Who’s Your City?, Richard Florida

Random House Canada, 2008, 374 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-35696-3

If you don’t like where you live, maybe it’s not you, but where you are that’s the problem.  Go ahead and leave!

That, in a nutshell, is where Richard Florida leads readers with Who’s Your City, a book that not only argues that globalisation makes physical location even more important than ever, but that we should expect to move from one place to another according to our interests, or even our stage in life.

As ideas go, this is relatively uncontroversial.  Alvin Toffler discussed nomadic lifestyles decades ago in The Third Wave, whereas most college-educated North Americans are well-acquainted with the phenomenon of leaving home to go study at post-secondary institutions, and then relocating in yet another city to find gainful employment.  Anyone interested in certain industries knows that the best place for movies is in Los Angeles; that book publishing jobs are in New York, that computer geeks cluster around San Francisco or Boston, that oil executives can opt for either Calgary or Houston, that political wonks end up in Ottawa or Washington.

It takes a few dozen pages of statistics for Florida to make his point, but once he’s done the statistical evidence looks unarguable: Geographical location is crucial even despite modern telecommunications, and the tendency for super-clusters is to become even more specialized as people move to take advantage of this specialization.  In this context, why ignore the evidence that moving to another city may make you happier?  Grab Florida’s evaluation criteria and go pick your city off the menu of available choices!

It doesn’t mean that I have to like his thesis, mind you: In Florida’s jargon, I’m one of those “rooters” who have settled down somewhere and won’t even think of leaving.  I’m pretty happy in the Ottawa area, which combines a right-sized city with easy access to both Montréal and Toronto, with weather I like (yes, even the snow), a close relationship to nature, a well-educated population from which I can easily make friends, and an opportunity-rich environment for my chosen profession.  I’ll let others speculate on how much Ottawa has shaped me versus how much of a fit I would have been for other cities had I been raised elsewhere, but what I know is that the more I travel, the more I find myself coming home knowing why I like it.  I may not be a rooter as much as Ottawa fits my own list of things that I consider essential to my daily happiness; in other words, I may be living Florida’s thesis despite not liking its implications.

My other personal lesson from Who’s Your City is that Florida’s work confirmed a few impressions about why, as a tourist, I liked some cities more than others.  Apparently, if I can’t identify with the urban density of Ottawa (in Denver or Calgary), can’t enjoy the combination of smarts and money (in Boston or San Francisco), can’t benefit from the superlative quality of world-class cities (in New York or London) or can’t see plenty of nature (in Vancouver), then I’m liable to start turning on my host city like I did in Los Angeles, Miami or Winnipeg.  Again, this tends to prove Florida’s work more than I care to admit: Much like people, cities have personalities.

More seriously, I do wish that Florida had spent less time telling people where to move and more time discussing the potential pitfalls of self-segregating urban areas.  We can study Detroit as a dramatic illustration of what happens when smart rich people do pick up and leave for better pastures.  Brain drains are serious business, as is the political stratification caused by the clustering of like-minded people.  Red states, blue states, anyone?  What about well-balanced social classes?  Aren’t the upper-classes always more mobile than the lower ones?  Florida’s “pick up and go” triumphalism is less than useful to people who are either too poor or too stuck in obligations to leave; there is some acknowledgement of all of those issues, but not quite enough when balanced against the latter “Escape Kit” portion of the book that is meant to help readers pick a better city for themselves.

As you may gather from a “review” that’s two-third musings and personal confessions, there is a lot food for thought in Who’s Your City?, which only confirms something that’s already obvious to anyone with friends and family who moved elsewhere.  It’s well-researched (although focused almost exclusively on the US), accessibly written and provocative in its conclusions.  Don’t necessarily start poking at real-estate ads in other states yet, but think about it: What if your city really wasn’t the city for you?

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