Joel Kotkin was wrong

Reading that Richard Florida article yesterday reminded me of Florida’s rival Joel Kotkin and the debate around urban economies years after the dot-com crash.

I came across Richard Florida’s ideas when I was a senior at the Evergreen State College and hoping to break into the public relations industry in Seattle. Florida’s thesis – that the educated “creative class” was the key to economic success and that cities should be doing their best to woo us – was seductive. Any idea that states that you are important and other people should do their best to please you is seductive.

But it didn’t take long for me to start seeing his work as a sort of “guidebook for gentrification” (in retrospect, this might not have been fair). Meanwhile, the cities he celebrated, like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, had yet to bounce back from the dot-com boom and I was constantly hearing about people moving back to the midwest.

On the other hand, I never bought Florda’s key rival Joel Kotkin’s ideas either. Kotkin seemed to agree that middle class professionals were important for a city’s economy, but disagreed with Florida about how to attract them. Kotkin wrote about the need for cities to attract families and thought lax building and zoning regulations and cheap housing were the answer. In other words: sprawl.

While Florida held up San Francisco as the model city, Kotkin was a booster for Phoenix. And while I’m still not convinced Florida is right – Kotkin has been soundly proven wrong. The housing market collapse in Phoenix and Las Vegas dwarfs the dot-com bust. And while San Francisco and Silicon Valley – Florida’s darlings – haven’t escaped the effect of the global economic meltdown, they’re not in as bad off as the rest of California (more on that later).

So I thought I’d check in on what Kotkin is writing lately. He doesn’t so much as admit that he was wrong but warn (or whine) that Florida was right in this Forbes article. Meanwhile, he chastises LA for not being more like Phoenix and blames environmentalists for California’s economy. The funny thing is, not too long ago he was praising LA as a model city.

The money line from his California article: “To many longtime California observers, the inability of the political, business and academic elites to adequately anticipate and address the state’s persistent problems has been a source of consternation and wonderment.” Kotkin was one of these elites, writing essays in magazines and newspapers across the country cheering on the housing bubble. It’s amazing that he’s still being taken seriously.

1 Comment

  1. An awesome catch, man. That’s the biggest reason I want to get into the consultant class — it’s strictly a matter of personal charisma and self-promotion. Your pay and reputation are only barely connected to your actual ideas and track record. This is my kind of industry.

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