Spotlight Exclusives

The Challenges of a ‘Hollowed-out Society’

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

The dynamic growth of large American cities celebrated over the past decade has also created dangerous trends of gentrification and a lack of opportunities for lower-income residents, says urbanist and author Richard Florida.

Florida’s influential 2004 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, anticipated the entrepreneurial renaissance that would spur unprecedented growth in cities such as San Francisco, Washington, and New York. But in his new book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida acknowledges that he and other urbanists minimized the negative impacts of the geographic and economic clustering that has driven that growth, particularly for the middle class and poor.

“This urban revival has packed the talented, the successful, the entrepreneurs . . . into a handful of places, creating a thriving urban core and pushing other people out to the suburbs or to other areas,” Florida said during a recent appearance at Washington’s Union Market. “The middle has fallen out. We’ve become a hollowed-out society.”

Steve Glickman, a former White House economic advisor for President Barack Obama and now the executive director of the Economic Innovation Group, said that economic growth in America is primarily limited to “super-performing cities.”

“The very notion of what it takes to live the American Dream in this country is crumbling . . . and a big chunk of that is geographic,” Glickman said. “Right now, if you’re living in most cities across the country, if you’re poor, your chance of moving from the bottom 20 percent to the top 20 percent is pretty much zero.”

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said that while economic opportunities abound for many of her city’s citizens, too many people are left behind. “While we are booming in many ways, we are becoming a town that is inaccessible for average people,” Bowser said.

As Florida puts it in his book: “As innovative and productive as the economies of superstar cities may be, their most-advantaged residents haul in the majority of the gains. Given these cities’ high housing costs, their working and middle classes struggle to stay in place, and the poor and the disadvantaged fall further behind.”

In his book, Florida offers a variety of potential bipartisan solutions to build what he and others call “inclusive prosperity” – economic growth that is not limited to a handful of zip codes.

  • Build more affordable housing
  • Invest in mass transit
  • Upgrade service jobs
  • Give more power to mayors in politically diverse communities – a theme Florida and fellow urbanist Joel Kotkin write about in a recent op-ed for The Daily Beast.

“To be seen as the neo-liberal devil forcing gentrification on cities is not the way I want to be seen,” Florida said. “The only way for us to heal is more federalism . . . to empower communities to make the investments to face the challenges they need.”

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