A little over a year ago the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations sponsored a presentation by Richard Florida of “creative class” fame. Florida has had his share of critics over the years, and I came across one of the more pointed criticisms in a recent blog post by Adam Greenfield, a frequent writer on issues relating to technology and urbanism:

I believe there’s a single factor that makes one or another region more attractive to the kinds of people and investment that apparently now signify above all others. . . . It’s a factor I think of as organic sense of place.

Amsterdam, Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and London all have persistent local ways of doing and being, and that’s what makes them compelling places to work and settle, despite the inevitable hassles attendant upon doing so. These lifeways obviously evolved over historical time, and the harsh truth we can conclude from this is that there’s no turnkey way to join their ranks, no book you can read or seminar you can attend that can tell you how to be one of them.

Greenfield goes on to point out that a city doesn’t necessarily need creative class cachet in order to be successful:

If all you care about in the end is the flow of investment, talent and human capital through your town, you can probably save yourself the half-hearted effort at draping yourself with the Creative Industries mantle. There are plenty of other ways to attract capital, and though they’re neither as glamorous nor as generative of the instant cred that goes hand-in-hand with having purchased this year’s model, they work and work reliably.

I’ve never heard anyone accuse Zürich, for example, of having a blistering DJ scene, cutting-edge galleries or forward-leaning popup shops. Yet they seem to be doing OK when it comes to the cheddar, you know? Better a world of places that are what they are, and stand or fall on their own terms, than the big nowhere of ten thousand certified-Creative towns and cities with me-too museums, starchitected event spaces and half-hearted film festivals.

While I think Greenfield definitely has a point, I’m a bit of two minds as to what to do with it. On the one hand I think his criticism of cookie-cutter community development schemes is spot-on. For example, if we look at the recap of Florida’s presentation in Howard County we find relatively generic advice like the following:

The Creative Class are attracted to communities that offer:

  1. Basic economic security,
  2. Opportunity (challenging job choices),
  3. Leadership (visionary),
  4. Diversity of people (open minded and welcoming that can be felt),
  5. Quality of place (open space, natural beauty, clean air, green space)
  6. Who’s there, what is going on, is there energy?

The important message is to have a plan in place. We all need to work together and we need to do it now.

Frankly this is pretty weak sauce, at least in terms of coming to grips with the particular history, present-day reality, and future prospects of Howard County and Columbia.

On the other hand, Greenfield’s advice is equally frustrating in a sense: If you want to live somewhere that has a genuine sense of place, you’ll just have to wait a couple of hundred years to see if one develops. In local terms that would amount to ceding to Baltimore any genuine claims to urban character, and letting Columbia and Howard County settle into the torpor of bland suburbanism. Can’t we do just a bit better than this?

I’ll take a shot at that question in a future blog post. My tentative answers won’t be profound or earth-shattering, but that’s never stopped me posting before and won’t do so now.

wildelakemike (mdavis@darslaw.com) - 2010-05-26 09:38

Frankly, I have really enjoyed your posts. Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to give us all some different perspectives on the issues surrounding the future of Howard County. The only thought I would add to your piece today is that Mr. Florida provides our community a proactive path to defining our community, while Mr. Greenfield seems to advocate a more passive approach. Einstein’s theory of relativity would suggest in this case (very presumptive on my part to even make this suggestion) that as our society evolves, it takes less and less time for changes to occur. This rapid evolution is being caused by a myriad of reasons, such as technological advances, increased populations, changing roles of the family, and wide-spread educational opportunities. So, Mr. Florida’s suggestions at least gives us some hope of controlling the type of community we would like to become in this evolution. And, without doubt, his presentation last year at least got us, as a community, thinking a little differently. As have you!

hecker - 2010-05-26 11:49

wildelakemike: Thanks for the vote of confidence. As the title of my blog implies, I tend to be a bit of a dilettante when it comes to what interests me, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll burn out on HoCo blogging in a few weeks or months. But in the meantime I’ll try to do the best job I can. I’ll have some more thoughts of the Florida/anti-Florida issue in a future post.

JessieX - 2010-05-26 12:47

Hmm. Hey, Frank, any thoughts of the phenomenon of Maryland being a county-based state and that we have little identity here around “towns.” I mean, I live in Columbia, Md., – not quite a town, and certainly with no center, promenade or core destination (save, The Mall, of course). I feel connected here as I’ve lived here near 40 years, but the sense of “place” is so elusive. For me, and you could probably guess this was coming, social media has helped me feel more connected. I have more of a sense of what is going on and who is involved, connected and making things happen by reading my own personal newspaper, i.e. my Facebook news feed, blogs of my choosing and the local twitter stream (@hocoblogs). Anyhoo, off to Starbucks, cuz that’s the most happening place I know in town. See you soon at the hocoblog-tail party coming up. Thanks again for being my co-host. http://hocoblogs-pure-wine-cafe.eventbrite.com/ Jessie

hecker - 2010-05-27 02:11

Jessie, I think it’s just some Maryland counties that are “town-less”. For example, Frederick and Hagerstown are real towns, also Bethesda I think has this aspect as well (Rockville not so much).