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July 11, 2008

Richard Florida

The New Spatial Fix

« Lights Out | Main | Flight of the Creative Class »

My new Globe and Mail column is out:

The days of urban sprawl are over ...

... but not for the reasons you think

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

One of the few things increasing as fast as the price of oil lately has been the amount of commentary linking higher energy costs to the death of suburbia. Clearly, higher gas prices have affected where people want – or can afford – to live. Just as the demand for SUVs plummets and consumers have finally begun to see the point of hybrids, people are turning away from sprawling exurbs toward urban neighbourhoods and inner suburbs.

A recent report from CEOs for Cities, a group of U.S. business leaders, mayors and university presidents, declares: “Now that the era of cheap gas is over, demand for development on the fringe is down, and consumer interest and market potential lie in developing and redeveloping neighbourhoods closer to the urban core.”

“Could it happen in Canada?” this newspaper asked recently. While Canada is not suffering from the one-two punch of rising gas prices and subprime mortgages, it's abundantly clear that the same kind of shift away from sprawling suburbs and toward the urban core is under way from Toronto and Montreal to Vancouver and Calgary.

But what's happening here goes a lot deeper than the end of cheap oil. We are now passing through the early development of a wholly new geographic order – what geographers call “the spatial fix” – of which the move back toward the city is just one part.

Suburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age – the geographic expression of mass production. Low-cost mortgages, massive highway systems and suburban infrastructure projects fuelled the industrial engine of postwar capitalism, propelling demand for cars, appliances and all sorts of industrial goods.

The creative economy is giving rise to a new spatial fix and a very different geography – the contours of which are only now emerging.

Rising fuel costs are one thing, but in today's idea-driven economy, it's time costs that really matter. With the constant pressure to be more efficient and to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So the most efficient and productive regions are the ones in which people are thinking and working – not sitting in traffic. And, according to detailed research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, commuting is among the least enjoyable, if not the single least enjoyable, of all human activities.

Thus, urban cores are again becoming centres for technology, jobs and economic growth. Leading-edge companies are recognizing the value of an urban location. Google runs a shuttle bus that takes employees who live in downtown San Francisco to its Silicon Valley headquarters. On a recent visit to the company's new facility in lower Manhattan, I was shown a map of where the employees lived. Most were clustered in a tight band across lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and nearby areas such as Jersey City and Hoboken in New Jersey. Remember, these are well-paid people who could live behind picket fences on suburban Long Island, Westchester or Fairfield, Conn., if they so chose.

The new spatial fix is simultaneously more global and more concentrated – oriented around a smaller number of large world cities and global mega-regions. For every San Francisco or London, there is a Detroit or a Cleveland, regions where both the urban core and the suburbs are in decline.

Zach Neal, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, writes that the city-regions of the past were essentially self-contained markets that operated as “functional hierarchies” – i.e., they produced just about all they needed themselves and supported everything from agriculture and factory complexes to downtown office centres and residential suburbs.

But Neal says the new global system of cities is built on “relational hierarchy” – it's the relationships between key cities and regions globally that matter. A Brookings Institution report finds that global cities such as New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai are strongly connected to one another, much more so than, say, New York and Louisville or Toronto and Edmonton.

As these global centres grow ever larger and more strategically important, they essentially usurp many of the functions once played by second- and third-tier cities – in effect, growing larger at their expense.

And it's within these global centres – from London, New York and Tokyo to Toronto, Los Angeles and Sydney – that the shift from the suburbs toward the urban core is most pronounced, as talented, ambitious people trade more space for shorter commutes. As housing prices in suburbs and second-tier cities stagnate – or, in the case of certain U.S. suburbs, nose-dive – prices in these superstar urban centres continue to rise, in some cases to stratospheric rates.

While we are in the early development of this new economic geography, one trend is clear: The history of economic development and of capitalism revolves around the more intensive use of urban space. The coming decades will thus probably see greater concentrations of people, increasing densities, and further clustering of industry, work and innovation in a smaller number of humongous cities and mega-regions globally. Alongside that will come ever more concentrated economic opportunity and deepening social and economic divides between people and places.

