Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Dec 9th 2008 at 11:31am UTC

New Urban Bobo

So says New York Times’ David Brooks:

The 1980s and 1990s made up the era of the great dispersal. Forty-three million people moved every year, and basically they moved outward — from inner-ring suburbs to far-flung exurbs on the metro fringe … If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers. People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.There are restaurant and entertainment zones, mixed-use streetscape malls, suburban theater districts, farmers’ markets and concert halls. In addition, downtown areas in places like Charlotte and Dallas are reviving as many people move back into the city in search of human contact…

Barack Obama has said that he would start an infrastructure project that will dwarf Dwight Eisenhower’s highway program. If, indeed, we are going to have a once-in-a-half-century infrastructure investment, it would be great if the program would build on today’s emerging patterns. It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.

To take advantage of the growing desire for community, the Obama plan would have to do two things. First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.

Second, the Obama stimulus plan could help localities create suburban town squares. Many communities are trying to build focal points. The stimulus plan could build charter schools, pre-K centers, national service centers and other such programs around new civic hubs… A stimulus package may be necessary, but unless designed with care, its main effect will be to prop up the drying husks of the fall.

More here.

12 Responses to “New Urban Bobo”

  1. Michael Wells Says:

    At the American Association of Grant Professionals conference in October, a speaker made the distinction between charity and philanthropy. In his definition, charity is meeting immediate needs while philanthropy is building for the future. The Obama stimulus package needs to do both, and it needs to do them right. The talk about infrastructure has been about charity, getting money into the system. But the amount of money maybe isn’t even as important as the direction, how it gets spent.

    Brooks is right, pouring a trillion bucks into infrastructure IS the policy. Years ago when I was a fledgling reporter covering city hall, I asked the Mayor’s chief of staff what I should pay attention to and he said “Come to the budget hearings. What gets paid for IS the politicians’ real agenda, everything else is just talk.” We’re at a rare crux in history where a lot of policy will be done at once, we’d better get it right.

    So Brooks is advocating social engineering, which a large country can’t avoid. Repairing bridges is social engineering. Dumping billions into banks, no questions asked, is social engineering. Encouraging town squares is social engineering. Letting the Free Market operate unfettered is social engineering. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

    I’d say a vital issue is looking at the human reactions to what gets built. They need some good marketers and social scientists in there, looking for how people will use the infrastructure. What could be the unintended consequences, and can we make some of them intentional?

    For example:

    “First, it would have to create new transportation patterns. The old metro design was based on a hub-and-spoke system — a series of highways that converged on an urban core. But in an age of multiple downtown nodes and complicated travel routes, it’s better to have a complex web of roads and rail systems.”

    Is this a good idea? Is a metro region better off with multiple downtown nodes if the tradeoff is a weaker central downtown? The hub-and-spoke system emptied central cities, is there way of using it to rebuild them? LA and London both have multiple downtown nodes, why are they so different? Which one do we want to emulate?

    Finally, what about some real social engineering? In RISE, Richard talked about making all work creative. Is there a way to use this unparalleled infrastructure project to revise the relationships and creativity of the people working on them? As with the Auto companies, the problem isn’t just the cars themselves or the executives, but the century-old model of how the work is organized.

  2. Wendy Says:

    Brooks’ prescription sounds too “top down” to work. Central planning of society and the economy has rarely worked all that well in world history if your goal is to inspire creativity, generation social bonds, and make people happy with where they live.

    Obama will likely know all this, being a community organizer by background.

    All this said, that doesn’t mean certain investments shouldn’t be pushed through. The country does need to prepare for high oil prices — ie a market that will force many one-occupant-vehicles off the road.

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    Is a metro region better off with multiple downtown nodes if the tradeoff is a weaker central downtown?

    We don’t have much choice. It is simple economics.

    Take Chicago, for example. There is actually a poll tax in the Chicago Loop. You add an employee, you pay a tax. Totally insane.

