What shapes the city? "Two weeks ago I would've had a different answer," Richard Florida admitted, reflecting on the results of a U.S. Presidential election that's reverberating through our political consciousness like some ubiquitous white noise. What happened? What does it mean? Even in a Toronto discussion about city-building and urban geography, those questions hung in the room before the conversation began, and they will continue to permeate—and, perhaps more worryingly, not permeate—through the discourse for years to come.  

Hosted by the University of Toronto's John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, "What Shapes the City?" brought together urbanists Richard Florida and Adam Greenfield to debate the forces that influence our civic landscapes. Given the reality of President-elect Trump, however, the prepared statements and perspectives—and indeed, worldview—were critically re-evaluated in the wake of a new political landscape.

Richard Sommer, Richard Florida, and Adam Greenfield (l-r), image by Stefan Novakovic

After Trump's electoral victory, can cities play any role against intolerance and economic isolationism? While America's largest urban areas did vote overwhelmingly for Clinton, can they really serve as—in Florida's words—"safe spaces of resistance?" Notwithstanding the Trump administration's expected—and frightening—assault on 'Sanctuary Cities' and pro-urban policies, neither Greenfield nor Florida offered words of comfort. Instead, the dialogue offered chilling insights into the ways our cities are failing, and a reminder of the critical importance of nurturing strong, inclusive communities. 


The bulk of Florida's recent work, including his upcoming book The New Urban Crisis, contends on the growing socio-economic and geographic disparities that correlate with Trump support, the election results change the context of Florida's analysis. "I've spent the last week re-writing that book from top to bottom," Florida joked, darkly anticipating the unexpected and frighteningly unpredictable Presidency to come.

Nonetheless, Florida argued that an analysis of the geography correlated to Trump support yields insight to the socio-economic factors that made a Trump residence possible. "It's a reactionary backlash," the Rotman professor noted, drawing attention to the 21st century's increasingly bifurcated and unequal distribution of wealth. Citing David Hulchanski's 2005 "Three Cities Within Toronto" study, which found growing pockets of central urban wealth physically surrounded by a decaying middle class and a growing ring of increasingly marginalized outer areas, Florida argued that the structure of the knowledge economy—vividly expressed through the growing divides of urban geography—is instrumental to shaping the socio-political zeitgeist. 

A chart from Three Cities Within Toronto, illustrating and projecting income polarization, image via University of Toronto

"The same forces that motivate growth and innovation are also what divides us," Florida stressed, "and the fault lines of our society are the fault lines of geography." Building on Jane Jacobs' analysis that wealth is generated through the clustering of talent in dense, urban centres, Florida diagnosed the same basic pattern of inequality spreading across Toronto as a microcosm of the developed world's changing geography. "We never would've imagined Rob Ford,* or Brexit, or Trump," Florida stressed. Yet, through studying the socio-economic correlations between the "reactionary" voters in all three countries, Florida outlines what he identifies as crucial similarities between all three sets of voters. Broadly speaking, these voters are not part of the knowledge-driven, educated urban class. 

Statistically, however, Trump supporters writ large are not the 'economic losers' of popular narrative, Florida pointed out. Still, the knowledge-based—or 'creative class'—jobs that increasingly drive the economy are overwhelmingly concentrated in cities, and Trump voters are segregated away from them. Suffering both a real and a perceived "middle-class decline," however, the differences between Trump and Clinton supporters are also in large part "differences in geography and jobs." 

Though sometimes considered a neoliberal (in all the vagaries that often accompany the term) proponent of the gentrification that comes with 'creative class' success, Florida's recent and ongoing work has focused on tackling the inequality—a "crisis of success" brought about through wealth gain—that accompanies the new urban geography. Beyond the schism between urban and non-urban voters, the 'return to the city' is also compromising the affordability and cultural vibrancy of pre-existing urban neighbourhoods.

