3.09.2009

Florida on America


I'm not a huge Richard Florida fan, but his article in this month's Atlantic was spot on: "How the Crash Will Reshape America." Correctly, he conflates our debt-swollen, living-beyond-our-means consumption patterns with the suburbanization of our country. Just as we overspent and are now stuck with a painful bill, so have we over-decentralized and are now stuck with land use patterns that are far from optimal.

Importantly, Florida's not referring preeminently to sprawl's adverse environmental consequences. Rather, he notes that an information age depends on clusters of creative types generating new ideas and innovations, and thus spread-out America may be in danger of losing its edge in this important aspect of capitalism. He's rooting for this real estate and financial crisis to rejigger our landscape to naturally favor the New Yorks of the nation, places in which one can find "the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment . . . and essential spur to innovation - to the creation of things that are truly new."

According to Florida, here's where we must necessarily flow into: "A more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities. Serendipitously, it will be a landscape suited to a world in which petroleum is no longer cheap by any measure. But most of all, it will be a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation - the activities in which the US still holds a big comparative advantage."

I do not mean to discount the pain that many Americans currently feel. But imagine if we did not have such a rude awakening, that somehow our unsustainable cycle of buying more house than we can afford, using those houses as piggy banks to sustain ever more lavish lifestyles, and counting on rising asset prices to keep the whole thing going - continued even longer than it did. As we spread out further, guzzling scarce resources as we went along, we would distance ourselves from each other and lose the natural stimulant of interpersonal cross-pollination. Numbed by our flat screen TVs and hulking SUVs, the rest of the world would lap us when it came to scientific patents and medical advances and technological breakthroughs.

Is the age of American hegemony over? Time will tell. But, absent the huge wake-up we have had in the past 18 months, perhaps we would not have come to our senses. Now, amidst the rubble of the worst economic slowdown in 75 years, maybe we can reorganize ourselves in ways that restore the entrepreneurial engine that is our competitive edge, and do so in ways that capitalize on and are not blind to the new realities of a post-petroleum, environmentally fragile planet.
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