Richard Florida: Complete Communities and the Rise of the Neighborhood Economy
Richard Florida, Principal Urbanist
Our cities are dying. People are fleeing to the suburbs and rural areas. It’s the end of urban life as we know it.
What a gloomy vision of apocalyptic despair.
In a now infamous blog post, James Altucher claims “New York is Dead Forever.” It was clicked on so much that none other than Jerry Seinfeld felt the need to respond. And respond he did, adding urbanist to his storied resume: “Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City. … You think Rome is going away too? London? Tokyo? … They’re not. They change. They mutate. They re-form.” 100 percent. Absolutely. You got it, Jerry.
This is the third time since the turn of the millennium that people have written New York’s obituary. It’s not going anywhere. And neither are other leading cities. When the pandemic is over in a year or two, New York and San Francisco, London and Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai will all still number among the world’s leading global cities. They have survived more and worse before—pandemics like cholera and the Spanish Flu, economic catastrophes, fires, and wars. Throughout the great arc of history, urbanization has always been the more powerful force.
Pandemics don’t so much disrupt history or change its course as accelerate changes already underway. Our cities and metropolitan areas were facing big challenges before the COVID-19 crisis existed. Sky-high inequality, deep racial divisions, rampant gentrification, unaffordable housing prices, massive traffic jams…I could go on. All of these problems are part and parcel of what I call the New Urban Crisis. This new crisis is different than the old crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. That was a crisis of urban decay, failure, and dysfunction. This one is a by-product of success. Our cities came roaring back over the last several decades, but they are burdened with structures and legacies from their pasts.
The pandemic has laid our racial and economic divides bare; the great wave of protest that boiled over in the wake of the brutal police killing of George Floyd had been simmering for a long time. Black Americans are 2.6 times more likely to get COVID-19 than white Americans and more than twice as likely to die from it. And while professional and knowledge workers are able to work from home in their pajamas and sweatpants, more than 40 million frontline workers must confront the disease face to face.
Back in 2008, at the height of the economic and financial crisis, I wrote that America and the world needed a Great Reset of the kind experienced during the late 19th century, when our great industrial cities were built, and then again after World War II, when we expanded our suburban frontier. The crisis has given us a once-in-a-century opportunity to confront our challenges and rebuild our cities, suburbs, and rural areas to be better—to be more inclusive, just, equitable, and resilient places for all people.
That’s what Blueprint is about—it is the playbook for a Great Reset in the way we live and work. There is no one-size-fits-all. It is not city versus suburb versus rural area. It is to each their own. We vote with our feet, and we find the places that best suit us and fit our needs. As I wrote in my book Who’s Your City?, where we choose to live is the most important decision we make. This has become all the more apparent now, as the pandemic has caused so many of us to think long and hard about how and where we really want to live and work.
We are all going through our own Great Resets. Some of us, especially those with families and children, are finding what we need in smaller cities and suburbs. Younger people continue to be drawn to big cities, where the action—economic, social and otherwise—is and always has been. Others are finding their dreams in rural areas.
As different as all these places and the people who live in them are, they are bound by a common thread. Urbanists call it the “15-minute neighborhood”—the idea of being able to work, shop, and take care of all our daily needs within 15 minutes of where we live. But the term I like even better is “complete communities,” where you can do just about everything you need and get access to just about everything you desire in close proximity to where you live. It’s not just about great urban neighborhoods of the sort Jane Jacobs wrote about, with their lively animated streets dotted with shops, restaurants, and cafes. It’s about making all of our neighborhoods—in suburbs and rural areas, small- and medium-sized cities—more complete communities.
You’ll read a lot about complete communities and the neighborhood economy here in Blueprint. It’s a basic, quintessentially human way of life, really. It’s the way we humans lived for most of our history, until the Industrial Revolution and the rise of powerful new transportation technologies—trains, automobiles, subways—sundered the age-old connection between where we live and where we work. We now have the opportunity—and the obligation—to knit our lives and our worlds back together.
This is just as true of suburbs as cities. And it is facilitated by the dramatic shift to remote work. Before the pandemic, less than 10 percent of us were working remotely. Now upwards of half of us are, and many of us will continue to do so when the pandemic is over. This gives us an incredible opportunity to make our expensive cities more affordable, turning their office towers into desperately needed affordable housing and reshaping and redesigning their central business districts—relics of the industrial age with knowledge workers and office functionaries packed and stacked literally on top of one another—into actual neighborhoods where people also live. At the same time, we can rebuild our suburbs and rural areas with stronger and more diverse economies. In doing so, we can reduce the heinous commutes that wreak such havoc on our environment and our mental health while sapping so much of our productivity.
And at long last, we can take back our streets and public spaces from the car and return them to pedestrians and bicycles. Parking lots in under-used business districts are already being reclaimed and transformed into vibrant spaces for pop-up restaurants, performances, movie screenings, and even open-air classrooms. Who would have thought even a year ago that our streets and parking lots and garages could be reimagined as community centers? But here we are.
That’s what Blueprint is for. It will shine a light on efforts—imagined and already underway, across America and the world—to rebuild and reshape cities of all sizes, suburbs, and rural areas to create more vibrant, equitable, inclusive, and resilient communities.
This is not the end of urbanism. It’s a new beginning.
Richard Florida is one of the world’s leading urbanists. A noted researcher, professor, and entrepreneur, Richard has penned numerous articles and books, including the award-winning The Rise of the Creative Classand, his latest contribution to the field, The New Urban Crisis.