Toronto faces "a crisis of success," image by Jack Landau

While diversity and tolerance are frequently touted as the building blocks of supposedly "revitalized" urban areas, those same spaces—like Brooklyn and Greenwich Village before it—ironically become unaffordable and culturally whitewashed upper-middle class enclaves. This is the prevailing model of re-urbanization, and it is failing neighbourhoods. Although Florida maintains that the clustering of talent in diverse and densely populated areas has become the primary driver of economic growth, cities' failure to remain inclusive, affordable, and culturally varied, means that re-urbanization is simultaneously working to undermine its own benefits. 

Beyond the rising inequality within cities themselves, Florida argues that the growing socio-economic divide between urban and non-urban areas also presents an immediate and potentially overwhelming problem. Writing in CityLab in the wake of the election, Florida argued that "[r]ich and poor increasingly occupy entirely different spaces and worlds. Understanding this and developing solutions for rebuilding the nation’s fading middle class may well be the defining issue of our time."


Florida's prognosis was not exactly cheerful. Greenfield's was worse. The acclaimed urbanist and technologist approached the problems facing a cities from a sociological perspective. Currently based in London, the Urbanscale founder discussed the troubling—and troublingly mirrored—impacts of technology and geography on 21st century consciousness.

According to Greenfield, a lack of social cohesion between the knowledge-based professionals returning to cities as 'gentrifiers' and the established urban populations they encounter—and perhaps displace—undermines the optimism of re-urbanization. In fact, the problems of gentrification actually constitute a form of colonization, Greenfield contends. 

Greenfield illustrated the problems of gentrification with a discussion of London's Ridley Road Market. Describing the food market as "a thriving ecosystem of the global south," Greenfield argued that the cultural complexity of the space "makes it illegible to the state or to outsiders." For a new—and probably white and upper-middle class—resident of the area, visiting the market is a daunting prospect, Greenfield contends. There's a way to buy food and a way to interact with the vendors that intimidates outsiders, most of whom are unable to adapt to the socio-cultural and linguistic norms. 

The Ridley Road Market in 2005, image by Tarquin Binary, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Greenfield, this lack of adaptation means that "over time, the complexity of the culture is reduced by colonizers." This means that the diversity and vibrancy of urban neighbourhoods—factors which Florida sees as the wellsprings of economic vitality in the knowledge economy—is severely hampered through gentrification, which eventually isolates the wealthy in a monoculture conducive to neither innovation nor ethnic and socio-economic inclusion. 

Illustrating the cultural impasse between 'colonizers' and the local population, Greenfield observed that simply sending his London students to the district of Peckham evidences the lack of cultural understanding. "My students in London come from around the world," Greenfield explains, adding that most of the students come from economically privileged backgrounds. While Peckham has "an incredible density of storefronts," and a great diversity of economic activity, the common student response was "I can't imagine why anybody would want to go to that neighbourhood. There's nowhere to shop."  

To Greenfield, that type response is symptomatic of the cultural erasure that follows gentrification. "It's a process of replacement and simplification," he observed. It's a familiar narrative. The complex and somewhat impermeable culture that existed before becomes a pale imitation of itself, diluted by more accessible—and widely appealing— corporate monoculture sprinkled with the twee, one-of-a-kind 'artisanal' cafés that serve up macchiatos and shibboleths of good politics and good taste. 

Like Florida, Greenfield—whose philosophy is decidedly more left-wing and quasi-anarchic—argues that the structures of urban geography have wide-ranging social impacts. However, while Florida's economic understanding of urban geography marries Marxist structuralism with Jane Jacobs's urban thought—economically quantified through Robert Lucas' endogenous growth theory—Greenfield's observations are predicated on a more sociological mode of analysis.

Citing Mark Granovetter's "The Strength of Weak Ties," Greenfield posits that communities of 'weak ties' provide stronger conduits for learning and growth. "We don't continously learn that much new information from people we know well," Greenfield noted, "we learn from those we know the least." To urban economists like Florida, this notion re-inforces the axiom diverse communities—and the diverse socio-cultural exchanges that arise within—can be socially and economically productive. 

