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Hail to the Hipster?

Hipsters are not the great saviors of American cities. The theory that the “creative class” would flock to and revive urban centers has finally been disproven, argues Joel Kotkin in the Daily Beast. Even Richard Florida, one of the biggest proponents of this theory, has admitted defeat, Kotkin says:

Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

But Florida wasted no time in firing back:

Everyone who actually studies the subject—save Kotkin—agrees that cities and density spur economic growth. There is an enormous academic literature on this.  Denser cities grow faster for reasons that Jane JacobsRobert LucasEdward Glaeser, and I have identified. When skilled people cluster, they become more productive. Their ideas mate, combining and recombining to generate the innovations that power growth.

Both sides score some points, which is to be expected. In a country of 300 million people, there is room for simultaneous trends.

There is certainly truth to Kotkin’s argument. Urban centers are not growing to the extent ardent urbanists expected. Many millenials, rather than migrating en masse to bustling metropolises, are drawn to the green spaces and affordable housing of the suburbs. Boston, for example, lost 40 percent of its young adult population over the past decade.

And, thanks to the energy industry boom, thousands of new brown jobs (600,000 have been created by the fracking industry alone since 2008) are pulling workers to the American heartland. As Kotkin notes, the fastest job growth is happening in Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Omaha, where energy, agriculture, and manufacturing industries are thriving.

But Florida is also correct about urban revival, and the role played by the creative class in improving many of the country’s decaying urban communities. Anyone living in New York over the past decade has borne witness to the blossoming of Brooklyn neighborhoods, and we’ve seen this trend in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC and many others. This may not amount to the transformation that creative class enthusiasts expected, but the change is real, and most cities are better off for it.

These trends don’t have to be an either/or phenomenon. We hope that both Kotkin and Florida are on to something important.

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