Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Richard Florida at the Board of Trade

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At the recent Metro Vancouver Sustainability Summit I won a ticket to a Board of Trade breakfast. I am glad I did, because there is no way I would spend $200 of my money on such an event. In fact it was cosponsored by Metro, so not only did their staff get to go but so did 9 other people who attended that summit. (That link still works – they do not have the video they were taking but you can read the speech).

Richard Florida

Richard Florida

Richard Florida, whatever else may be said about him, has charisma. And lots of it. He talks about “star cities” but there is no doubt that he brought star quality with him. Which makes it hard not to get swept up in enthusiasm listening to him. So it is probably just as well that I had a drive home to think about what I heard this morning. Or rather, what I didn’t hear. The BoT types are bound to like him – and not just because he is young, handsome and a very persuasive speaker. Because he is into economic growth – and what will make city regions successful (i.e. better off) in the future. He is on the Board of the Prosperity Institute. He is an economist.

So the question that I would love to have asked him is how does his work relate to what we need to do in Greater Vancouver – through the prism of reducing or greenhouse gas emissions. Not that his prescriptions are contrary to that. Greenness it turns out is very important and so is density. But how would he deal with the argument that in order for humanity to survive at all – let alone flourish – we North Americans must cut back our emissions by 80 to 90% in order to allow the rest of the world to approach our standard of living and at the same time fend off the increasing rate of global warming. I think he might respond that it is another facet of creativity. But I am still worried about how you make everybody better off and at the same time reduce our ecological footprint so that humanity only needs one planet – which, after all is all we have got. Anyway I gave him my card as he signed my copy of his book, so he might even comment on this post.


Richard Florida now admits he was wrong – and he is sorry.

Max Wyman did the introduction. Florida promotes the idea that cities that are tolerant, diverse and open to innovation are more successful than those that aren’t. So how do we stack up?

In his first book “The Rise of the Creative Class” he says that creativity is the fourth pillar of sustainability [so perhaps that answets my question] He also wrote “The Flight of the Creative Class” and “Cities andthe Creative Class. [His new book “Who’s Your City” was on sale in the lobby for $32.95 (hardback) and if it wasn’t for the opportunity to speak to Mr Florida, very briefly, I might well have waited for the Canadian edition which is coming out next year.]

Richard Florida started by saying that Vancouver is at the top of the list of most of the indicators that he has data for. Of course, there will always be change and challenges and he intended to speak about the specific things that should be on Metro’s “to do” list.

While many now think that we are seeing a return of the 1930’s a better reference is to the 1870s. That crash was born out of the transformation of an agricultural society into an industrial society. It was the same kind of transformation we are seeing now in our economy. “This is going to flush out the fake value – the ephemeral.”  The rise of the new economy and our unwillingness to come to grips with it is what has created this crisis.

There is a big change in the economy, and Vancouver is at the cutting edge. Our economy is no longer about natural resources and factories.  “This shift is like the stuff Marx and Dickens wrote about – major economic dislocations. … We will manage our way out of this. The real source of value is our people. Understand that real capital is stuff in human beings.”

The new economy has been called various things “post industrial”, “service”, “knowledge”. All capture only part of the transition. Technology accounts for about 6% of the economy and information technology is even smaller. While knowledge is more important, many of our most successful entrepreneurs are college drop outs. Creativity is the driving force of our economy. The places that can harness this capital – how regions, nations, places that can harness this creativity – will persevere.

in 1900 Canada 50% of the workforce was in agriculture, and less than 5% in creative fields. By 1950 we were fully industrial, with 50% of employment in industry and less than 10% in creative. It rose to 12% by 1980. But now there are 6m Canadians in the creative sector,   40m in the US 150m in the advanced OECD countries. The creative sector of the US is now 30% of the economy, but more in Canada. In Greater Vancouver 35-37% in creative sector which approaches the industrial population of the Fordist age. The sector comprises jobs in science, technology, arts and culture. This is the growth sector. 50% of wages and salaries are in the creative sector and net new jobs are being created even in a recession.

Critics now use words like “cosmopolitan” as a negative. The creative class is said to be an elite out of tune with the rest of us. Most controversial was his development of a “gay index”.  “A gay agenda is being foisted upon us to undermine Judeo-Christian culture.” [It might not be a bad thing if it was, in my view. JC culture having been so successful at repression.]

Every single human being is creative. We have to extend the creative capacity to everyone. What we see in the US is an economic class war – the successful and those left behind. That is why Toyota succeeds where Ford fails. His father showe dhimn the factory where he worked – all full of impressive machines. But he said, “It’s not the machines that make the place it is the knowledge and the intelligence of the people that makes it great.”

