Lisa Lamkin
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Lisa Lamkin

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Critique: The New Urban Crisis

How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class, and What We Can Do About It

“Well we know where we're goin'
But we don't know where we've been
And we know what we're knowin'
But we can't say what we've seen…….”        David Byrne “Road to Nowhere”

To be confident of where we are going, we should understand where we have been and how we got there. In this detailed and thoroughly researched volume, Richard Florida presents an engagingly written analysis of the challenges that cities of all sizes face and presents an intriguing menu of actions we can take to right the course.

In his previous book, Rise of the Creative Class, the author applauded the impact of young, educated and affluent “creatives” reversing the established trends of flight to the suburbs and the resulting urban decline seen in the second half of the 20th century. Florida now turns his attention to the inherent challenges of the urban environment, challenges not necessarily created by this demographic shift but certainly amplified by it. “The New Urban Crisis” he defines is the clash of potential and poverty: Cities are “great engines of innovation” yet are faced with key symptoms of rising inequality and skyrocketing housing prices that threaten to impact the health of the engine. 

Five key dimensions to this crisis are explored:

  • “Winner take all urbanism”: a growing gap between superstars, such as New York and San Francisco, and other cities.
  • “Crisis of success” for the superstars: extreme gentrification; “staggering levels” of inequality and unaffordable housing prices push out creatives and leave dead “trophy districts” for the global super-rich.
  • “Disappearing middle”: the fading of stable middle-class neighborhoods, leading to a “patchwork metropolis” with pockets of rich scattered throughout a struggling whole.
  • Suburban poverty: poverty growing significantly faster in the suburbs than in urban areas.
  • Urbanization in the developing world: the connection between urbanization and a growing standard of living is breaking down.

In closing with the chapter “Urbanism for All,” Florida challenges us to consider the way forward. Key policy changes are proposed, including incentivizing density, investment in high-speed rail, building affordable rental housing and turning low-wage service jobs into the middle-class jobs of the future. The proposals include:

  • Density with pedestrian scale: Invest in mass transit that helps cluster people and economic activity, and shift away from traditional roads and highways that spread us out. High-speed rail is championed as a game-changer that can expand the functional labor market of an urban area–“not everyone who works in a superstar city needs to live in one.”
  • Affordable rental housing: Amplify the trends for declining homeownership with reduced subsidies for homeownership.
  • Middle-class jobs: Given that 6% of Americans make things in factories and only 20% do blue-collar work, there are not enough high-paying knowledge jobs to rebuild the middle class. The author notes that we transformed manufacturing jobs into middle-class jobs after the Great Depression by effectively paying a premium for our cars and appliances, and he argues that we can act similarly today.

We must remain optimistic. The challenges may be urban, but so are the solutions: “Our clustering together in communities has driven each step of human progress.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Urbanist Jane Jacobs


Reviewed by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, a principal with BRW Architects.