    As a result, the Loop is dying as a place of employment, and residential conversions of buildings are going forth. It is an incredible waste of a valuable resource (rail access to the Loop is outstanding).

    Add to that the highest sales tax in the nation, high property taxes… and Chicago is NOT a very good steward of the Loop.

    You can’t blame businesses for looking elsewhere. It is simple dollars and sense. Businesses are not a cash cow to be milked for every last dollar.

    New York is not dissimilar. No poll tax, but other taxes that make having a business there more difficult. Wall Street is going the way of the Loop (businesses moving out, residences moving in).

  4. Zoe B Says:

    Regional metropolitan plans are intended to give an overall scheme to development. A well-designed plan reflects the space that the community wants to live in, in a decade or three. It must have extensive community input. I have participated in such a plan, as one member of a steering committee. The plan then can be shaped into some sort of reality through: zoning, financial incentives, infrastructure plans, etc. My town enforces its growth boundary via the water/sewer system. Buildings outside the boundary must have their own wells and septic systems. This limits density . Such ’social engineering’ can be justified by the cost of extending and maintaining the pipes, and of enlarging our water treatment facilities to accommodate an increased volume of sewage. One could do the same sort of thing with a transit system.

    Why should a developer wish to cooperate with such plans? Water, sewage service, access to public transit, placement of public schools, etc., all raise the base value of the land. In addition, a well-designed regional plan is a variety of market study that is FREE to the developer. The plan produced by my committee in 2008 wants the same things that David Brooks (among many others) declares to be national trends. Our local developers are quite uncomfortable with trying something new. When the market changes, there is a long lag time before their building plans catch up. The regional plan tells them how the big-picture market has changed, and encourages them to alter building plans to meet market demand.

    I cannot tell private developers to do “X” project. I can tell them what sort of community I want to live in. If I speak up, I am more likely to get what I want.

  5. Sterling Says:

    Eisenhower built the Interstate system because he recognized the need for it and it was well-planned massive public works project. If Obama intends to do something like this, I really hope it will be something that the US is in dire need of, like domestic energy production. A ba-zillion windmills (on or off-shore) with a power distribution infrastructure would be fine.

    But… part of what Brooks says is right. The sophisticated “jeunesse d’oree” who happen to have some bucks are still people, and crave “non-work related” social interaction, not just for some socially conscientious purpose, but simply to hang and shoot the shit. I admit, I’m one of those urbane bobos, who grew up during the height of American “cul de sac” culture but left luxury-laden suburbia to live and work in much lively places – where I didn’t have to drive 8 thousand miles a day just to chill with my “peeps”, like a mall or pub. In Seattle, in wasn’t Starbucks but Torrefazione, a real Italian espresso joint – until Starbucks bought them out, that is.

  6. hayden fisher Says:

    I say start by completing the revitalization of the urban cores, there are scores of beautiful buildings yet to be renovated. By the vacant ones, restore and sell them; or make the money available to the private sector to do that and run owner-operated businesses out of them.

    The idea that suburban sprawl can somehow be ‘connected’ via light rail is absurd. Where would it begin and where would it end? It would just become part of the sprawl.

    David Brooks shows an understanding of the culture in the first paragraph yet, somehow, he, and others, do not want to accept the reality that suburbia has been a horrible social experiment that is destined to die generally and survive only in tolerable creative offshoots in a few areas; most likely those built more recently under the new urbanism umbrella with urban themes and concepts.

  7. David J. Miller Says:

    Michael, Great insight into philanthropy vs. charity. My hunch is the government is more often in the charity space when using its funds. Reacting to ‘pressing’ issues of the day.

    All of the discussion on which way forward is interesting, but I agree with the sentiment that you cannot plan cities from DC. And its funny as each metros success is in the eye of the beholder.

