Richard Florida walking up steps

Reimagining Cities Around a Simple Idea: Walkability

Toronto-based urbanist and bestselling author Richard Florida discusses how a city’s most important connections may be rooted in the simplest of activities.

Richard Florida walking up steps

Urbanist and University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida is perhaps known best for his bestselling 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which looked at the increasing importance of creativity in our economy. His latest campaign and book, The New Urban Crisis, zeros in on the important related issue of urban inequality and how a simple attribute — walkability — can bring change. Cities designed with pedestrian-friendly features, he says, are better positioned to connect people with key amenities and with one another, which, in turn, produces innovation and opportunity. Access tapped Florida to learn more about the connection.

Richard Florida standing outside
Richard Florida, urbanist and bestselling author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The New Urban Crisis

As an urbanist, you’ve said that you hope your work inspires a new generation of city builders. Describe what that city might look like.

First off, it would absolutely have a density and walkable scale that’s connected to both technology and infrastructure so goods and people can move freely. Related to that is something that has come up in urban development and particularly in our work — the idea of making sure this creates opportunity for all. Cities have been focused on growth and innovation but not always thinking about the question of equity. And by this I mean transportation, housing, smart technology, diversity and, of course, walkability — and how it all comes together and creates a place where all people have opportunity.

How should a city tackle the challenge of equity?

The best inclusive prosperity agendas are driven by partnerships between corporations, developers, universities and anchor institutions that, for example, address affordable housing and the quality of the jobs we’re creating. Another key is supporting entrepreneurship. We focus so much on technology and innovation and high levels of science — they are the key drivers of the economy. But one of the things that we have not done enough on is supporting local entrepreneurship. A lot of cities try to go out for the big corporate win, but you have to think about how you support businesses of all types, entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. And cities are having to really think about the shared value between anchor companies and entrepreneurs and real estate developers alike, as opposed to working in silos. This approach also prioritizes designing for inclusivity. So that means that we’re designing public spaces and thinking about transit needs and an overall realm where the public can come together in terms of really experiencing the city as a community.

What cities do you think are doing this well?

You can obviously point to the superstar cities like New York and San Francisco. But I’d also point toward the next set of cities — the Austins, the Denvers, the Portlands, the Nashvilles, the Minneapolises. They’ve been really good about attracting educated talent and creating density and amenities that allow them to compete with the superstar cities. From there, I’d point to cities like Bentonville, Arkansas, and Tulsa — cities with large institutions and corporate anchors who have played an amazing role in revitalization and pushing their communities forward.

As simple as it seems, walkability plays a role in all of those places, right?

The idea of walkability and of us living close together is “clustering 101,” and a lot of people, including [the late urbanist] Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, have studied it. What drives the economy of cities is this idea of density capital, and walkability allows you to have that. It allows you to have those serendipitous engagements, that rubbing of the shoulders, those opportunities to interact and build community with people. You’re out of the automobile, where there’s more of a sense of isolation. That street life density creates a sense of community and connection that provides opportunities.

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