Richard Florida

American urbanist Richard Florida expects the Covid-recovering 2020s to mimic the “Roaring 20s” that marked the recovery from the Spanish Flu.

Speaking at a Committee for Sydney virtual event on Tuesday, Florida said that the next decade has all the makings of “The Roaring 2020s”, with a modern twist on the stock market boom and the surge in arts and culture that characterised the 20s of last century.

During this period, people flocked back to cities, with New York gaining 2 million people.  

But while this might have been a time of cultural awakening, it was also the “most unequal in modern memory”. The 2020s are up against similar challenges, with Western democracies, the US in particular, experiencing a wave of social movements prompted by worsening racial and economic injustice.

Event attendees also pointed out that the 1920s were followed by The Great Depression.

Florida recognises the contradictions of the time, and hopes that with sensible macro economic management, a repeat of the Great Depression can be avoided.

And key to this challenge will be creating “inclusive and resilient” cities.

“We have seen what happens when a powerful economy consolidates it into a few office buildings, so how do you devolve and develop decentralised local initiatives that are inclusive and resilient?”

Florida recognises this won’t be easy, with the latest disturbing trend in the US seeing high net worth individuals creating “a race to the bottom” when it comes to choosing places to do business.

“They don’t like San Francisco or New York anymore because they are too progressive … they say, ‘we want a place with lower wages, not all that crap that constrains us’.”

Instead, American high-flyers are looking for places with “good governance”, which is code for somewhere with no rules to regulate exploitative business models.

Florida says the city will come back, the challenge is making sure it’s inclusive

It’s almost been two decades since Florida wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, which helped fuel the rise of placemaking and urban regeneration but also attracted criticism for contributing to rapid gentrification.

The last 20 years have undoubtedly seen the rise of “creative knowledge workers” clustering in metropolitan areas. But what’s on the horizon now for cities?

Florida says the pandemic has accelerated existing trends, not disrupted them. Indeed, people are moving to the suburbs to have children. But he says this has always happened, and it all comes down to cost, with four-bedroom homes in major cities too expensive for many.

Cities will come back, he says, but they will look quite different.

“The clustering of ideas and talent is a waaay more powerful force than any infectious disease.”

His notion of “complete neighbourhoods” is not unlike the 15-minute city espoused by other urbanists. He says Covid will accelerate the existing swing away from cities that separate work and living. The ability for the “creative economy” to work-from-home as a “work perk” means the CBD will become an attractive spot for “localised business trips.”

Richard Florida: Lorne Bridgman

“We’ve designed these hermetically sealed office buildings that are bastions for contagion, so it will become less about wearing a tie and more about casualness, coming and going, and health and wellness.”

He expects many CBDs to undergo a similar transformation to Wall Street in the wake of the GFC, which has shifted from a purely commercial zone to include more residential and retail space.  

The danger is leaving the car-oriented, post-war suburbs behind, and the people who live in them. He says some suburbs have the potential to be turned into walkable, connected neighbourhoods if they have the existing amenity and mass transit connectivity, but without serious intervention, he expects some to fail.

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