Rising energy costs may be the proverbial straw that is breaking the camel's back, but the geographic transformation we are living through is driven by something far bigger than high prices at the gas pump.

Richard Florida is the author of Who's Your City? and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.


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Great column. The recent and longer term historical perspective is really key to understanding urban dynamics right now. For several years the "back to the city" movement has been ongoing, as you say for time saving reasons as well as a desire to live in a more creativity-stimulating place. High gas prices is just making the "early pioneers" look smart.

Also, what I find interesting is that the older, historic neighborhoods near downtowns or along street car lines to downtown-- that were designed to be walkable because cars didn't exist or were not common when they were built -- are those seeing a renaissance now.

The 1920s (or may be its the 1930s now) are back in so many ways.

Michael Wells

The issue isn't just time costs, it's quality of life. The suburbs promised "country-like" living to a country that was still very rural, and that saw cities as cramped living spaces. The B-B-Q, backyard, little league, home ownership were attractive in the 40's, 50's and 60's and as you say, were encouraged by freeways, low FHA & VA mortgages, and suburban infrastructure.

But as suburbs spread out, they created their own problems. The 2 hour auto commute was poor quality time spent neither on work nor with family. Throw in yardwork and chauffeuring the kids everywhere, and life quality diminished even more. The quality of life that included theater, live music and museums along with parks became more attractive.

However, even as a dedicated city lover, I'm not among those that think the suburbs will disappear. Those houses are built and are going to be used. Whether it's as neglected slums or some new models is unknown. I'd bet on new transportation and community models, but don't know what they'd be.


The irony is that, without the suburbs, I don't think you could have used light data to map out boundaries of mega-regions. :)

And maybe suburbs will continue to play that role of extending and connecting different urban cores. Between families who can't afford to live in the urban core, and couples who work in different urban nodes and want to live halfway in-between, the market for suburban homes isn't going to completely disappear.

Timothy Webster

Balancing Land individual and social cost

The suburbs of today are designed and build for cars and not people. Suburbs are a land usage and pollution disaster, simply because social cost and benefits of land usage are not taken into consideration. The US sub prime crises is in reality also a housing crises which can be best solved by redevelopment, not new development. Developing of new land well discarding existing developed land simply results in either the old development or the isolate new development being in practical terms discarded and worthless.

Suburbs are gobbling up the best farm land, because the social cost of losing this farm land forever is simply not reflected in the land price. To reflect this cost a land usage transitioning tax needs to be charged when ever land is transformed from natural wilderness or farm usage to urban or industrial usage. The land usage transition tax should be 8 times the selling price for farm or forestry usage. Also land in its natural green state, whether it is forests, farmland or parks within a city needs to be taxed a much low rate to reflects its social benefit.

Property value taxes do not accurately reflect the social value of land. High value land enjoying access to social transit services are under valued. As a result people sit on this land preventing redevelopment. This prevents redevelopment of this high value land, insuring continued low property values and denying cost effective higher density redevelopment. Many more people would have an opportunity to enjoy access to transit if this was not the case. Land near transit should be taxed based on the access to transit it provides. This land near transit should taxed at the same rate regardless whether it is 30 story high rise condo, or a parking lot. Height restrictions near transit are senseless. Green space regulations however do make sense.

History is about to repeat is itself.

Much of the hardship suffered in the great depression was the result of incredibly destructive land practices we would not even dream of today.
One of the farming practices of that time was to burn the stubble - the plant stalks left after harvesting. At this time, all fields were planted back to a crop and burning made it easier to plant. But, burning destroyed the organic matter that would help the soil. One of the favorite farm implements of the time was called a "one-way". This implement would turn the stubble under, saving the organic matter, but it left the soil exposed to the hot sun and dry winds.

