The Artful Target: Q&A with Richard Florida

So, are you tired of hearing about Richard Florida yet? You wouldn't be the first in Toronto to feel that way about the most celebrated urbanist since Jane Jacobs. Just ask Richard Florida. "I wish people wouldn't pay so much attention to me. And sometimes when I lay up at night, I'm like, 'I wish I could be less noticed,'" Florida says. "I think that the arguments become too personalized. Too personified. They lose resonance."

Florida is relaxing in a comfy chair in the brick-and-beam environs of the Martin Prosperity Institute, the urban think tank at the MaRS Centre for Innovation on College Street he moved to Toronto to form in 2007. It's a cool, ultramodern facility, and it represents both the reason why Florida is so optimistic about our city's potential, and the fundamental talking point of his most recent detractors. Had he been born in Canada, we would have expected someone like Florida to bolt for the States years ago. But the opposite happened, and it's because there's a willingness here to embrace the man and his ideas — institutionally, politically, and philosophically.

But the love is hardly universal. The upstart Creative Class Struggle, a collective formed to challenge "the presence of Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute," has been getting a fair bit of ink in the local press for their commentary against Florida and his ideas. When Spacing spoke to him in early summer, Florida was clearly in the mood to address his critics — and, often, to agree with them.

Spacing: Spacing magazine is primarily concerned with public spaces. And this is an area where I would really like to hear your thoughts. How vital are public spaces to the creative city?

Richard Florida: When I wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, something really struck me. I'd been going to Silicon Valley — I wrote a book on Silicon Valley in 1990 — but what struck me was, here is a place people held up as the best, most competitive, innovative place in the world. And there wasn't a public park. And I thought to myself: hold on, we could build public parks when we were relatively poor. Not terribly poor, but in the early industrial revolution in Toronto and New York and Chicago, we built these great public parks and public spaces. And now, in a society that's fabulously more wealthy, there's no public space at all; the public space is a freaking mall, right? It's a strip mall. And it just struck me, what had gone wrong….

Now we've done reasonably better in Toronto at having more public spaces, and I can see them, but my God — if we can't build public spaces, what have we got? We have no city. If we don't have a public realm, what the fuck do we have? We got nothing.

The logic of advanced capitalism is going to be to compact people. And this is really interesting, which most people who criticize sprawl don't get: actually what we created in the post-war era was not simply a sprawled city; it was at once a more extensive and intensive pattern of land-use development. We spread the boundaries of the city out, but we intensified land use. We had some pockets of holes and disinvestment. Now, we're expanding and intensifying land use development in a way that I never thought possible. Look at Toronto. We're just hacking and packing and packing people in, and then we're all going to need the public space much, much more, because there's going to be less opportunity than there was in the post-war era to have your little privatized patch. The future of Toronto is going to be one where the city's going to depend on the public realm, or else you are going to end up with a city that is terrifying.

Spacing: You've often been accused of gushing about Toronto. What are a few things about Toronto — as compared to other cities — that you think are really worth bragging about?

Florida: The difference [between Toronto and many American cities] is night and day. The fact that our banks are stable, is a big part…. The other thing is that we have health insurance and a social safety net. So we have a big opportunity now. As Canadians and Torontonians, we have an opportunity.

I don't think we'll overtake New York and London. But Toronto I think could define the next tier. Toronto has a real opportunity now to define what a great second city, really the world model of what a second city could be. And I think the most important thing that we can do there is stay open. The big threat to cities that have some downturns is that they close themselves down. If we can say "come here, come here" — especially as the United States puts in a little more restriction and immigration declines — I think we have an enormous opportunity.

But I think we're weathering the [economic] crisis very well. It may be that there's a set of institutions here which go well beyond banking, which are in some ways — and I'm not fawning — in some ways models of a fairer and more democratic and better form of capitalism. No, they are not the socialist nirvana. They are not perfectly fair and just. But they may be an evolution of the better and fairer kind of capitalism. It's worth looking at that….

Spacing: What would be the elements of the Toronto School of Urbanism?

Florida: That cities are emerging. They're organic and they are emergent. And that they're the product of human energy…. That going back to Jane, that cities are not only our highest form of organization, but they are our first and best. That cities actually created agricultural development, and I think we realize that. What I've noticed in Toronto, which is amazing, whether you're a civil engineer or a historian, or even a biologist, I've never talked to so many people who care about urban systems and urban ecology from so many walks of life. It's like Austin and Nashville are places that have music. LA has film. Toronto has urbanism. It's like what everybody cares about. And I think there's a Toronto school of urbanism that has a lot to say. I think the reason that I was invited here was that people thought I might fit in.

This Q&A between Richard Florida and Spacing contributing editor Edward Keenan is an excerpt from a longer article that appeared in the summer-fall 2009 issue.