Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Economic growth, hipsters and cities

When talking about smart growth, it is important to keep in mind that we are only focusing on saving energy and being green, but also on how to generate economic growth. Connecticut has not been all that successful at doing either in the last few years (specially seeing how the financial sectors was not actually that profitable after all), so we should remember than several of the proposed policies are pro-growth, not just protecting some environmental cause.

Of all the economic indicators of the past few years, one of the most worrisome is Connecticut´s failure to retain its creative class in the state. The creative class is a concept created by Richard Florida to explain why some metropolitan areas and regions grow and some stagnate. According to Florida, the cities that manage to attract a certain profile of people succeed: young, highly educated professionals with skills that focus on working on abstract ideas and creating new concepts.

Connecticut as a state is a huge factory of creative-class types; the centers of higher education produce a lot of highly skilled, really smart, really active professionals. Our big problem is they run away from the state as soon as they can, usually to places like Austin, San Francisco, New York or Chicago. The workforce that could be driving Connecticut to become a source of innovation leaves the suburban developments and big corporations behind, and move to work somewhere else.

Focus for a moment on where "creative class types" move to. Overwhelmingly they move to vibrant, dense, active cities; usually place with thriving cultural life, a wide range of lifestyle, housing choices and -in most cases- transit friendly. Cities that are tolerant, open, full of hipsters, start ups. That is, not the kind of choices available in most of Connecticut.

Do we need a state that caters to hipsters? Well, not exactly. What we need, however, is allow cities to offer this kind of choices. These creative environments only thrive in places with a wide variety of housing types, dense, mixed use development and a strong, solid backbone of higher education institutions, innovative businesses and low barriers of entry to invest and create. Some cities in Connecticut are trying, and so far succeeding somewhat, in building this (New Haven being the best example), but they operate under the fiscal straitjacket of the state´s property tax system.

Just remember that sometimes hipsters demand and follow somewhat pointless projects, that create much bigger returns (by attracting more creative types) that one may expect. Streetcars (and, up to a point, bike lanes) are the poster child of this; beloved toys that seem to attract quality development. Maybe New Haven and Stamford are being quite realistic, after all.

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