The question for us is how to build a creative society that extends all the way down the chain. The creative elite makes three times what other people make. If we are creative we will develop great competitiveness and extend it to everyone – just as Toyota did with their factory floor. We can create a onsensus society that retains its cohesion. We must tap into the creativity of the janitors. Creativity will not be bounded by our social divisions: creativity doesn’t care about race, age, sex, orientation etc

There are three Ts that determine success  – technology, talent, tolerance. The US figured out first it could be open to all kinds of people. Most start ups founded by people born abroad. There is a powerful relationship between places that are open minded, diverse, and  tolerant. Places that allow of self expression, allow people to be themselves.

A recent factor he has developed is called the “Mosaic factor” which shows that it is not the melting pot that works [but multiculturalism] In a book called “Continental Divide” Seymour Martin Lipset compares Canada and the United States: and this region stacks up remarkably across the board. It is in the top 3 in the bohemian arts & culture factor, the top 3 in the Mosaic and it also has a “set of magnificent universities”.

It is popular now to assume that the world is flat: that where you are on its surface does not matter as we can all connect electronically. But the great contradiction is that the creative economy makes place ever more important. Jane Jacobs identified most fundamental factor of economic growth. Enormous growth is what you get from density. Exponential rate of growth of creativity. New things appear at the edge  – the spin offs – people come together and interact which increases the rate of  the urban metabolism – clustering force. His recent research has produced new statistics of cities and regions. They took pictures of the world at night and used the visible lights as a proximate measure of economic activity. This correlates well with innovation

In 191 countries there are 40 megaregions which account for less than 18% of the population but two thirds of the innovation and Canada has two of them: Toronto/Waterloo/Buffalo/ Montreal and Cascadia. They have established that one of most important economic engines in the world is what they call “Westcoastness” which Cascadia shares with California: it is the ability to attract people through lifestyle.This will be the Pacific century and Vancouver is ideally placed to take advantage of that.

The things that affect human happiness – 5 factors (in reverse order)

  • 5 – economic and physical security
  • 4 economic civic and social opportunity – meet people and make friends – only a quarter of us live in nuclear families
  • 3 leadership – not top down – harnesses bottom up energy – don’t squelch
  • 2 openness to diversity – cannot be taken for granted – mosaic of ethnicities
  • 1 quality of place – aesthetic – green – natural – clean water – access of amenities (see Jane Jacobs – “The Nature of Economies”)

He finished by talking about his first visit to Seattle where he saw a new and puzzling construction. Paul Allen one of the founders of Microsoft (and thus one of the world’s richest people) had hired the strarchitect Frank Gehry. But this was not a science museum or centre for entrepreneurship it is the “Jimmy Hendrix Experience centre” [actually it is called the Experience Music Project] Creativity is more than the SOB (symphony, opera, ballet). Paul Allen was inspired by a black kid with a guitar who wnated to create a new kind of music.


Mayor Diane Watts of Surrey said that there is a shift within the region. It is impirtant that the growth strategy Metro is now working on recognises that growth will occur in four places above the rest – Abbotsford, Surrey, Coquitlam, and Langley. Those cities have signed a Livability Accord in order to work together to complement each other. Cities competing is not the way. This new working relationship is a  fundamental paradigm shift from where we are today

Gordon Price – The foundation of creativity of the region is the port. The wealth of the country flows through here. (“I voted for the SFPR”) Now the port is necessary but not sufficient: we will take advantage of our location, that’s why we’re here. But we must learh the lesson of the Erie Canal – there’s a warning there. They grew because of the new infrastructure – revolutionary at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But since then they dispersed along the NY Thruway: they created sprawl. The legacy of what they were is still there but they no longer attract immigrants. They don’t have fundamental key: density.  They dispersed. The urban region needs to be compact. We need a specific strategy to offset the dispersal effect of the roads we are going to build. He also noted that this city has a class of people who move through it every day on a regular basis – the Binners. the people who survive by finding bottles and cans others have discarded but for which they can get a few cents each. How do we capture their creativity? We should not overlook them.

Virginia Greene – addressed Richard Florida “You have not done enough about what falling in love is all about”

Vancouver is called ‘A city with no visible means of support’ but obviously we have been looking in the wrong places. Our economy is largely driven by recreation and consumption. Her father called it “the I5 economy”. She had five obeservations

1 Vancouver has a jurisdictional advantage and is growing quite comfortably in your direction without trying. So what would it mean if we sought out that direction?

