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Medium Cool

And the search for the creative class


Much hot air has been expended recently trying to decide if Charlotte's "cool" enough to attract the hip, young professionals who are touted to be the great wealth producers of the next generation. This "creative class" (so named by economics professor Richard Florida) comprises the young "knowledge workers" in key sectors of the economy who set the pace of change in our digitally rich world. It's easy to lampoon Charlotte's eternal hunger for recognition, but there's a serious point at the heart of this debate.

One basic fact is undeniable: employment patterns have changed drastically in America. The traditional reasons for city growth and economic development — location near natural resources or convenient transportation routes — no longer apply. Now the crucial factor is the human resource of highly educated and productive people, and accordingly wealth now accumulates wherever these creative entrepreneurs gather.

While routine office work has been farmed out to towns all across America, and to cities in developing countries, innovative companies in business sectors such as information technology, design, financial services, law and health care operate differently. They tend to concentrate in certain key places, such as Manhattan, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, Austin, Boston or Seattle.

This has taken many urban and media experts by surprise. During the 1990s, a host of books and articles chillingly predicted "the death of place," speculating that information technology, and specifically its creation of new "virtual" spaces and communities on the Internet, would render physical locations irrelevant. According to this logic, if you worked in an "electronic cottage," and were linked to the "global village" of Internet users around the world, it didn't matter where you were located.

What actually happened, though, was very different. The "new economy," spawned by the same information technology that was supposed to render cities obsolete, instead made certain ones even more significant by clustering activities around real concentrations of people in real places.

The question therefore is not whether companies cluster, but why they congregate in some locations and not others. The short answer is that companies locate close to each other to recruit from concentrations of talented people. Today's creative folks don't follow their parents' and grandparents' example and simply settle where the jobs are; they gather instead in places they like to live, generally existing centers of creativity, and then companies follow. Creative people look for places where they can make friends easily, find acceptance of diverse lifestyles, enjoy a wide variety of recreation and entertainment, and live productive and stimulating lives.

This "creative class" comprised 30 percent of America's workforce in 2002. At its core are scientists, computer professionals and programmers, architects, engineers, graphic and product designers, entrepreneurs, educators, artists, musicians and entertainers. Around this nucleus spreads a broader group of other professionals in business and finance, law and health care. It's this 30 percent of America's workforce that provides the energy and talent to power the next generation of economic growth and wealth creation in this country.

In America, such places as Cambridge and Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Boulder, Gainesville, Florida and Santa Fe provide the stimulation, diversity and richness of experience desired by creative young professionals. They seek active street life, arts districts, thriving music scenes, and older, walkable neighborhoods with interesting and unique buildings. Charlotte has some of these attributes, but not enough to counter the city's conservative norm of generic suburbia which demands driving everywhere for everything.

Immersed in new, more flexible patterns of intensive work, young professionals tend to use their city like tourists, wanting facilities and amenities on demand, whatever the time of day. A place like Charlotte that strings together its attractions along the highway as a series of disconnected experiences can't compete in this emerging economy. Uptown is cool in places; so are South End, part of Central Avenue and the old streetcar suburbs. Perhaps NoDa still qualifies, even though most of the artists have left. But that's it for Charlotte. And it's not enough.

The effect of this creative class on the urban form of cities can be measured in part by the presence of "third places" in our society. Home and work are the first two places, and the third comprises venues like bookstores, cafés and coffee shops which support a community's social vitality, and where a "stranger feels at home." These informal gathering spots within walkable neighborhoods — horrendously titled "stroll districts" — provide relief from patterns of focused work or a single lifestyle, and provide a setting for group gatherings.

Charlotte's future prosperity depends on the next generation of creative, wealth-producing professionals. If they don't come here in sufficient numbers — and so far they're not — our economy will struggle to compete with other cities. It's easy to mock the concept of cool, but Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan was right. Cool really is the medium of the future.

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