This Must Be the Place

Research and writing about integrating art and design into efforts to build sustainable rural communities in Minnesota and beyond


The first installment of a three-part series on creative placemaking and rural areas.

I’ve managed to go six weeks without writing about the idea of “creative placemaking” and how it relates to the work I’m interested in doing. This is for several reasons. First, I thought it was important for me to get my ducks in a row on the basic issues of the challenges facing rural communities and the overall state of rural economies today. Second, I’ve been putting it off because a lot of the discussion, data, and theory surrounding the idea of creative placemaking is, well, total bullshit.

Oh, man, I can feel that I’ve trespassed against the arts gods by even writing that. I promise once I finish this post to go light a candle to St. Catherine of Bologna. And, gentle reader, if you stick with me until the end of this series of posts I promise that I’m not summarily dismissing the arts as a tool for economic and civic development—good lord, I’d have nothing to write about for the rest of the semester if that was the case—but instead arguing that we need to be smarter and more exacting in how we approach the topic. Deal? OK then, let’s wade right on into this thing.

We can’t really talk about the idea of creative placemaking without starting with the work of Richard Florida, who probably more than anyone has popularized the notion. Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class is a seminal work in the field. Basically, Florida posited that due to shifts happening in the United States economy in its transition from being based in agriculture and manufacturing to the 21st century’s so-called knowledge economy, members of what he termed the “creative class” represented a new economic force to be reckoned with, one that cities and states should actively court to ensure long-term economic vibrancy.

As blogger and arts administrator Ian David Moss writes, Florida is “so ubiquitous that even his detractors have no choice but to cite his work. His community development strategies have been borrowed from or adopted wholesale by city and regional governments across the world.” The Rise of the Creative Class proved to be a tremendously influential book, and it is largely responsible for the conflation of the concepts of creativity, innovation, and artistry that is now commonplace. In fact, one of the metrics the book employed was something called a “Bohemian index,” which examined the concentration of artists within metropolitan areas and correlated that with low unemployment and general economic prosperity.

The problem is that Florida’s theory doesn’t actually work. The quantitative methodology Florida uses to attempt to prove that the presence of artists and other creative workers is weak. Moss, in a post on Florida in his blog writes

Florida offers several prescriptions in the book for creative community development. He boils down his recommendations to a three-axis yardstick, the “3T’s,” for Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, and creates measurement indicators for each. For the most part, both the logic and data tying these axes together are vague at best. He relies mostly on lists of rankings of metropolitan areas that look somewhat like each other. Though he documents statistically significant correlations in most cases, we are not told whether they have more explanatory power than other combinations (economist Edward Glaeser explores this very question in his review of the book by testing the impact of the percentage of adults with BAs versus other indices on population growth), nor given much information about the regressions.

A more serious flaw is that the connection between the 3T’s and actual economic growth is quite weak indeed. If Florida and his team ran a regression on each of the 3T’s and job creation or per-capita income, controlling for other factors, we are not shown the results. In fact, the notes to chapter 13 document a correlation between the Creative Class concentration and employment growth that, while statistically significant, is only 0.03!

Writer Steven Malanga, in an article for The City Journal, did some quantitative investigation of his own and found that

Since 1993, cities that score the best on Florida’s analysis have actually grown no faster than the overall U.S. jobs economy, increasing their employment base by only slightly more than 17 percent. Florida’s indexes, in fact, are such poor predictors of economic performance that his top cities haven’t even outperformed his bottom ones. Led by big percentage gains in Las Vegas (the fastest-growing local economy in the nation) as well as in Oklahoma City and Memphis, Florida’s ten least creative cities turn out to be jobs powerhouses, adding more than 19 percent to their job totals since 1993—faster growth even than the national economy.

Local author Frank Bures, writing for Thirty Two magazine did a thoughtful examination of the issue of the creative class theory and the Midwest last summer and concluded

Florida was just describing the “hipsterization” of wealthy cities and concluding that this was what was causing those cities to be wealthy. As some critics have pointed out, that’s a little like saying that the high number of hot dog vendors in New York City is what’s causing the presence of so many investment bankers. So if you want banking, just sell hot dogs. […] What was missing, however, was any actual proof that the presence of artists, gays and lesbians or immigrants was causing economic growth, rather than economic growth causing the presence of artists, gays and lesbians or immigrants. Some more recent work has tried to get to the bottom of these questions, and the findings don’t bode well for Florida’s theory. In a four-year, $6 million study of thirteen cities across Europe called “Accommodating Creative Knowledge,” that was published in 2011, researchers found one of Florida’s central ideas—the migration of creative workers to places that are tolerant, open and diverse—was simply not happening.

A 2008 study published in Urban Affairs Review which compared 276 metropolitan areas as an empirical test of the creative class theory concluded

Our results demonstrate that the creative class is not related to growth, whereas human capital predicts economic growth and development and social capital predicts average wage but not job growth. Additionally, we found that clusters of universities correlated highly with economic growth. Our findings should warn policy makers against the use of “creative” strategies for urban economic development.

It would be one thing if the theory of the creative class was a once-popular theory that was abandoned as the data against it mounted. The problem is that Florida’s work is at the heart of the idea of creative placemaking that is now popular with a variety of community, educational, foundational, and governmental leaders across the country. This is the subject I’ll tackle in my next post.

Photo credit: Ted Birt for the Minneapolis College of Art and Design

1 year ago