2 We already have “star city status” but the fragile sectors are struggling to get to critical mass. We need to save them from moving elsewhere. There is a need for diversification into new ventures like biotechnology.

3 You have to be able to get here from there. We must be concerned about  the mobility of these people. It is difficult to get here especially our border to the south which is getting harder to cross: and the airport. [I would observe that getting into Canada is a lot easier than going south – and I have no idea what she thinks is wrong with YVR, which seems to be doing quite well – according to its own accounts]

4 Don’t forget about northern part of province. The  future prosperity of south depends on the north and its natural resources. A very large percentage of BC’s exports, and the income they bring, is due to the north.

5 We need strong mechanisms for marketing the region: we already have that in the tourism, film and hi tech sctors. People must know that we exist and and can choose to come here. We need a “common understanding of this new branding” [a phrase that makes me shudder]


There were a lot of questions (which had to be submitted in writing) which were condensed into a few

Q1 – artists (and a lot of other creative people) can’t afford to live here

GP – Lets see how that works out in six months. There is also the cost of transport – West Enders don’t need a car. It is not as a great an impediment as we think

RF – There will be  an adjustment in price: but remember “When a place gets boring even the rich people leave” (Jane Jacobs)

VG – She also said that “new ideas come from old buildings” and very few of ours are old. We have a large service sector that deflates wages.  How do we bring up the bottom end?

GP  – There are a lot of old buildings, but here that means they are from the 50s and 60s. In Vancouver most buildings are still the same as first built on that site.

Q2 – How do we support our creative youth in an industrial education system?

RF – we have to blow up the education system. Most kids hate schools: they are boring not fun. And these are kids in good schools. The institutional framework is broken aand we must build a new kind of learning experience

DW – I agree with that rote learning is not the way to go. We have to encourage entrepreneurship.

Q3 – Robert Putnams finding’s on civic disengagement

RF – In Putnam’s view social capital seems to be dependent in his work on cohesiveness not diversity. For immigrants the first thing you think of is getting hunkered down. They are more concerned with gettoing a job and a place to live than getting engaged in civics. “We have to be proactively inclusive.”

VG – get people out of their automobiles – cafe society, walking, community centres with markets,

GP – “The sincerest form of engagement is the exchange of DNA.” He noted the decline of the gay bar: the internet is now the main meeting place.

DW – how we build our city – pedestrian – public places – activity – transportation – at grade light rail [my emphasisand at last somethign she said I could agree with.

Once again there was more but a two hour battery stopped me taking notes. The very fancy Sheraton Wall Centre ballroom did not have an outlet I could reach.

Thanks to Metro Vancouver for making this post possible

Written by Stephen Rees

October 9, 2008 at 2:22 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

    Bruce McIntire

    October 9, 2008 at 3:01 pm

  2. Thanks again Stephen for posting your take on another fascinating talk. If your blog was nothing more than trainspotting nerd talk, I wouldn’t bother reading it, let alone taking the time to contribute.

    Florida also published an article in the Oct 4th Globe & Mail touching on the links between the current financial crisis and the rampant consumerism that created suburbia, and the massive expenditures over half a century period to maintain it (eg. the US interstate highway system, and freeways). Totally unsustainable.

    I’ll need to read more by Florida, but I suspect there are some parallels between his ‘Creative Class’ idea and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s writings on the importance of ingenuity, innovation and creativity (The Ingenuity Gap; The Upside of Down, Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization).

    I also agree that Surrey is ripe for surface light rail — if integrated with the highest possible urban design and engineering standards — and hope that the King George Highway someday realizes its serious potential as a beautiful transit boulevard within a vibrant, walking community. Surrey could capitalize now on its excellent art gallery and take culture up several notches in what could evolve to be a dense, sustainable uptown to compliment Vancouver’s dense, sustainable downtown, and attract creative people with much to offer.

    I believe there is lots of room for growth in Metro Vancouver. The Burrard Peninsula, Coquitlam Rise and Surrey Rise could probably accommodate 10 million people very comfortably if done right. And that starts with moving away from car culture. There’s plenty of land if you include the thousands of hectares currently covered in asphalt.


    October 9, 2008 at 3:26 pm

  3. Hi Stephen,

    I was at the Richard Florida event too, and was amazed by the energy in the room. Florida certainly inspired us all but I know from experience the Vancouver business community would rather talk about creativity than do it. (I’m trying to change that.) Anyway thanks for writing up a comprehensive summary of the event.

    Linda Naiman

    October 15, 2008 at 12:57 pm

  4. Richard Florida now admits he was wrong – and he is sorry.

    Stephen Rees

    August 24, 2017 at 12:55 pm

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