you have offspring, the appeal of urban living that the creative class is alleged to prefer — and on which many cities, including Raleigh, are spending vastly to create — suddenly disappears as the draw of owning a house with a yard increases.
There’s zero talk of doing anything to retain these former hipsters after they reach that point. That’s especially puzzling, given that people tend to earn higher incomes as they get older.
It’s also questionable whether one even can talk of a creative class as a unified whole. As Ann Markusen of the University of Minnesota notes, what constitutes human creativity is fuzzy. Florida uses census occupational groups to come up with his classification, but not everyone within a particular industry really could be considered to be creative.
Claims adjusters, for example, are included in business and financial occupations, which Florida considers to be part of the creative class. And there are plenty of highly skilled professions that aren’t part of the creative class.
Moreover, academic studies have called Florida’s work into question. Essentially, Florida fails to account for workers’ educational achievement. Once that’s included in the analytical framework, it’s clear that human capital matters a lot more to regional economic growth than how funky your downtown may be.
So yes, it’s nice that an old warehouse is being refurbished in a stagnant part of Raleigh. But if you’re expecting some sort of magical transformation to ensue, you’ll be disappointed.