10.14.2005

Shades of grey

The follow-up to a cover story about Rebecca Ryan finds the Madison weekly Isthmus noting that not everyone is on board with her "cool cities, hot jobs" theories about how to boost local economies. Joel Kotkin with the New America Foundation has a piece in the latest issue of the UK mag Prospect in which he writes that the cities that embrace these ideas, put forth most forcefully by Richard Florida, do a disservice to their residents.

"If you can somehow make your city the rage of the hipster set, they insist, all will be well." But of course, he writes, all is not well. "Perhaps even worse, the lure of 'coolness' leads cities to ignore the fundamental issues -- infrastructure, middle-class flight, terrorism -- that have so much more to do with their long-term prospects."

It's an old argument, given considerable ink by Steven Malanga in a widely quoted opinion piece last year. Maybe Kotkin, Malanga and others are right; maybe city leaders in these places become so mesmerized by the notion of "coolness" that they ignore essential needs. But I can't help but think that his criticism paints with too broad a brush. Do leaders really ignore all else in the quest for coolness? Or do they still worry about essential needs and what are thought of as more traditional development policies such as maintaining proper zoning laws and low taxes, while at the same time starting to address more quality of life issues such as aesthetics, culture and diversity? It's no surprise that the debate has taken on such black and white tones; that's what things often are reduced to in politics. But it would seem that the truth -- and the best course, frankly -- is to find a way to maintain and enhance the more traditional traits that signify a prosperous city, including low taxes, good schools and proactive development policies, while also pursuing more progressive social and cultural initiatives.

Money magazine just published a list of the best places to retire, and focused its search on college towns. Many of the things cited by Money as being attractive lures for retirees are the same things Florida, Ryan and others tout as being draws for the young, creative class. No one ever accuses cities of catering to sixtysomethings, yet they seem to be doing so by offering the same things that appeal to twentysomethings. Coincidence, or might there be more value in the push to embrace creativity than so-called pro-business types are willing to admit?

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