UrbanToronto recently interviewed world-renowned urbanist Richard Florida, talking about the future of Toronto and the challenges currently facing our city. The subjects of our discussion ranged from urban planning to Rob Ford and John Tory, the Garidiner Expressway, and the Island Airport, pivoting on Florida's influential theory of the creative economy, which postulates that the symbiotically connected factors of urban culture and geography have become increasingly crucial economic drivers and determinants in the 21st century.

The first part of our interview is devoted to understanding Florida's significant contributions to urban theory—and how they pertain to building 21st century Toronto—while the second part features a more in-depth discussion about the future of Toronto. Never one to shy from controversy, Florida offers a scathing critique of the city's political discourse, arguing that a progressive, pro-urban left has yet to make its voice heard in Toronto.

The 'Spiky' World: Karl Marx Meets Jane Jacobs

31 years after Jane Jacobs wrote Cities and the Wealth of Nations, it is still surprising to discuss macroeconomics and urban design in the same breath. Discussions of GDP, productivity, and innovation, are virtually never linked—in a structurally meaningful way, at least—to the health and vibrancy of urban environments. What's more, as the rate of technological development accelerates, particularly in terms of internet connectivity and communications, some theorists believe that the importance of geographic location as an economic factor is destined to diminish.

In The World is Flat, for example, Tom Friedman argues that globalization and technological development have made many geographic boundaries obsolete, diminishing the importance of place in the global economy. Corporations now assert a global presence and technology allowing meetings, transactions, and the exchange of knowledge to be conducted from practically any location. A corollary of this line of reasoning is that the clustering of wealth and talent would give way to a globally 'level playing field' of commerce and innovation.

Richard Florida at the Martin Prosperity Institute, image by Lorne Bridgman, courtesy of creative class.com

By contrast, Richard Florida argues that "cities form the fundamental economic container of 21st century economies, and the world is becoming 'spikier' than ever before." Indeed, as economic inequality increases throughout the world, "prosperity and innovation are also becoming more geographically clustered." Even in the supposedly 'flattening' age of social media and instant communication, the very companies that produce today's most disruptive and groundbreaking technologies jockey for prime position in tech innovation hubs like California's Silicon Valley, as "quality of place becomes increasingly important."

Meanwhile, here in Toronto—as in many cities throughout the world—the "geography of urban landscapes is also becoming increasingly stratified," Florida notes. Citing David Hulchanski's landmark 'Three Cities Report,' Florida notes that the recent intensification of "a long-term trend towards a prosperous urban core, surrounded by an eroding middle-class, which is itself bordered by increasingly impoverished outer areas." 

As Toronto's—and, indeed, the world's—wealth becomes increasingly polarized, "the geographic boundaries of prosperity are also becoming more starkly defined, with increasingly concentrated clusters of affluence surrounded by the comparatively financially depleted areas that make up most of the world." To better understand this phenomenon—and, more broadly, the relationship between geography and prosperity—Florida proposes a radical new economic paradigm in which the the cultural geography of cities is not merely considered an aesthetic consequence of a society's economic system, but rather a critical socio-economic determinant in its own right.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economic era, Florida first identifies the "creative class" of professionals—a category which includes a broad spectrum of knowledge-based careers in both sciences and arts—as "the driving force of modern prosperity." Going far beyond the banal platitude that "yuppies like urban environments," Florida postulates that the success of urban environments is "crucial to attracting and nurturing knowledge-based professionals, who in turn drive much of the modern economy."  

Florida's principal contribution to urban theory can be understood as an interpretation of "Jane Jacobs' urban theory—and, to an extent, Charles Tiebout's migration model—through a neo-Marxist lens of socioeconomic analysis." Florida examines Jacob's urbanist principles within Marx's materialist framework, which posits that a society's material conditions determine its social organization. Social classes and the relations between them, are, in Marx's view, understood as a reflection of economic structure.

"Basically, my project has been to graft Jane Jacobs onto Marx," Florida tells us. In classical Marxism, however, the 'material conditions' refer to economic conditions in and of themselves, but Florida's thought takes a further step back by postulating that "geographic structure of a community—which goes beyond mere built form to factors like affordability and cultural integration— is the central determinant of economic output."

