Richard Florida on Building Back Better

The greatest reset must be inclusive, equitable, and resilient.

By Laura Goddeeris, director, ICMA Survey Research | Sep 26, 2020 | ARTICLE
Richard Florida Building Back Better

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, best-selling author and leading urbanist Richard Florida offered his thoughts on how new ways of working and living would drive economic recovery from an historic crash in his book The Great Reset. “I should have saved it,” he told UNITE attendees during his Friday keynote, sponsored by Buxton.

A decade after popularizing the term, he observed, “We are looking at the greatest of the ‘great resets’ of our time.”

Echoing themes heard across UNITE’s agenda, in his keynote address Florida acknowledged the intersections of multiple complex and devastating challenges facing communities. “It’s more than COVID-19, it’s a series of overlapping crises,” he said. “This pandemic has also caused a cascading series of economic and fiscal issues,” and these impacts, he said, have fallen along race and class lines.

“The big reckoning in the United States and around the world is that this pandemic both reflects and reinforces longstanding divides, fault lines, and fissures of race and class that have vexed our society.”

This is not just a big city problem. Florida traced the spread of the virus from urban centers to rural communities, and pointed to recent unrest and racial tensions in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as examples of how widespread the reckoning reaches.

The implication for local government leaders and others engaged in community and economic development, in places of all shapes and sizes, is “an obligation to ourselves, our communities, our residents, and our citizens to build back better,” Florida said. And better, he explained, means “more inclusive, just, equitable, and more resilient.”

We’ve Survived Worse, and Will Overcome This

Florida has spent the last several months researching and reflecting on lessons from past public health crises—an admitted blind spot in a decades-long career as an urbanist. He further acknowledged that in his past work, “I’ve under-anticipated the velocity and ferocity with which our communities can come back after great disasters.”

And so, despite undeniable statistics around disproportionate impacts on communities of color, record-level unemployment, and that this virus has revealed itself as an “equal opportunity offender,” he has no doubt that our communities will survive.

“This force that causes us to come together in large cities, small cities, medium-sized cities, suburbs, and rural areas, it’s far greater than pandemics,” he said. “No pandemic, no infectious disease, no pestilence, no plague, has ever been able to damp down the great force of urbanization.”

Our Communities and Regions Will Reshape and Rebalance

Prognosticators have offered extreme dystopian and utopian views of the other side of this crisis. Eschewing those, Florida anticipates a complex rebalancing of urban development and regional economies. He emphasized that crises like these tend not simply to disrupt, but to accelerate shifts already in motion. He further cited several factors likely to pull or push people from urban centers, potentially reversing pre-pandemic “back to the city” trends, which reveal opportunities on which local leaders can capitalize. The severity of these shifts will depend on how long the pandemic continues.

Pull factors. Remote work is by far the biggest driver. By some estimates, Florida says, perhaps 20 percent of all knowledge workers may be moving to full-time remote status, and another 30 percent may shift to part-time remote work (this is up from about 2 percent and 10 percent, respectively).

Other factors such as lower housing costs, desire for more space and amenities, or fear of public transit may work alone or in conjunction with increased remote work to accelerate certain groups’ exodus to suburbs or rural areas. These types of places, Florida said, can position themselves as destinations for the desired quality of life improvements. They might take a cue from the Tulsa Remote experiment, which lured remote workers from some of the most cosmopolitan cities.

Push factors. Florida maintained that young, educated, creative people will still be drawn to cities and urban cores. Weary of quarantining with their parents, he said, they will be looking for more opportunities for professional and personal networking. On the business side, industries such as tech, media, and finance continue to make investments in urban centers.

Florida suggests that urban areas designed around walkability and bikeability will fare best. He also noted that housing units with outdoor spaces and higher bedroom counts will be able command premium rents.

Our Once in a Century Opportunity

Florida suggested that in his adult lifetime, the U.S. has failed to fully seize the opportunities in building back better following two recent crises: 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash. While the rapid onset of the pandemic put many in the position of reacting and playing catch up over the last several months, he implored local government leaders to work with a wide range of partners and take a more proactive approach in designing their long-term economic recovery strategy. He pledged to support this work, offering five pillars of inspiration for now:

  1. Redesign open spaces and the built environment. Keep retrofitting streets, sidewalks, and other aspects of the public realm. Institutionalize what were thought to be temporary changes. Think creatively about extending changes to schools or offices.
  2. Re-orient to shorter commutes. With redistribution of people and families across the rural to urban continuum and development of true live/work/play neighborhoods, he envisions a network of “15-minute” or “complete” communities. 
  3. Reimagine governance. Regional collaboration is imperative given both the redistribution of people and competition for resources. Focus on developing regional recovery plans.
  4. Center a focus on equity. Specifically, he called for upgrading the status of frontline and service workers: pushing for higher wages, better working conditions, affordable housing, and improvements to their overall quality of life. He also urged attention to what he anticipates will be a widening digital divide with respect to online education.
  5. Address and close racial inequalities. As a comprehensive community development commitment and agenda, focus on giving all residents and all workers the opportunities they deserve.

In follow up discussion with ICMA President-elect Troy Brown about the future of communities, Florida circled back to themes from his earlier work. He noted that the past several months are causing everyone he knows to question themselves about where they live.

“Whether you are in an urban neighborhood, suburban neighborhood, or rural neighborhood, the quality of place of that neighborhood, what makes it real and interesting and not generic, what draws people out of their homes and draws them together in community, that’s what’s most important.”

This is an important point for local leaders to keep in mind in the months ahead as collectively, we work “to rebuild our communities so they provide better jobs and more economic opportunities, they house more innovation, they power better economic sectors, they propel better industries, but we also do so in a way that prosperity is more shared, inclusive, just, resilient.”

“It won’t happen organically,” he cautioned; it will take intention and strategy. But, “together, we can build a better future.”

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