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Creative Urban Spaces Don’t Promote Innovation

• December 17, 2013 • 1:18 PM


No, cities are powered by the exploitation of ambition.

Yesterday, I took umbrage at the assertion that the consumer city is good urban planning. The controversy has little to do with urbanism and place-making. Industry competes with “public” amenities for space. Urban planning is at odds with economic development. The Shared City weighs in:

There’s also a hint of blowback in the air, suggesting that perhaps we expect a bit too much from the Googles and Facebooks and Squares of California. We may know the first names of their CEOs, but these are companies attempting to conduct business. We attribute to them failures to adopt human values about the best kinds of urbanism. At the same time, perhaps, we delegate to them the role of chief city-makers in ways that were once associated with single-minded company towns, not cities like San Francisco. Over on Pacific Standard, a geographer named Jim Russell takes issue with Arieff’s understanding of how the city should be:

“I find Arieff’s criticism to be strange, like telling banks to get out of the central business district. Arieff’s San Francisco is an adult playground, not a place of work.”

That said, San Francisco is an adult playground. And a place of work. And a complex and ever-changing city with a long history and a ton of momentum toward the future. San Francisco is figuring out what it wants to be. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it — likely both a good thing for the city and a guarantee that we’re only in the opening days of these sorts of debates.

My emphasis added in boldface. I disagree with how the debate is framed. The best kind of urbanism for whom? Neither Arieff nor Nancy Scola at The Shared City ponder that question. Good urbanism is not-suburban. Back to Arieff:

Tech companies are scrambling to move into cities — there are rumors that Google is going to move here, to San Francisco, from Mountain View. VISA and Akamai have ditched the suburbs to come here. Tech tenants now fill 22 percent of all occupied office space in San Francisco — and represented a whopping 61 percent of all office leasing in the city last year. But they might as well have stayed in their suburban corporate settings for all the interacting they do with the outside world. The oft-referred-to “serendipitous encounters” that supposedly drive the engine of innovation tend to happen only with others who work for the same company. Which is weird.

Emphasis added. What’s weird is assuming that innovation doesn’t tend to happen in suburban corporate settings. The likes of Richard Florida have yet to reconcile this paradox. The anti-world of Jane Jacobs can be creative, too. The supposed density dividend is a myth. Arieff needn’t be perplexed as to why a tech company would reproduce an isolated suburban campus in an urban setting. The insularity doesn’t matter.

Which brings up another meme, the 1% City killing the creative buzz. Leave expensive New York. Come find your groove in cheap St. Louis:

Creativity is sometimes described as thinking outside the box. Today the box is a gilded cage. In a climate of careerist conformity, cheap cities with bad reputations – where, as art critic James McAnalley notes, “no one knows whether it is possible for one to pursue a career” – may have their own advantage. “In the absence of hype, ideas gather, connections build, jagged at first, inarticulate,” McAnalley writes of St Louis. “Then, all of a sudden, worlds emerge.”

Perhaps it is time to reject the “gated citadels” – the cities powered by the exploitation of ambition, the cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. Reject their prescribed and purchased paths, as Smith implored, for cheaper and more fertile terrain. Reject the places where you cannot speak out, and create, and think, and fail. Open your eyes to where you are, and see where you can go.

All cities are powered by the exploitation of ambition. Migrants are ambitious, risk-takers. Migration, not urban density, promotes creativity and innovation. If all the talent is pouring into suburban Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, then that’s where the action is. “Good urbanism” has nothing to do with it.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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