The Midtown New York skyline viewed from Central Park, image by Chris Kotsy

"Every economy has its geography," Florida declares, arguing that the planning and social organization of urban environments is inexorably linked with economic success. "The innovation of places like New York and London is built into their urban DNA," Florida tells us, "and with the world becoming increasingly urban, realizing the importance of urban success is critically important." 

Building cohesive, affordable, multi-cultural and inclusive communities is critical in incubating "creativity and the exchange of ideas that drive economic success," Florida continues. "Transit, density, and an tolerant, diverse urban environment, are critical to building the economy. These aren't just left-wing indulgences or things that are nice to have, they're key elements to economic health." Ultimately, accepting Florida's line of though entails a transformative paradigm shift, in which the relationship between urbanism and macroeconomics is considered symbiotic.

The "New Urban Luddites" and the Future of Toronto

"I came here naively believing as an American that Toronto was a bastion of progressive and forward-looking values," Florida begins, recounting his arrival in Canada almost a decade ago. "Then, in 2010, the city of David Miller and Jane Jacobs was taken over by Ford nation," disrupting the narrative of a progressive and enthusiastically re-urbanizing city. "It was a kick in the head, and a kick in the nuts." 

While Florida continues to celebrate Toronto for "arresting (much of) urban sprawl and bringing creative vitality back to the core," the Ford election "was a symptom of an extremely troubling problem." Florida argues the success of Ford came about as a reaction to "the NIMBYist left, who, whether they know it or not, gave rise to Rob Ford."

"We [the Martin Prosperity Institute] did a study—based on David Hulchanski's maps—looking at where Ford's support came from. What we found was that one of the key factors behind supporting Ford was that you drove alone in a car," Florida explains, evidencing a divided city in which there is little common ground—geographically and culturally speaking—between social classes. 

The congested Gardiner Expressway, image by Vik Pahwa

"Our history of not engaging in meaningful city-building to provide better transit and housing helped make Ford's victory possible," Florida tells us. "While David Miller was closer to a real progressive Mayor than we'd had in a long time, the city was—and is—still too dominated by a NIMBYist, faux-progressive left that refuses to engage with having to build a dense, transit-oriented, and inclusive city."

"Ford's campaign was able to cast the 'Downtown elites' as snobbish old white guys who aren't interested in helping the less privileged," Florida continues, characterizing the city's political discourse as "lacking a real progressive left. What we have is a right wing dominated by anti-urban politics, and the space that should be occupied by progressive city-building is instead represented by developers, who, at the end of the day, are driven by profit, not city-building. You're never going to build an affordable city by just putting up skyscrapers," Florida notes.

"In Rosedale, my own neighbourhood, there was a recent proposal to create a larger and newly wheelchair-accessible path through the ravine, which would help bring the surrounding community into the space," Florida tells us, "but the local residents raised a huge furor about it." While area residents cited concern about the ostensible impact of a new trail on the landscape, Florida characterizes the movement as "regressive and close-minded, with residents refusing to welcome a wider community into their neighbourhood."

Indeed, Rosedale residents have been accused of trying to prevent increased community access to Chorley Park, using the preservation of the landscape as a justification for excluding the rest of the city from public space. The Rosedale trail is a small but illustrative example of what Florida calls "the reactionary left." While "many probably see themselves as closet socialists," Florida argues that many of Toronto's ostensibly progressive residents and politicians have done extremely little to improve quality of life in lower-income areas.

"I call this phenomenon of the reactionary, regressive left 'new urban Luddism,' since it entails a refusal to accept the city as a dynamic, dense, shared space," Florida adds. "The new urban Luddites refuse to accept that the city should change, that it should welcome new people to their established neighbourhoods, and that the urban geography of the 21st century has to be fundamentally different. We need more people on the left who wholeheartedly support responsible development and densification."

