Richard Florida: Abu Dhabi could be a laboratory for 21st century urbanism

“Over the course of the next several decades we are going to put more people in cities than currently live in all the cities of the world. We are currently putting ten thousand people an hour into urban areas and we are going to put millions more people into cities over the next 20 to 30 years. Think about that.”

Richard Florida teaching his new class in global cities at New York University Abu Dhabi Christopher Pike/The National

It’s a daunting question, delivered with a mixture of urgency, awe, and alarm by the distinguished academic and urban theorist Richard Florida, a Global Research Professor at New York University and the Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He asks the question of almost everyone he meets.

Dr Florida is a self-confessed man on a mission and the challenge he has set himself, to develop a new science of what he describes as ‘creative place-making’, comes with the very highest stakes. “I think of all the grand challenges that face this world, from climate change to global agriculture, of all the great problems we face, I would argue that there is no grander challenge in world history, than how we tackle this next wave of urbanisation and how we build great cities.”

Luckily, Florida has no shortage of listeners thanks, in no small part, to his activities as a senior editor at The Atlantic and to a series of books such as Who’s Your City?, The Great Reset, and The Rise of the Creative Class, all of which have succeeded in bridging the gap between academic research and international best-seller. Described by Fast Company as an ‘intellectual rock star’, Time Magazine nominated Florida’s Twitter feed as one of the 140 most influential in the world while The Economist described him as “as close to a household name as it is possible for an urban theorist to be in America”.

Like him or loathe him – and Dr Florida has been accused of everything from Neo-Liberalism and faulty statistical analysis to being a celebrator of ‘hipster embourgeoisement’– there is no denying the power of his ideas. Since the publication of The Rise of the Creative Class in 2002, they have influenced state and city governments, city mayors, multi-national corporations, property developers, CEOs, and urban planners.

I meet Florida in his office at NYUAD’s Sama Tower a week after his only public engagement in Abu Dhabi, an open lecture on the future of global cities, delivered to an auditorium packed with the city’s great, good, and influential. That night he spoke, suited, for almost an hour without notes in a manner more akin to a presidential candidate than an urban theorist, and his lecture was peppered with anecdotes, jokes, and rousing calls to action. Up close, Florida is more the ‘intellectual rock star’. His sober jacket and tie are now paired with jeans, and his cufflinks reveal tiny skulls, but the beguiling eloquence and carefully measured delivery are just the same. Florida has been teaching a new short course in Global Cities at NYUAD for most of January, but he has also used the time to become more familiar with Abu Dhabi, its residents, and decision-makers.

This is not his first visit to the capital, Florida was invited to speak at a conference on global cities here in 2009, but his latest visit has also allowed him to become better acquainted with the particular brand of urbanism that is rapidly developing here. “I feel that I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well. My first and basic impression is that the city far exceeded my expectations. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this.”

Dr Florida’s primary guides have been his students, who teach him more than anybody else does, he says, and his family. Thanks to his Jordanian wife, Rana, Florida has a network of extended family in Abu Dhabi, many of whom have lived in the UAE for decades. For Dr Florida, the recent changes in Abu Dhabi’s planning and development came at just the right time.

“Abu Dhabi went pretty far down the path of a traditional sunbelt Fordist city – like Phoenix or Dallas or Huston – but with the grid it has and with the density it has downtown, it’s a lot better template then Phoenix or Dallas or Huston. It has a core that’s easily reconfigured and it has the potential to transition from a being a city of the 20th century to a city of the 21st. That’s we collectively have to build. A template for the city of the 21st century. If you want change to happen you have to change the template. Just like Abu Dhabi needs a plan, we need a plan.”

When he talks about the city, Florida cites its physical and strategic infrastructure – the airport, ports, roads, the Corniche, and Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 – as important milestones that have allowed the city to develop thus far, but it is Abu Dhabi’s potential that excites him most.

“Abu Dhabi could be a laboratory for the other hundreds of cities… that have to be built over the coming decades to accommodate the world’s population. Abu Dhabi could be a laboratory for distilling those practices and developing those techniques, the curricula, and the tools that other cities around the world could use…

“I think it’s the natural place to bring people together – planners and urbanists – to think about that experiment not only here but globally.”

