March 28, 2020

The New Urban Crisis: Jesus, the City, and the Poor

I’d never heard of Florida or his work before now, but I have to say that I find his subject endlessly fascinating and his writing style seamless and engaging.

This is a book about cities, gentrification, and poverty. It’s an absolute treasure chest of stats and information. He mainly talks about the U.S.A., but he does throw in references to the UK throughout the book. (In fact, in my copy he has a preface to the UK edition.)

Florida wants us to understand cities. He wants us to understand that there is a global shift going on before our very eyes, and that many (i.e. those who don’t live in these places) are completely unaware of just how tectonic it is. So, for example, Florida informs us from the outset:

“London is growing away from the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. It is almost a country unto itself; Londoners have more in common with the wealthy, plugged-in global citizens of New York, L.A., San Francisco, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong than they do with people elsewhere in the UK.” (xiii)

We will come back to this thought later. But what we have in this book is an American who clearly sees that the Brexit vote and the riots around the UK several years ago are a sign of the growing economic distance and social divide between the classes in the UK. He calls the UK “a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over.” (xiv) This was when my ears started to perk up, and I hadn’t even gotten out of the introduction!

According to Florida, far too many people in our cities are locked into poverty. Surprisingly, one of the groups hardest hit, in his opinion, is the middle class. As he has monitored global cities, he has seen a pattern where the advantaged and the disadvantaged inner-cities are becoming much more separated geographically. Accordingly, he claims, we have now entered into an era he is calling ‘The New Urban Crisis’. It is defined by five dimensions.

1. The growing economic gap between a small number of ‘superstar cities’ (London, New York, L.A., etc.) and the rest of the world.

These cities have a disproportionate amount of the world’s high value companies and talent. He pinpoints the UK as having the worst income inequality in Europe, with the centre of London having almost unbelievable amounts of wealth. If you compare this to the rest of the country, with many areas marked by disturbing levels of deprivation, you begin to see the problem Florida is highlighting.

All of this means that there is now a huge, and growing, cultural and economic chasm between London and the rest of the UK. So, for example, when it came to the recent European Union vote, he notes that over 60% of London voted ‘Remain’ compared to 70% of the East Midlands voting ‘Leave’ (the figures being almost as high across large parts of the North).

2. These superstar cities face exorbitant housing costs which, again, compound the inequality.

Most of the centres of these superstar cities have unoccupied properties that have been bought merely as investments by multi-millionaire/billionaire tycoons who have no intention of living there (over 750 properties valued £5M+ in London currently lie uninhabited). As this practice has pushed housing costs up, the blue-collar and service workers have been forced to move out of the city due to unaffordable housing and rents.

3. Middle-class neighbourhoods have now shrunk dramatically as a result of these inequalities.

According to Florida, two-thirds of the population of the UK identified as middle-class in the 1980s. It is less than half today. In the same period, poverty has jumped 10%, to 27% of the population.

“In place of the old class divide of poor cities versus rich suburbs, a new pattern has emerged—a Patchwork Metropolis in which small areas of privilege and large swathes of poverty and distress crisscross city and suburb alike.” (8)

4. The suburbs are now becoming places of high crime, poverty, and racial and class segregation.

So, for example, nearly all the poverty in London was once in the urban centre. But now, according to Florida, “Today, 60% of poverty in Greater London is in suburban Outer London.” (8) In the old-world order, the poor were largely found in cities and city centres, which were a hotbed of crime and other social problems, and the emerging middle class and the rich moved to the suburbs to escape the social problems. Statistics show us that this is now being reversed, particularly in the superstar cities of the world.

5. The crisis of urbanisation in the developing world.

Developing countries think that if they build more cities, they will become rich like the Western superstar cities. But the problem is that this was never true for most Westernised cities. In fact, most of the West’s global output comes out of only a handful of its superstar cities. “Superstar cities, in effect, form a league of their own, often having much more in common with each other than they do with other cities in their own nations.” (19)

This New Urban Crisis is also fuelling much of the gentrification going on in and around many of the world’s cities. Florida is a fan of gentrification, up to a point, and this is the part of the book that resonated most with me because it is happening to my own community (and also across Scotland) as we speak. “Generally speaking, gentrification describes a process in which a neighbourhood gains wealth and sees its population become more affluent, whiter and younger.” (p.65)

Stick this into the Scottish scheme context and we can be even more specific. Gentrification is occurring in the schemes when young, affluent, middle-class people of all ethnicities move into our communities at the expense of the indigenous population. Now, I’m sure that gentrification is an economic force for good in our community (and others), but it is also indelibly changing it. I have written about it here.

This post is the first in a three-part review of Richard Florida's book, The New Urban Crisis. Watch for part two next week.

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