To Quote the author.
We here in Southwest Kansas have learned to live with "Mother Nature" rather than fighting her!

Timothy Webster

I think the problem is too many people see cars as a necessity. They are a culture necessity, but not a transportation necessity. So many cities around the world have excellent transportation with fewer cars. In fact shorter travel times is directly related to few cars. Everybody sees a car as the fastest way they can run an errand, but the fact is they are slowing everyone else down to the extent that they are actually slowing themselves down. And it would be much quicker to run errand if we didn't take a car.

Suburbs are domed as the destination of the well to do and here is why.

Short travel time and the ability to multi-task while commuting are time factors controlly an educated professionals ability to apply the extra effort required to compete.

The world is a small place for educated professionals. Most educated professionals move up the wage latter not with a company, but by movies between companies. Each move providing a rapid intense learning process which not only benefits the individual, it also benefits the company as well. This wage mobility and competitive work place is a tremendous economic benefit.

Work hard, play harder, the motto of well paid. Playing hard is all about the people you play with, not what game you play. The energy we get from interacting with others is what drives us and keeps us alive. On transit you can start up a conversation with a person beside you or with a person over the phone. When you are driving you need to keep you attention on the road. Personally I have made most of my friends chatting on airplanes, trains and other forms of transit.

After hard work and play we all get burnt. What better way to relax and escape than surrounded by trees. We need this to keep ourselves sane. Unfortunately the back yard is not big enough for this. A park is a good place, but if you have to drive to a park, than park you are driving to is a parking lot. And nothing is closer to a dead desert than a parking lot. It is much better to be take transit and bike to a large green park. Better still is a shared green space close at hand.

Transit hubs with high rise housing, a choice of services, shopping and green space are the future and will attract the young educated profession who wants to settle down.

Rather than tax fuel, a limited number of licenses should auctioned to urban residents. With bicycles making up a larger percentage of the urban traffic, roads would be lot safer.

Timothy Webster

If your city is based on cars, lacks public transportation, does not redevelop to create new communities and lacks public green space.

The suburbs can't be worse.

Compact efficient cities only have room for only a few people to drive. People need to live close to good public transportation that will rapidly take them to centers of activity. People require a place to relax and enjoy nature. And no one wants to live a bad neighbourhood. Redeveloping is more than just replacing old buildings. It is creating compact efficient interconnected communities .


You said "On a recent visit to the company's new facility in lower Manhattan, I was shown a map of where the employees lived. Most were clustered in a tight band across lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and nearby areas such as Jersey City and Hoboken in New Jersey. Remember, these are well-paid people who could live behind picket fences on suburban Long Island, Westchester or Fairfield, Conn., if they so chose."

I appreciate much of what you talk about in your blog. But I wish you would talk more about the rich/poor split-- some people have incomes where choices like Westchester vs. Hoboken are simple choices between two easy alternatives. For so many outside the well-paid creative minority, folks are faced with tough choices, where they are damned either way.

I hope you'll consider writing more about the janitors and cooks who work in the creative environments as you do your excellent work of analysis.


I know it's not cool for downtown urban theorists to admit, but the suburbs are actually where the diversity that a city like Toronto is built on exists on a daily basis, not Rosedale.

Sure, it would be great if new immigrants could move downtown, but it's not going to happen. Instead, these newcomers have transformed the fringes into thriving, mixed-use communities where a strip mall parking lot doubles as a market/social gathering place for Tamils and Somalis.

Check Ian Chodikoff's excellent and thought-provoking new Fringe Benefits exhibition, on at the Design Exchange (yes, it's downtown). What's really happening in the suburbs deserves your serious attention.

Timothy Webster

Where is downtown?

Downtown is a place of activity where people are efficiently connected so that they can rapidly move to other places of activity efficiently. Downtown may be the core, it may be connected transit hubs. Some suburbs are starting to grow transit hubs. Well connecting these transit hubs to each other, where ever they are makes them part of downtown.

The fringe transit hubs are/"will be" part of the new downtown.

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