For Dr Florida, Abu Dhabi’s future economic success will be determined not by the efforts that it has made thus far, although he admits these have provided an essential foundation, but by its success in attracting and retaining members of an increasingly global and internationally mobile pool of talent that he has dubbed the ‘Creative Class’.

The notion of the Creative Class lies at the very core of Dr Florida’s theories of economic and urban development. It is a theory that identifies attractive, active, and rapidly changing cities – not corporations – as the engines of economic growth and innovation and people as their principal source of wealth. Most importantly for Florida, is the Creative Class’ growing power and size. He cites the example of the United States where there are now 40 million members of the Creative Class, representing more than a third of the workforce, half of all wages paid, and three quarters of all discretionary purchasing power while in global cities, they represent more than 40 per cent of the total workforce.

Crucially he says, this group – made of scientists, technologists, innovators and entrepreneurs, professionals in management, business, healthcare and the law as well as ‘bohemians’ in the arts, music, design, entertainment and the media – are able to choose where they live. They can do this because 75 per cent of this group are either single, in young couples, childless, or are ‘empty nesters’ with children who are no longer at home. In the new global urban marketplace, the offer of safety, employment, a good business climate, good schools, and low rates of taxation are no longer enough to ensure a city’s competitiveness and success. It must also have what the academic describes as the right ‘people climate’, something that he equates with the notions of ‘quality of place’ and ‘creative place-making’ rather than older, more familiar notions of ‘quality of life’.

It’s a desire that’s also confirmed by Florida’s students at NYUAD, and both insist that it is only by addressing these issues that Abu Dhabi will succeed in the next phase of its development as he argues.

“If Abu Dhabi has done many things right or wrong, the one thing it hasn’t thought through is how to attract young people… Abu Dhabi is thinking of a middle-aged man… and what would be attractive to him: good schools, good healthcare, golf courses, nice highways, somewhere to park your big car… but a lot of the people it will need to attract and build attachment to, will want something different from the middle aged family man. What I’m hearing from my students is “that’s not going to attract us”.

On the ground, this means a more pedestrian and bike-friendly city, better sidewalks, markets, shops and parks – all the things that make life richer and cities more liveable. Not only are these indicators of the kind of urban vitality that has proved vital in attracting and retaining members of Florida’s Creative Class, they are part of a healthier and more sustainable urban fabric as a whole. As Dr Florida has argued in his research, ‘greener’ cities all have higher rates of education and economic growth.

Quality of place also means greater social and civic opportunity and the logic of economic development is inextricably linked with the logic of social change. In Abu Dhabi, this dynamic was unleashed when the emirate first embarked on modernisation and now, he says, there is no turning back. The key is to make sure that the change is managed in a way that is culturally sensitive and responsible as possible.

“If Abu Dhabi wants to achieve its goals of diversification and a knowledge economy… it’s got become more open minded, it’s got to become more accepting, and it’s got to become more diverse… If cities want to capitalise on this talent flow, they have to be inclusive. They can’t just say you’re here, have fun.”

Dr Florida denies that he is trying to tell anybody how to do their job. His first responsibility, he insists, is to his students, to NYU, and to a generation faced with the overwhelming task of having to deal with the next great wave of urbanisation, an epoch-defining process he insists we are already living through.

After an hour in Florida’s company, it’s hard not to be convinced by his rhetoric and his invitation to enter his ‘big tent’ of urbanists, economists, planners, politicians and decision-makers. It’s an invitation that’s almost too good to resist, after all, it’s not often that we are asked to join an international elite and a global solution of which Florida, incidentally, is the leader. Florida’s role, as he sees it, is to establish NYU as a global leader in urbanism and to ‘inspire a context’ that will help frame how decision-makers around the world, and here in Abu Dhabi in particular, plan for the future.

Florida claims that his aim is not criticism but action, inspired as he is by ‘one of the grandest challenges of our time’. Where he has already succeeded is in persuading hard-headed political and business leaders to consider the broader context, and to draw important links between economic prosperity and place-making. Whether he will succeed in ultimate goal of developing a new template for the city of the 21st century is open to question, but one thing is beyond doubt, if anybody has the necessary eloquence, charm, and charisma to rise to the challenge, it is surely Richard Florida: esteemed academic, urban champion, and ‘intellectual rock star’.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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