The Creative Class movement leaves too many citizens behind, but it does recognize that quality of life matters most.
By Ben Bull
Published December 14, 2004
Hamilton city council is finally taking notice of the North American phenomenon called "creative class." It's latest economic development strategy adds three new clusters, including the port, tourism and the arts, and the downtown - as well as an education and a "quality of life" component.
I think Dr. Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class and architect of the Creative Class theory of economic development, would be pleased.
But what are we to really make of Dr Florida's widely touted theories? If this really is a new direction for Hamilton (as opposed to just another document), then where will it take us?
I spoke recently with the ex-Mayor of my old hometown of Leeds. George Mudie's city council initiatives in the 1980s helped attract a large segment of England's "mobile workers" to his town. Today, Leeds is home to the cream of northern England's IT workers and is known as the "IT Capital of the north."
Mr. Mudie had never heard of Richard Florida or the term Creative Class. When I explained it to him he simply said, "What about everyone else?"
One of Mudie's biggest regrets was not addressing the issues of Leeds, inner city folks for whom a trip to the nearest art gallery is less of a priority than putting food on the table.
I also remember reading about Florida's Bohemian Index and thinking, "This sounds too simple to be true!"
As Jason Leach and I trumpeted these ideas on the Green Berets radio show I recall one person asking, "How does this help our unemployed steelworkers?"
"Erm ... dunno?"
I think attracting more creative class workers is important for Hamilton - in fact I think its essential - but this is just one piece of a very complex urban revitalization puzzle.
My conversation with George Mudie quickly turned to what he considered to be the revitalization priority - "Build on your strengths."
He told me about a conference he had attended in New York with city powerbrokers from all over the United States. After a day or so of listening to the various city initiatives happening all over the US, it suddenly occurred to Mudie that "We were all chasing the same things." He explained that wooing call centres and government offices is all very well, but "Every town is unique - you have to build on your strengths."
He told me how he had met the Mayor of Pittsburgh, who understood this clearly. "Pittsburgh realized that they had two excellent sports stadiums and also a leading edge health-care facility. They went on to develop a Sports injury clinic that is now used by many of America's top athletes."
Do more of what you do well: who could argue with this basic concept? After all, today's thriving call centre could just as easily become tomorrow's Royal Connaught Hotel.
But what is at the heart of Florida's theories? Why are venues like art galleries, theatres and coffee shops so important to creative people? Why do they care how a town looks?
I got a little bit closer to working this one out during a recent Green Berets brainstorming session. We were all trying to work out a suitable mission statement for the Raise the Hammer magazine when the term "quality of life" kept coming up again and again.
"What are we really trying to do here?" someone asked. "What is urban revitalization all about?"
The unanimous answer (which somehow never made it to the mission statement shortlist) was, "Create a better quality of life for all Hamiltonians."
That's it. It's very simple, really. All Florida is saying, all the Green Berets saying, all any of us is really saying is, "Give us a better quality of life in the Hammer."
For the creative minded, this does indeed mean vibrant mixed neighbourhoods, nice architecture and a thriving downtown. For many of us - who don't own a car, or hate to drive - this means efficient and affordable transit. For some of us it means easy access to first-rate medical services. For all of us it means lots of good paying jobs, clean streets and less crime.
Quality of life is at the heart of everything we need to do to turn the Hammer around. If we fail to understand which issues are the most important for today's lifestyles, then we will fail to succeed as a town.
Addressing the needs of the "mobile workers" is, indeed, a litmus test for a town, as Florida contends. What clearer indication of your town's viability can you have then someone saying, "No thanks" and moving elsewhere?
I'd like to pose a question to you, dear reader:
What matters to you the most? What is the most important quality of life factor on your urban renewal shopping list? If you could improve one thing about life in the Hammer, what would it be?
Okay, that was three questions. Well, they're all the same, aren't they?
We'll post your responses, if we get any, in next month's issue and send a summary out to our councilors.
In the end, while I'm all for having more "fun" in the Hammer - and lets face it, most of what the creative class seems to want is about having more fun - we don't want to make the same mistake that Leeds and other towns have made, which is to leave people behind. So while we plan for a better future in Hamilton, let's make sure we never forget that we are all Hamiltonians, and the future is ours to enjoy together.
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