I was pleased to hear at a recent planning workshop that the definition of the creative economy has been expanded. As popularized by Richard Florida in his first book on the subject, the term seems to refer largely to professionals like architects, graphic designers, and other heavily educated people. These are people who, by acting creatively, may create intellectual property which can lead to increased wealth. But after ticking off these and a few other higher-end professions, the workshop presenter added “car designers” to the list. “Ahhh,” I thought, “There IS room for mechanics in the 21st century economy!”
The creative economy is most often viewed as a means of reviving sad downtowns. My trouble with theorists like Florida is that they seem to think certain populations are much better than others at reviving these places. There’s something to it — gay communities certainly have triggered revivals in many downtrodden center city neighborhoods. Artists, too. And of course bringing higher-income people to a largely low-income downtown could be helpful. But the focus in the creative economy on high-end artists, or higher-end most anything, is somewhat troubling. Particularly since creativity is a pretty subjective thing.
I always like to point to Michael Pyatok’s writing on this subject. In criticizing New Urbanism, the post-1980s movement toward more traditional downtown and neighborhood design, he asked why urban buildings and neighborhoods couldn’t have relatively clean, light industry on their ground floors. Why only service and retail businesses, he asked. I would extend this argument. Why should cities seek to attract mainly white-collar creative types instead of blue-collar creative types? The synergy cities are trying to develop by bringing together “creative” people can only be enhanced.
While the workshop presenter did not think car repair was a good use in a creative economy downtown, she gave car design a definite thumbs-up. Even if the car designer needs to know multiple computer design programs to design something (always a questionable assumption), I’d imagine a mechanic, or an unemployed Ford or GM worker, could be a good candidate.
Creative economy practitioners should be sure to include creative people in the new downtowns, whether or not these creative types meet the theorists’ criteria for what is creative. Kudos to Florida for noting in his second book on creative economies that “creativity is as … innate a characteristic to all human beings as thought itself.”