[Update 2/15: Responding to my Pittsblog post about Floridian economics, my "Return to Pittsburgh" and Pittsburgh Diaspora colleague Jim Russell is bullish on Pittsburgh's future.
Today I came across a new long article by Richard Florida, the former Pittsburgher and CMU professor who made a name for himself several years ago with a book called "The Rise of the Creative Class." Florida's thesis was that the future belonged to cities that could nuture young "creatives," whose energy and economic metabolism was already evident in newly vibrant urban economies from Seattle to the Research Triangle.
The new article, titled "How the Crash Will Reshape America
," appears in The Atlantic Monthly. I've excerpted bits of it over at Pittsblog.
It is required reading for everyone with a serious interest in making the best decision for a future Mt. Lebanon High School, as well as a future Mt. Lebanon of any kind. School Directors and Mt. Lebanon Commissioners, this means you.
The current economic crisis -- which he refers to, probably correctly, as a Crash -- will fundamentally reshape geographic patterns of economic activity, including, but hardly limited to, where and how people live. Translation: There can be no assurance at all that in five or ten years, Mt. Lebanon's population will be the same (more or less) as it is now, or that its demographics will remain the same (even more or less).
The economic and population declines associated with Rust Belt cities (read: Pittsburgh) likely will continue and may, in some contexts, accelerate. Some places (possibly: Pittsburgh) will continue to manage their decline well and even exhibit a degree of civic vibrancy. Urban centers will succeed at the expense of suburbs, especially the farther flung suburbs that have popped up over the last 20 to 30 years (that's good for Lebo!). The urban centers that are the most likely to succeed are those that orient their economies to higher "velocity" sectors (tech, arts, financial services) rather than to manufacturing and agriculture. (There is some good and bad in there for Pittsburgh.)
I've always been skeptical of the details of the Creative Class thesis. My view is that Florida confuses cause and effect. Vibrant economies attract young creatives; young creatives don't make vibrant economies. So don't take this new article as given, especially in all of its details.
But Florida's broader point, and one that is not part of the Creative Class thesis, is that planners, local governments, and private firms alike should not be looking to the future end of the economic crisis with the expectation that once the economy rights itself, things will go back to the way that they were. Things won't go back to the way they were.
Bringing this back to the example right in front of us:
Here in Mt. Lebanon, lots of people who support a major, early reconstruction of the high school do so on the traditionally plausible assumption that in the long run, returning economic prosperity will make the painful near-term investment worthwhile. Lots of people who are skeptical of a major, early reconstruction of the high school are skeptical because they look at the near term budget numbers and cannot fathom how to process the expense until the economic storm clouds clear and things return more or less to normal.
Maybe, however, both groups are working from a flawed assumption. Maybe things never will get back to normal. Maybe the $150mm construction alternative never will pay for itself in home values and community charm, because the town's taxpaying population will decline by 20% (I'm picking numbers out of a hat), the school age population may decline proportionately, and home values will suffer a long-term (what economists would call "secular") decline. Maybe the $10mm "bandaid" solution isn't really a bridge to a better future, but all that the town ever can afford.
This is all speculative, and I don't raise it in order to offer arguments that favor any alternative over any other. But those in charge of spending the taxpayers' money, and the taxpayers themselves, should be thinking critically about the future of the town overall.
Labels: cupcakes anyone?