"Take the Island Airport, for example," Florida continues. "When I wrote a piece in The Star arguing that we should consider allowing jets at the airport, everybody was up in arms about it, and very few 'progressive' voices were even willing to consider the idea. While I'm not necessarily saying we should definitely allow jets, it's the refusal to even take the idea into consideration—and to seriously study whether it's worth it—that worries me," Florida adds, arguing that the economic benefits of airports close to urban centres should at least make the idea worthy of consideration by progressive urban thinkers.

A Porter turbo-prop about to land at Billy Bishop Airport, image by Russell Sutherland, via the UrbanToronto Flickr pool

"In New York and London, there's a much wider range of voices across those cities' political spectrums, but here the discourse is almost completely Balkanized," Florida tells us. "We remain in a provincial mode of thought, thinking of ourselves as a small city. There's no room for an ambitiously urban progressive left right now, and that has to change."

Now, with Ford out of office and John Tory's Mayoralty already a year old, Florida, when asked to reflect on John Tory's tenure, praised some of the mayor's initiatives while expressing concern about the continued lack of a city-building vision. "Urban design is not really Tory's strong suit, though his heart is really in the right place when it comes to equity issues, particularly in terms of building affordable housing," Florida notes.

"There's also a learning curve to Mayors, and I think they tend to get a better understanding of urbanism over the course of their tenures," Florida adds, hoping that Tory, self-described as an "ideologue on very few issues," will make pro-urban decisions as his time in office continues. "For one thing, I really hope that he reverses his decision on the Gardiner," Florida continues, highlighting Tory's controversial support for renovating—as opposed to demolishing—the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway as an example of especially poor urban policy.  

Offering prescriptions for the future, Florida calls for a "virtual moratorium on road-building," arguing that the perpetuation of an automobile culture hinders a city's creative capacity, with little exchange of ideas and culture occurring when people are sitting in their cars, and not engaging with life on the street. "The city also needs a more committed Federal partner," Florida adds, calling for a 'ministry of cities' to help provide a vision for growth and fund urban infrastructure projects. 

"We also need a new low-cost housing model," says Florida, arguing for a "an urban equivalent of the suburban mid-20th-century home that I grew up in." With the population of the GTA now above 6 million people, Florida stresses that the city "faces a breaking point, where relatively unhindered growth will need to be met with large-scale transit and housing investment in order to sustain the city's diversity and affordability."

"For the city to remain livable and affordable to working people, we also need a higher minimum wage for Toronto," Florida argues. "Since the costs of living are so much higher than in most other parts of the province, the city needs its own standard. Otherwise, we'll struggle to maintain a vibrant, attractive—and creative—city if people can't afford to work necessary service-level jobs."

A view of one of Toronto's growing clusters of towers, image by Jack Landau

"In this regard, I have some optimism about the future of real estate development," Florida adds. "The best and most forward-thinking developers now realize that the key to building real estate value in the long term comes through creating good neighbourhoods, and not just good buildings. To create vibrant and attractive neighbourhoods, though, developers know that they have to bring in retail and services, and if they can't bring people in to work there because it's too expensive, then that value is lost."

While Florida is quick to critique many of Toronto's perceived civic shortcomings, he also acknowledges the city's unique strengths, citing our openness as a particularly important advantage. "Ultimately, the fact that Toronto is such a tolerant, multicultural, and open place is our biggest advantage."

"A huge reason for the city's continued success—as we trudge along despite our lack of urban vision and reactionary tendencies—is the fact that we continued to be so open to newcomers, allowing a great deal of global creative energy to be harnessed. It means we can fuck up a lot, but as long as we continue to remain open, we'll have an important edge." 

Florida's closing remarks leave a meaningful impact, as they position Toronto's tolerance and cultural diversity as key economic drivers of the creative urban sphere—which Florida argues is in turn a key driver for the economy at large. A crucial ramification of this—if we accept Florida's theory—is that accepting newcomers and immigrants (even refugees?) with open hearts and minds becomes not just an important moral and cultural decision, but, unavoidably, a defining economic decision as well.


Richard Florida currently serves as the head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. He is also the editor-at-large for The Atlantic's CityLab, and is the author of books including The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class, and Who's Your City. Richard is currently working on a book titled The New Urban Crisis.