    I spent many years living in the Loop and loved it. I still have not been back to check out Millenium Park, but its clear that Daley understood the notion of a work-live-play city/downtown. And while I don’t know what the employment picture has been, the loop and the rest of chicago have become great places to live in the last 20 years. So the question is… do you want high income workers working in your city or living in your city. The answer of course is both.

    BTW, i now live in a close in Suburb of DC and have all the amenities of downtown living right here in my burb — I have lived in DC, Chicago, London, and SF downtowns over the past 10 years.

    In the close in burbs I have an easy walk to coffee, dry cleaner, restaurants, parks, street festivals, supermarket and TJs etc…. Its pretty clear that leading ‘creative class’ metros already get this and in many cases have housing and transportation in place.

    As always, it is the Pitts, Detroits, etc.. that have yet to join in this ‘lifestyle’. Social engineering of turning all cities into this development scheme (if they take fed funds) would likely be met with stiff resistance in various regions (what would LA do?). It might also cause further metro v. non-metro battles through the union.

  8. Michael Wells Says:


    Yes the automatic reaction is to deal with the “pressing issues” by pumping out funds. But I think Obama and the congress have a once a generation opportunity to build and invest in ways that could truly bring “change we can believe in”. It’s a liberal’s dream, a ton of so far fairly undesignated money to do good things. So do we try to repair the neglect and damage of the last few decades, try to save families today or build for the future? There are good reasons to do all of these, advocates for each one and not enough money — even if it were a good idea to have the feds do it all. If Obama and his government gets this right it will not only position the country for the economic future, it could repair the public’s faith in government.

    On to the question of connecting all of those suburban downtown nodes. First, its not a bad idea by itself, but in many cases the problem isn’t infrastructure and the solution isn’t national. Hayden’s right, light rail between suburbs is absurd. There are already roads connecting the downtown nodes, what’s missing is local initiative and imagination. There used to be Jitneys in many cities, van-like vehicles that would cruise the main roads and pick people up and drop them off. There’s no reason such a thing couldn’t happen today. The obstacles are city regulation of cabs and towncars, transit district monopolies of multi-rider vehicles, transit union rules requiring large buses, differences between regulations in the towns themselves and so forth. Here’s a use for those SUV’s and Mini-vans. The models are the gypsy cabs of New York, car-pooling, the old jitneys. There might be things the feds can do to encourage this kind of thinking, but they might be more helpful staying out of the way.

  9. Zoe B Says:

    This evening NPR had a story about the effort to reshape Tyson’s Corner, VA into a pedestrian-friendly environment. Tyson’s Corner was designed for the car and is mostly impossible to walk around. Northern Virginia has a large population of creative class people who cannot afford to live in the more urban environment they would prefer. The municipality now has a 30-year master plan to convert suburban sprawl into a more urbane setting. They feel that they are pioneers in this area. They hope that other edge cities will follow their example and learn from their mistakes.

  10. hayden fisher Says:

    I like the urban gondola concept myself. Light rail is a no-brainer and certainly Portland is a model example. But for cities like mine (Richmond, Virginia) with a large white-water river running through it, how about some urban gondolas sprinkled in to deliver breathtaking aerial views while shuttling people between districts. There would be some security issues but the right technology on the front-end could limit that significantly. But I agree with Michael, there are many great ideas, let’s hope that we select the best ones and also create policy that incentivizes the private markets to participate in meaningful complimentary ways as well.

  11. Sterling Kekoa Says:

    It all smacks of Vegas.

    Whether it’s tasteful “Hampton-esque” urban make-overs or some other spanky-fresh redesign, development without a substantive ground-up purpose it is really nothing more than false store fronts.

    What happened to Times Square, by the way? There’s some nauseating sterile franchise Hell where it used to be.

  12. Steven Dale Says:

    I know this is a pretty late reply, but if you’re interested in urban gondolas, Hayden, you should check out It’s a website dedicated exclusively to what you’re talking about and has a lot of useful information.