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Lure of the hip home trail

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According to Richard Florida, the headline act at the 'Boho Britain' conference organised by think tank Demos, successful regeneration depends not on corporate development or headline architecture but on attracting the creative class. What are the implications for architects? Adam Wishart reports

When New Labour's favourite thinktank, Demos, organises a conference about urban regeneration entitled 'Boho Britain', one might at least hope it would be packed with a rag-tag, long-haired bunch rolling cigarettes and sipping cocktails.

Sadly, of course, this was no rave.

Although the conference's subtitle was 'Creativity, Diversity and the Remaking of our Cities', it would have been hard to imagine a more cohesive group of mostly white, middle-aged men in their charcoal suits, square-rimmed spectacles and bland shirts.

For them, though, the event was an eagerly awaited policy festival - a Glastonbury for the wonks from Number 10's Strategy Unit, government departments and local development agencies. The headline act, a new star in the field of urban regeneration, was Richard Florida, the Heinz Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His latest book, The Rise of the Creative Class [tROCC], published in America last year, has already had 10 reprints, and the Demos PR machinery managed to get his arrival in Britain trumpeted in most of the broadsheets.

Although an academic, Florida presents himself as a celebrity. Demos was just one stop on the 'tROCC world tour', and his website features pictures of him not only goofing around in sunglasses in hotel rooms but also bungee jumping with his mates.

He is famed for overturning the guiding principle of urban regeneration: that companies are the source of economic growth because they produce jobs. For 30 years, this stodgy mantra has encouraged regional government to bribe corporations with tax breaks in order to build things, such as semi-conductor and car plants, in urban wastelands. Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, his adopted home - a rust belt city decimated by the 1980s recession - is his prime example. Although it has top-flight university technology departments, offered monetary incentives, built a new stadium, convention centres and shopping malls, it has failed to generate economic growth.

According to Florida, too much attention has been paid to the location of factories and not enough to the people working in them.

The new economy has created a new class, the creative class, made up of artists, engineers, designers, software developers and so on, who no longer seek identity through their employers but through their locality, looking for a strong and vibrant sense of place. As they are footloose and fickle, the cities that attract them will be economically successful.

As the economy changes away from manufacturing things to trading ideas, this new class is becoming increasingly powerful.

In London, for example, Florida's research shows that they comprise about a third of the workforce but that their total salaries and benefits come to more than a half of the total. 'This shift is really big, ' he says.

'Bigger than the shift from agriculture to industry.'

To attract the creative class, cities have to be tolerant, ethnically diverse and have a street-level cultural scene. To prove his point, Florida developed what he called his 'Bohemian Index', a cityregion's concentration of artists, writers, performers and the like, and found that it was a good predictor of places where there is economic growth. Likewise, the size of a city's gay community is closely matched to its entrepreneurial success. His suggestion then for public policy is that cities should develop vibrant music scenes, create artists' quarters or build markets in order to harvest the fiscal rewards.

The creative class thesis certainly gets a hearing in the upper echelons of government. Geoff Mulgan, head of the Number 10 Strategy Unit, not only shared a platform with Richard Florida but also lavished praise on the book. For a government not particularly interested in spending money on place, there are some wonderful advantages.

Previous fads of urban redevelopment were often premised on a single signature building or development, at least partly subsidised by government. Bilbao, Canary Wharf or the Millennium Dome all required some kind of fundamental intervention from the state.

But this new movement prides itself on organic, bottom-up creation with low-level government involvement. Hurriedly renovating warehouses, painting buildings bright colours, placing some public art and decorating facades are the prime architectural activities. Scenes, cultures and localities need people, not great monuments.

Sarah Wigglesworth, professor of architecture at the University of Sheffield, described this kind of space as 'background' architecture, a world of everyday life for citizens and not tourists. Certainly, it places architects in a difficult position. As she put it, 'it is the most difficult kind of space to design because it is complex and humble, listening out for the stories that bubble up from below'.

For the bureaucrats, developers and regional development agency apparatchiks at the conference, the profession did seem to be brought in after all the thinking had been done - to prettify the place up a bit. At best it was described as marginal to the process of regeneration, and at worst there appeared to be genuine hostility. Trevor Beattie, strategy director of English Partnerships (not the adman), asked: 'Have we got too much design?'

For the believers in the theory, gorgeous design does have a value, but it is just another commodity to attract workers, measured like the size of the gay community. The idea that it could bring discipline to a process, whereby the multiple needs of citizens are integrated into the space, has been all but forgotten. Wigglesworth had to make a somewhat desperate plea at the end of one session that 'design is not a bolt-on bit of frippery, but integral to that process'.

In contrast, the heroes of the conference were small-scale developers, activists and citizens who have changed neighbourhoods. Eric Reynolds has used markets as motors of economic growth for more than 20 years, including the ones at Camden Lock and Spitalfields. Rhonda Wilson, a Birmingham photographer, has pushed for the development of Eastside as space for creative industries. And the political leaders of Gateshead or Barcelona were instrumental in changing their cities. Most of them are at least in part 'social entrepreneurs', identifying and building on opportunities in the public realm. They find multiple revenue streams, the marginal areas in cities, and create some kind of cultural experience out of them.

There are architectural counterparts.

Take Bill Dunster, who spent years developing his zero carbon emission dwelling, with big south-facing windows, maximum insulation and minimal heating, and proved it was possible by building it into his own house. Having imagined a larger scheme, he set out to find a client with enough courage to try to execute it. The result was BedZed (82 dwellings and 2,500m 2of office and community space), which is not only a lovely building but also perfectly appeals to the rising quality-of-life aspirations of the emergent creative class.

Dunster's greatest success, though, is to identify a market niche and find a way of exploiting it.

Dunster's example does beg the question of why more architects do not place themselves in this role.Of course, there is much to prevent them from doing this. Clearly, Dunster was savvy enough to generate a project that was both a community and a building.

By contrast, attempting to gather together the pieces of a 'background' architectural project that is reliant, at least in part, on some investment from the slow hand of government or social landlords is enormously risky. And there are few accepted ways of billing for the services, without turning into a developer or seeking public money.

Yet none of this diminishes the important role of the architect. Freed from the narrow confines of 'design', the profession does have the ability to straddle the divisions of urban politics. At the same time, it is uniquely placed to introduce innovative ideas about technology, consultation and use, and to suggest novel and rigorous ways of managing the space in the cities.

The challenge of the creative class thesis is to bring eccentricity and diversity back to the urban heartlands. Many acknowledge that the grey-suited bureaucrats, several of whom have already shopping-malled our cities, are not necessarily the best placed people to do this.

As Mulgan pointed out when he came to the podium to speak, 'we are not a hotbed of weirdness yet'. Architects are surely in a better position than most to navigate this new and tricky territory.

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