Where You Live Makes a Difference Author Richard Florida offers a sociological explanation for the real estate adage "location, location, location."
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Where You Live Makes a Difference

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Where You Live Makes a Difference

Where You Live Makes a Difference

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I'll call you from the road to San Francisco. Oh, yeah, I watched that on a plane to Monrovia. I'll text you once I land in Ulaanbaatar. It seems like we can do anything from anywhere these days. Seems. A new book, "Who's your City?," posits that the where, in "who, what, where," is a little underemphasized. When? Now. Why? Because Richard Florida, author of that book, joins me now. Hello, Dr. Florida.

Dr. RICHARD FLORIDA (Author, "Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life"): It's great to be with you.

PESCA: You argued that the world isn't flat as Thomas Friedman would have you believe. It's spiky. Define your terms.

Dr. FLORIDA: For the longest time, now for the past 20 years, people have been saying, well, the world is globalizing. Economic activity is being pulled apart, so to speak. It's moving south to the Sunbelt initially, then it's moving over the border to Mexico, and then you know, in the past decade, it's going to move into Southeast Asia, China, and in the services, you know, information services to India.

And I guess the kind of capstone of that argument, or really the best version, in many ways, of that argument is Tom Friedman's bestselling book, "The World is Flat," where he argues that there's six billion people in the world competing for economic opportunity, and that that economic activity was diffusing across the world. He has a classic phrase in that book, where he says in this new flat world, in order to innovate, you no longer have to emigrate.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. FLORIDA: Well, you know, I'm a big believer in just facts. I live in the fact-based world, and you know, this past year for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world's population actually lives in urban centers, in city cores and their surrounding suburban areas.

And then, you know, working with a great research team of people here at the Prosperity Institute in Toronto, and elsewhere around the United States and Canada, we actually calculated using these kind of - if you've ever seen a map, folks, of the world at night, using these maps of light and my really - my great research partner has kind of figured out a way to extract economic activity for that.

Well, anyway, once you do that, you realize pretty quickly that there are about 40 mega regions in the world, like the New York, Boston, Washington corridor, or Greater Tokyo, or Greater London, and on, and on. About 40 of these mega regions, which account for less than 18 percent of our population, produce more than two-thirds of our economic output. And going back to Tom Friedman's point, in order to innovate, you no longer have to emigrate, well, it turns out that these 40 mega regions account for about nine in ten of all innovations of the world.

So, it's - "The World is Flat" is kind of part of the equation. Certain kinds of economic activity can flatten, but in terms of innovation and discovery and hi - you know, high finance, if you will, and new semiconductors and videogames, and even the cutting edge of entertainment, whether that's music or film, that stuff is more concentrated now than ever before.

PESCA: The innovators clustering together. Do they have to do that? Do they want to do that? Or are maybe those are not the right questions. It doesn't matter if they have to or want to. But there's this multiplying effect, so once they start to do that, it just snowballs?

Dr. FLORIDA: I don't think they consciously do it. I think that there's not a kind of an - a law. In other words, there's not a force that people are saying, oh my God, I have to be around Jack, or Jim, or Dave, or Mary, in order to innovate. At most, they kind of say, well, there's a great university called Stanford, or MIT, or their equivalent, I want to go to school at. But what I think is there's a whole set of reactions - random movements, let's call them location decisions that people make, and over time, where those random movements and location decisions kind of get critical mass, that becomes a cluster.

And you know, not only do software and gamers and biotech people cluster in Silicon Valley. I mean, quite clearly, investment bankers concentrate in New York and London. In one part of the book, I kind of pose this question. You know, who would you think has great mobility in our current global age? Who would be people who aren't tied to a factory, or don't need to be around other venture-capital scientific university pools?

I said, what about musicians? Musicians would have every kind of tendency to fly apart. Musicians can locate anywhere. They can plug and play. If - at worst come to worst, you would find them around big markets with lots of venues. Anyway, my team and I tracked the location of musicians over the past four decades, and what you find is that New York and L.A. and San Francisco and Detroit and Memphis and New Orleans are certainly hot spots. But what you find is this incredible growth in musical activity in Nashville.

And, you know, I tipped this off with the great Jack White of the White Stripes, you know, taking his band, his new band, the Raconteurs, and relocating them, half from Detroit and half from Cincinnati. Nashville has become the equivalent of Silicon Valley for professional musical innovators and - or rockers, country players, and I think that's not just the case with music and film and investment banking.

In field after field, we're finding some version of this clustering effect, but I don't think people are doing it because they want to, or because they're kind of seeking it out. I think it's just happening over time. And once those clusters become established, they get a critical mass, and as you said, this remarkable multiplier effect, that even if they become more expensive, they - the kind of productivity and innovation they add to the mix makes them the most viable place to do it.

PESCA: Do you think - let's take Austin. Do you think that Austin is so great that it draws these great people to it? Or is that once you have a place where - once you have a place where a bunch of people who'd like to live in Austin live, well, that's going to be a good place? It's the real chicken-and-egg question.

Dr. FLORIDA: Well, you know, there's a new Austin out there. I just discovered this the other day. I'm asking my students at the University of Toronto, where I teach, where they're going to go after graduation, and the one fellow pipes up, he says, three of the kids in my house are moving to Portland, Oregon.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. FLORIDA: And I said to myself, oh my, Austin has a competitor. But anyway, there are many kinds of places, but let me characterize two. The first are the big very successful, very innovative, very aggressive cities. And in that category I put at the top of the list, New York and London. They've been able to reinvent themselves many times. They have high finance in investment banking. They're entertainment, film, and music, and theater centers. They have arts and a great creative mix of professions. They're also very expensive.

Those cities don't have to do that much to stay up on top, but what about the second class of cities? My own new home, Toronto, we have colleagues from Stockholm, or Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or you might put Austin into that mix. Why does a Detroit or Pittsburg decline? Why doesn't Austin or a Stockholm or a Copenhagen or a Toronto - why does Toronto rise and Buffalo fall? There's a special burden on the second-tier places. They just have to do everything really well, and make sure they attract the best talent for their size.

So, when I look at the Madison, Wisconsins, or Austin, Texases, I see a big university community and a state capital helping to the mix, but they're also very smart about their strategy, with everything they do. They have to be oriented at being the best of the best, and if they do that, they can make it. I'm a little worried, though, now that those places are so God-darn expensive...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. FLORIDA: That it's going to be hard for people to find a place there. And one thing that's very interesting, about four years ago, we did a study of Montreal, and we kind of predicted that Montreal had the combination of scale and size, quality, in terms of arts and culture, very affordable housing, and great universities, that could put them on the map from anything from music to videogames. And obviously, they had Cirque du Soleil as a talent magnet there and other companies, high-tech companies.

Well, what's happened in the past four years is they've become quite a center for music, with bands like the Arcade Fire, including kids from the United States who decided to make their home there, but also quite a center for young videogamers, who are saying, you know, the Bay Area is just too incredibly expensive for them to set up shop. It's not only just an affordable place to live. That's a part of the equation. The second part of the equation is, you know, where can you find that proverbial garage, whether for your band to practice in, or for you to build that startup company?

PESCA: Right.

Dr. FLORIDA: Because everything new and innovative, of course, gets started in the proverbial garage, and I think that there are some new places coming up, not just in the United States, but around the world, that are attracting that kind of entrepreneurial energy, not just in high-tech, but in arts and music as well.

PESCA: At the same time, there are these other countervailing trends. It used to be 20 or 30 years ago, if you were a kid in a small town, a smart kid or someone who wanted to see more of the world, you just felt choked, you had to leave your town. But now with the Internet, all the great newspapers of the world are there, plus the New York Times probably delivers everywhere, plus it wasn't the case where, wow, I could never see that movie that only plays in art house, because Netflix will send a movie everywhere. So how do you process the countervailing cultural trends, where art is spread out, with what you're writing about where innovation is clustered?

Dr. FLORIDA: I think the best way to say it, and I try to say this in the chapter on mega regions, and I try to say it again in the chapter of the clustering force, but it's a very nuanced point, and you made it very well, that there is a pull force and a push force, and they operate in tension. If not, everything would be clustered in one giant city. But these two forces act on each other, and what happens is in this movement of people in the movement of businesses, and the excitement of places trying to insert themselves in the game, you get these very - I hate to be this academic - but these very contingent solutions, called the landscape we live in.