Greenfield's analysis regarding the value of social networks also draws on the telecommunications concept known as Metcalfe's Law. Attributed to ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe, the law states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of number of "connected users." Essentially, as more people are connected, the number of links between them scales up exponentially. Translating the telecommunication links into social connections means that having more diverse discourse, and broader networks. "Without a healthy network, people retreat to their epistemic bubbles," Greenfield posts. It's happening in cities, and it's happening online. 

An illustration of Metcalfe's Law, connections grow exponentially, image via Wikimedia Commons

While Greenfield's interpretation of Metcalfe's Law to geography yields insight into urban landscape, the theory's technological application is just as valuable. The "epistemic bubbles" of geography are all too clearly replicated on-line, Greenfield notes. On Facebook and Twitter, the fault lines of geography are replicated in the supposed non-space of the internet. While online communication ostensibly destroys geographic barriers, the irony is that it also reproduces them.

Whether we are liberal, conservative, leftist, or 'alt-right' and white supremacist, the information we consume online becomes curated—in part through our own choosing—to reflect and re-inforce those same perspectives. Though once hailed as a great equalizing force with the potential to transcend the boundaries of geography and privilege, the internet has failed to broaden our horizons. As Greenfield put it, "our modes of knowledge production are broken."

Despite the negative impacts of gentrification, Florida contends that re-urbanization still retains crucial benefits over "the old model of isolation in gated suburbs." Cities, Florida argues, are still where we find our Bill de Blasios and our Sadiq Khans, and they are still places that "force people to endure a greater degree of diversity." 

Greenfield was less optimistic. Through the "schizo-geography" of social media, "we've re-created gated communities in what was supposed the be the world's only functional anarchy." And if we can't meaningfully heal the invisible chasms of online space, how can we hope to transcend the real boundaries of our increasingly stratified urban geographies? 


"The problem faced by cities is too complex for any single field of expertise to tackle," Daniels Dean—and discussion moderator—Richard Sommer pointed out, underlining the immense scope of social, cultural, racial, and economic issues left out of the conversation. Looking at the on-stage furniture, the on-stage guests, and the audience in the semi-darkness, Sommer quipped that "tonight's a very white and beige theme... in more ways than one." 

Indeed, amidst the high-level talk about urban economic structure and social theory, there wasn't much talk about anything else. Racism. Misogyny. Xenophobia. White supremacy. Climate change. These are also the defining issues of our time. And while urban geography certainly impacts—and potentially plays a role in shaping—all of them, the gamut of issues facing the city range far beyond the socio-economic impacts of gentrification discussed here. What about the 'resegregation' that some argue accompanies gentrification? What about the continuing lack of gender equality in big and progressive cities?

To be sure, it was an engrossing and thoughtful discussion nonetheless. Both Florida and Greenfield offered valuable and deeply impactful insights into the forces that shape the city, providing detailed and varied analysis of the acute problems now facing urban areas. Yet, in some ways the event itself was a manifestation of the "epistemic bubble" that Greenfield diagnosed.

How can Toronto contend with its growing pains? image by Marcus Mitanis

On November 21st, the Isabel Bader Theatre was a room full of urban enthusiasts. Mostly white, probably mostly university-educated, and mostly nodding along in agreement. During the event—and after—some of us engaged on Twitter, and on Facebook, and maybe on Instagram, but most of us probably never managed to leave our echo chambers. (I certainly didn't). It was an echo chamber of geography, or social media, and of the room itself. And in a city that bills itself as the most diverse in the world, we've got to ask ourselves: Where's everyone else? 

Yet, if there is any comfort to be had in any of this, it's that the question we have to answer remains an intimately familiar one. Beneath the dispiriting complexity and seemingly overwhelming range of problems now facing our cities—and our societies—the crux of the problem is a simple one. How do we build better communities? 

*While Florida argued to prove strong parallels between Rob Ford and Donald Trump, he qualified his analysis by pointing out that Ford's base of support—while reactionary—was multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Trump, meanwhile, appealed overwhelmingly to white voters.