What on earth has happened to Richard Florida? A few years ago he was encouraging cities to invest in skate ramps and get on-trend. Now he seems to have forgotten about that and is writing sensible, even boring features about the geography of the recession. He has even remembered that parents and older people exist. Sorry Richard, perhaps I misjudged you …?
Anyway, this piece for McKinsey on ‘Talentopolis’ is worth a read. Florida argues that highly paid, highly skilled people are increasingly clustered in a few big US cities (such as New York, DC, San Francisco). Less well-off and less-skilled households are priced out and moving out. America is becoming divided between Talentopolii (?) and everywhere else. Florida argues that ‘a geographic sorting of people by economic potential, on this scale, is unprecedented.’
Could this be happening here? At first glance, yes. Neil Lee and I put together the graph above from State of the Cities data, which shows that a few British cities are accounting for a bigger and bigger share of graduates.
Why is this? Technically, we are seeing the selective urbanisation of high-value services and high-skill workers on the back of a growing service sector. Thanks to cheap transport and better ICT, manufacturing firms are now less location-sensitive. Some back-office activities are leaving the UK altogether. But knowledge-intensive firms like cities. These firms offer high salaries to smart people. Over time, the urban share of skilled workers and skilled jobs tends to rise.
So far, so Florida. But there are some important differences. Take another look at the graph. Florida is depicting a spiky world, with a number of big city peaks around the US. But the UK ‘means migration’ is dominated by both London and some much smaller Southern cities. (More recent data would probably put Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and York on the right hand side.)
Florida seems to assume that cities are basically self-contained (though elsewhere he highlights the huge sprawls on the Eastern and Western seaboards). But Britain is a small island where most places are close together. In many ways the Greater South East is a single ‘mega city region’. So in many cases mobile workers are opting for partial displacement and commuting, rather than a total change of place. Manchester and Leeds are now drawing commuters from a wide hinterland. Edinburgh and Glasgow exchange thousands of workers a day. Cities like Oxford and Cambridge are now part of the Greater London system and urban centres in their own right.
It’s also unlikely that lower-skilled workers will get displaced in the way Florida suggests. The UK is still a less mobile society than the US. And Britain also has a much bigger social housing sector, much of which is in inner urban areas and is increasingly likely to be occupied by poorer people.
Still, there is something to the Florida analysis. Central Government needs to think about whether its happy with the national dominance of our own Mega City One – London and its hinterland. And other parts of the country, rather than chasing after a fixed pool of skilled labour, should be trying harder to grow and keep their own.