Creative Class Act

Journalists take it for granted that they can reach professors on the phone for expert opinions. Universities even publish directories to make faculty members accessible to the media.

But you can't just call up Richard Florida, Heinz Professor of Regional Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ever since last year, when he published Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, he's become the undisputed "It Boy" of the urban planning community.

Florida is to urban planning what Eminem is to white rap, what Conan O'Brien is to late-night television. Urban planning might sound wonkish at first, but don't nod off. It's really about the nitty-gritty basics that make life worth living: a killer latte a block from home, a good place to walk your dog, a job that doesn't drive you crazy.

Florida has attracted attention so far beyond academia that now he spends much of his time flying back and forth around the world to talk about his ideas. So getting Richard Florida on the phone takes patience. When New Times finally catches up with the best-selling superstar author (don't expect his book out in paperback anytime soon -- the hardback's in its 12th printing), it's no surprise he's at the airport.

In spite of a hectic schedule, Florida still sounds amiable and energetic. But after 20 minutes, he reaches the security checkpoint. "Can you call me back in 15 minutes?" he asks. "I'd be happy to talk more when I'm waiting at the gate."

Fifteen minutes later, he still hasn't passed through the metal detector. "Call me in another 15 minutes," he says, still affable.

Hours later, Florida actually calls back, saying he's already boarded his connecting flight to Europe and takeoff isn't for a while, so he has more time to chat. But this time, he's the one leaving a message.

The truth is, you hardly need the author himself to talk about Rise of the Creative Class. If you want to know about Richard Florida, just talk to any smart public official or creative entrepreneur in just about any metropolitan center in the country. Members of this enthusiastic, growing cult can easily fill you in on why Florida's book has become something of a bible for anyone interested in making a city cool.

"It's been quite the buzz for a while in economic development circles," says Mary Jo Waits, associate director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, of Rise of the Creative Class. Waits says she's shared a few speaking stages with Florida, and has long been familiar with his work, which relates to her own research about the knowledge economy, something different from the traditional economic model because it depends on knowledge and technology as the driving forces of the economy.

"He was just like all the rest of us, you know," says Waits of the group of policy talkers -- a pretty conservative crowd -- that populates universities and think tanks. "And then his book came out."

Since she started researching economic development, Waits says two people have really shaken up the field: Harvard Business School's Michael Porter, who got people thinking about why clusters of high-paid industries are located in particular geographic areas, and Richard Florida.

Florida's thesis "rings a chord with everybody," Waits says. A variety of readers find an encouraging message in Rise of the Creative Class, she explains: people struggling to make a vibrant downtown; people who care about diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism; people concerned about historic preservation; and people advocating smart growth and compact cities.

"Richard kind of brought all these individual conversations, the big conversations that have been going on in all these communities, together under one notion that we could all relate to, which is that talent is absolutely the most important thing to attract," says Waits.

In his book, Florida argues that creativity is the most highly prized commodity in our economy, which, over the past 50 years, has become increasingly knowledge-driven. Leading this creative economy is the growing Creative Class, about 30 percent of the U.S. work force, whose average salary is much higher than that of the Working and Service classes.

For example, a machinist or truck driver is Working class. A janitor or clerical worker, Service class. But an ad copywriter, actor or graphic designer is Creative Class -- a term Florida coined.

With all kinds of research to back the notion that a city's Creative Class has a direct correlation to its economic success, Florida's book turns traditional notions of urban development upside down.

The reason certain places are succeeding economically is because Creative Class people want to live there, not because of transportation, stadiums, malls or tourist districts.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig