The New Urban Crisis by Richard Florida

The new urban crisis does not have a simple definition. According to Florida, it encompasses the gap between superstar cities and all other cities where success of superstar cities creates high housing costs and inequity, pushing out the working and service class. The growing inequality, segregation and sorting in all metro areas creates winners and losers and a shrinking middle class. What this results in is changing the dynamic from cities versus suburbs to a patchwork of poverty throughout all regions. The suburbs, once a haven for the white middle class are now seeing rising crime, poverty, and segregation.

The superstar cities are dense, urban hubs that hold all the major industries. Their increased population has led to economic success and increased home values. The poster child for the superstar cities is San Francisco home to the tech industry and all time high housing costs. While the clustering effect the author describes is driving growth, it increases competition for land and drives up costs for homes. One of the most striking facts in the book is that the value of housing markets in some of these superstar cities are more than the entire GDP of many large countries. And these trends have not been growing slowly, but sky rocketing in the last 20 years.

I have heard the definitions of NIMBY (not in my backyard), but the author gave a striking connection between NIMBY attitudes and development. I typically see NIMBY’s upset that developers are winning and ruining the neighborhood. But what the NIMBY effect is doing is driving up prices by halting development. The little land leftover that is possible to develop becomes priced so high that middle and lower class residents cannot afford it. The same goes for the absentee landlords. Their properties just sit vacant, driving up the cost of the leftover lots that can be rented or purchased.

Another fascinating observation from the book is that affluent populations are moving back into cities are bringing the suburban atmosphere with them. We are constantly permitting new apartments or warehouse retrofits with rooftop amenity decks comprised of grills, pools, hot tubs, and patio space. Just the sort of atmosphere you would find in a suburban apartment complex, but in the urban core they are on the rooftop, not in the middle of the complex.

The biggest effect of this shift back into the city is to create areas of concentrated poverty, especially in the rust belt cities. This leads to inequality of opportunity, which gets compounded over generations. What is striking is that the most dense, liberal, diverse, economically successful cities have the worst economic segregation. The author charges cities to fix this problem through a chapters worth of suggestions including more dense development, taxing vacant and under performing land, investing in infrastructure that supports clustered growth like transit, building affordable housing, turning low wage service jobs into middle class work, combating poverty head on, and giving cities control to make the changes they see as priorities.

In the end, urban clustering is the solution to the new urban crisis. While the leaders of the 1950’s and 60’s relied on transportation projects to clear blighted areas and solve their urban crisis, the leaders of today need to invest in our cities instead of tearing them down for highways. It will take commitment and creativity, but the tools are there to solve the problems of economic inequality and poverty in our most economically successful cities.