“Can you name a true thought leader?” Someone asked me recently, contending it is an overused term with few clear examples. My immediate answer: “Richard Florida.” In the world of urban development and city building, his name came to mind first for his track record of shining a light on, if not identifying, trends and major shifts in urban development.
I was introduced to Richard Florida’s work at the beginning of my career. I had the privilege of working on the very early stages of a few projects that transformed their communities. My involvement was limited and I can’t take credit for their success of the transformative projects, but I did learn the value of imagining a very different future than current conditions or recent history would dictate.
In gazing into my crystal ball, I read publications such as American Demographics and ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate. I listened to presentations from self-proclaimed futurists with memorable names such as Faith Popcorn and I read books that offered a viewpoint on cities, shifting values, shifting economic drivers, and where and how we are growing. The goal was to better understand how the future may turn out differently than our rearview mirror (historic trendlines) would indicate.
One of the more memorable books I read was Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class. I was working on a project in downtown Columbus, Georgia, assessing opportunities for adaptive reuse of beautiful, historic, abandoned mill buildings that sit on the Chattahoochee River. There was a big, bold idea to remove the dams from the river and restore whitewater rapids through downtown Columbus thereby completely changing the downtown and the city overall. [NOTE: If you are not familiar, this did happen and it is worth a visit. The leadership lessons of making this happen are also discussed in a great case study in The CEO as Urban Statesman by Sam Williams.]
Florida’s body of work on the creative class completely turned economic development theory on its head. Florida suggested that economic development strategy should no longer focus on competing for the large companies to locate in your community. It was about competing for the talent. The goal was to create places where talented, innovative, motivated people – the creative class – would want to live and the companies would not only follow but would be incubated and launched.
Looking back this seems like a no brainer. We gaze across our city and see companies moving like those very rapids toward Georgia Tech to be closer to the talent. We see Ponce City Market achieving rents north of $50 per square foot and utilizing all space possible to accommodate more office because companies want to be close to talent and in locations where today’s talent wants to be. Columbus understood this well before most. It had the companies but realized they had to create a different, more dynamic urban environment to attract and retain talent.
I was sharing this story – and how it influenced later work on the Atlanta BeltLine feasibility – with a ULI member who said that he would not be the very successful urban infill developer he is today if it were not for another Richard Florida book, The Great Reset: How the Post-Crash Economy Will Change the Way We Live and Work. In my humble opinion, Florida has developed a track record for detecting and communicating economic and real estate trends in a way that captures the imagination. He is a thought leader.
So you may ask, what does Florida have to say about city building today? His newest book, The New Urban Crisis, focuses on the evolution in thinking about the rising creative class and the great reset of how we work and live, as well as some of the unintended consequences of recent trends. The tag line for the book should sound very familiar to those following urban and regional trends in Atlanta. “How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class – and What We Can Do About It.”
Atlanta has the dubious distinction of being ranked among the U.S cities with the highest inequality among its residents. Florida contents that the only way forward is to devise a new model of urbanism that encourages innovation and wealth creation while generating good jobs, rising living standards, and a better way of life for everyone. I have not read the new book but plan to when it is released next week.
ULI Atlanta and Georgia Institute of Technology College of Design are so pleased to host Florida to hear about this latest work, how he defines the issues and opportunities, how we can imagine a different future, and what we can all do about it. Florida will be here for a lunch program the day following the book release. I hope you will join us April 12th.
RSVP here: http://bit.ly/ULI-GA-Tech-Richard-Florida