April 19, 2017

The New Urban Crisis

By: Richard Florida

Donald Trump’s thinking about cities is a product of the old urban crisis of the 1960s and ‘70s - the staggeringly high rates of crime and poverty, economic and social dysfunction, and fiscal collapse that he witnessed in his native New York in the early years of his career.

But, his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton is a product of the backlash against what I have come to call the New Urban Crisis of burgeoning economic inequality—the widening divides between rich and poor; the staggering unaffordability of housing in our leading cities, tech hubs, and knowledge-centers like New York, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Washington DC.  

This New Urban Crisis is defined by what I call “winner-take-all urbanism” in which the biggest, richest, and most talented metros attract wildly disproportionate shares of talent, industry, and economic assets, while smaller cities and towns in the Rustbelt, the Sunbelt, and rural regions fall farther and farther behind.

As narrow as Trump’s margin of victory might have been, its geographical bases are unmistakable. Clinton took the dense, affluent, knowledge-based cities and close-in suburbs that are the epicenters of new economy, winning the popular vote by a substantial margin. But Trump took everywhere else, taking 61 percent of the vote in rural places compared to 33 percent for Clinton. He won 57 percent of the vote in metros with less than 250,000 people, compared to 38 percent for Clinton. And he carried 52 percent of the vote in metros with between 250,000 and 500,000 people, compared to 34 percent for Clinton. All told, he won 260 metros, compared to Clinton’s 120. But the average Trump metro was home to just 420,000 people compared to 1.4 million for Clinton’s.   

 A growing number of commentators see our great cities as the major source of opposition and resistance to Trump and Trumpism, and that may well be the case. But an even bigger agenda awaits. Trump or not, the nation-state has too much power. Centralization might have made sense in the great age of industrial capitalism, but it has fallen out of sync with the demands of urbanized knowledge capitalism. Our cities are the new organizing units of our economy, and they need to be able to control their own destinies.

Localism represents the only path around our permanent political divide, which erupts every four year into a veritable Civil War. We have to learn to live together and the only way to do that is to allow us to Red states and Blue state and cities to live the lives they want to. Such devolution and local empowerment may have seemed like a pipe-dream a few years ago, but several forces—not the least of which is the rise of Trump—have conspired to bring a wide range of strange bedfellows from the left and right together on this issue.  

This is an area where a bi-partisan coalition of mayors must lead, enabling and empowering our cities and communities to address their own challenges and problems brought on by the New Urban Crisis and positioning our economy for success in the 21st century.

Richard Florida is a Penn IUR Scholar and author of The New Urban Crisis published by Basic Books in April 2017. He is University Professor and Director of Cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; Distinguished Visiting Fellow at NYU’s Shack Institute of Real Estate; and the co-founder and editor-at-large of The Atlantic’s CityLab.


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