Wednesday, November 06, 2013

the story of urban density and creativity is a hoax...,


newgeography | “The heresy of heresies was common sense”—George Orwell

The stories we tell affect the lives we lead. I do not mean to be abstract here. I mean, literally, the stories that are told make up a kind of meta-reality that soaks in us to form a “truth”. This “truth” affects policy, which affects investment, which affects bricks and mortar, pocketbooks, and power. Eventually, the “truth” trickles down into a more real reality that defines the lives of the powerless.

The story du jour in urban policy is one of density. The arc of the story is that cities are places where “ideas come to have sex”. The lovechild is innovation. The mood lighting is creative placemaking.
The Kama Sutra of density reads this way: creative people cluster in cities that are good at lifestyle manufacturing. The more people that are sardined the higher likelihood there will be “serendipitous” encounters. The more serendipity in a city the better chance the next “big thing” will occur. The next “big thing” will lead to a good start-up, which will lead to an agglomeration of start-ups, termed an “Innovation District”. Detroit becomes Detroit 2.0 then.

The story of density is a seductive story. Society-making is sobering and full of harsh realities. The story of density is seamless, velvety. It is no wonder the story gets sold, implemented, and then told and re-told, despite the validity and logic of the story being pretty awful.

Take the recent New York Times piece entitled “What It Takes to Create a Start-up Community”. In it, the writer interviews urbanist Richard Florida. “Population density, [Florida] said, allows for the serendipitous encounters that inspire creativity, innovation and collaboration,” reads one key passage in the piece.

The story goes on to highlight the emerging tech hub of Boulder as the exemplar of the story of density. One problem: Boulder, a city of less than 100,000, isn’t dense, with a population per square mile of 3,948. The writer moves the goal posts a bit and says the city “is an unusual case of density”, before going on to question whether a start-up community can be created in a city like Detroit that “lacks density”. Yet Detroit, despite being a land mass comprised of one-third vacant land, is denser than Boulder, at 5,144 people per square mile. In all, Aristotle would have a field day with the piece.