And I think the other part that's really fascinating about what you said is that so many people today can make friendships and kinships and collaborations. I read today in the Globe and Mail about these two young women, one from Victoria, one from New York, who collaborated online to write a novel. I've written any number of academic papers now over the Internet with collaborators in different parts of the world.

The - at the end of the day, though, more and more of us, even given that option, are concentrating in these major mega regions, and I think the reason for that is, is that when we're clustered together and we have big markets around us, it just give us such an enormous productivity and innovation edge, that it draws more and more of us in. That doesn't mean that people don't live in rural areas at the outskirts of mega regions, but at the same time, we're really witnessing the combination of these two forces, the globalization force pulling us apart, the concentration force, the clustering force, pushing us together.

PESCA: We've all seen the commercial where the lady finishes her text message, snaps down her phone, and lo and behold, she's on a mountain top, where the guy is involved in some furious day trading, and then his three-year-old daughter comes in, and he's doing it from home. Why do you think marketers are intent on giving us kind of the opposite message of reality? Like, you could do it anywhere, at any time, at any place. What's - why are they selling that message?

Dr. FLORIDA: Probably because so many of us pine for that kind of idyllic and idealized time.

PESCA: Right.

Dr. FLORIDA: The other myth that's kind of exploding before our eyes is this myth that everyone's going to be a homeowner, and own this kind of white-picket-fence suburban house, and part of that is rising energy costs, but I don't think that's the big part of it. The big part of it is that our economy is concentrating economic resources in but a couple dozen mega regions worldwide, and the space there, the location there, is getting very, very expensive.

Now, I think what's interesting about those commercials is, I think, increasingly we will be working to a very different rhythm of the working day. I think, increasingly, just congestion in these mega regions will require that not all of us are commuting nine to five, that people are working from home. They're working remotely. They're telecommuting, so to speak. What I find is that I need a central location to come in, and meet my research team, and to interact and meet with people, and to do interviews like this in a studio.

But at the same time, I work very well from home and spectacularly well from the road, so I think that we have this world where it's a little of both, and that's why I say that these two tendencies are going on simultaneously. In terms of places, the places, I think, that will do very well are the ones at the center of the mega regions, and actually resort-type destinations that are within mega regions, that people can use air travel to get to relatively quickly.

I think the places that are going to have a real, real tough time are places that are increasingly off the grid, so to speak, and they can't mask that, you know, competitive edge in terms of talent and innovative people. So I think we're going to have a very different geographic landscape 20 years from now than the one we grew accustomed to in the United States, and I do believe more and more of the population will be concentrated in but a handful of mega regions.

PESCA: Richard Florida is the author of "Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of your Life." Thank you very much.

Dr. FLORIDA: Thank you.

PESCA: And if you want to find out which city you should be living in, there is a special kind of quiz, an interactive quiz...


PESCA: At Richard Florida's website. We'll link to it on our website, npr.org/bryantpark. Rachel, a little theory here, list for me the places you have lived.

MARTIN: Lived? Lots, but the list is pretty much Washington State, Idaho, Japan, San Francisco, New York, Kabul, Berlin and Washington, D.C.

PESCA: So there were a few reporting gigs, Kabul, wow, but the general theory is this. Once you hit a major mega-polis, mega-o-polis (ph)...

MARTIN: Mm-hm.

PESCA: You don't go back. So there are very few people who live in New York...


PESCA: Or D.C. or Seattle, and then find themselves living in Cleveland. Sometimes it happens. And the other thing that people convince themselves of is, yeah, I could see myself going and living on a farm in Montana.

MARTIN: OK, I always say - I was like - I'll - if this whole reporting thing doesn't work out, I'll go open a bookstore or whitewater-rafting thing.

PESCA: Where are you going to open that bookstore?

MARTIN: Idaho.

PESCA: Yeah. Lot of book trafficking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: It's great. See, you really got to stick to the reporting. Your whole retail instincts may be not up to snuff, I'm going to say. All right.


PESCA: That is it for this hour of the BPP. We are always online at npr.org/bryantpark. I am Mike Pesca.

MARTIN: You are. And I am Rachel Martin. And this...

PESCA: That is true. I can confirm.

MARTIN: Is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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