A meeting held at GRid70, a collaborative workspace and design hub in downtown Grand Rapids. Photo via fb.com
Urban development heavyweights Joel Kotkin and Richard Florida got in a kerfuffle at The Daily Beast recently over the role of the creative class in urban growth.
The crux of the disagreement: whether incubating the creative class and urban density truly result in sustainable growth for urban areas or whether these are just ineffectual attempts to make cities "hip."
For Grand Rapids, the proof is in the pudding.
The Downtown Market, ArtPrize and a burgeoning hub for the arts, a booming tech industry, rising numbers of residents and countless instances of urban infill have put Grand Rapids in the national spotlight for growth and innovation. There's no denying that Grand Rapids is on the upswing — and a path in the right direction.
Predictably, I side with Richard Florida in attributing Grand Rapids' growth, in part, to creativity.
So, from a creative's perspective, what exactly does it mean for a city to "incubate creativity"?
And what is the evidence that creativity and a quest for urban density will prove to be sustainable development tools for a post-industrial city like Grand Rapids?
Creativity and industry go hand in hand
In his article, Kotkin pits the creative class and blue collar workers against one another, but from what I've seen, West Michigan's industrial and creative industries have formed a symbiotic relationship.
The creative class — designers, marketing experts and tech agencies — equip industrial brands with the face and voice needed to communicate with customers and leads.
When I began freelance digital copywriting in 2009, I chose industrial manufacturing as my specialty for good reason.
Manufacturers who had relied on endless orders from big auto were suddenly scrambling to find a new customer base, without the tools they needed to communicate.
Copywriters, designers, web developers and other creatives like myself stepped in to help them close the gap.
Industrial companies that chose to evolve and retool needed creative — and that need caused a creative industry to spring to life.
Steelcase and Haworth are excellent examples of design-driven manufacturers that feed both the creative and manufacturing industries. Agriculture benefits from this kind of relationship, too. Just look at Downtown Market or at Meijer's large marketing workforce and emphasis on locally sourced food.
I would go so far as to argue that creative isn't a class, but a key part of the production process.
For industrial companies in a post-recession "rustbelt" city like Grand Rapids, adding creative to the production line can mean the difference between staying in business and going extinct.
"Hip" is expendable. Design is not
Attracting urban art, culture and diversity isn't about being "cool."
Maybe skinny jeans and food trucks are a byproduct at times, and perhaps some cities have made this their goal (and likely failed as a consequence), but focusing on "hipness" misses the point.
Creative industries create a heightened awareness to the finer nuances that make a place vibrant and enticing to the people who inhabit it.
Without an appreciation for design that's built in (literally), all the jobs and money in the world won't create a city with that intangible harmony between people and place.
Creativity is the byproduct of urban density
"When skilled people cluster, they become more productive. Their ideas mate, combining and re-combining to generate the innovations that power growth," Florida emphasizes in his article, a concept we see at work in downtown Grand Rapids at co-working spaces and industry clusters such as GRid70 and the Tech Hub.
When people are in closer proximity they are, whether they realize it or not, inspired by one another.
Density is important precisely because it incubates creativity and innovation, something that developers do well to keep in mind.
Diversity from the ground up
As Florida points out, ". . . economic growth . . . turns on the development of the full talents and capabilities of all our workers in high-tech, knowledge and creative fields and in factories, farms and services."
Class disparity arises when one class is elevated at the expense of the others.
Our challenge, then, is to eschew tunnel vision — whether creative or industrial — and look for ways to incubate talents across class and industry.
While we develop a business culture that nurtures the spectrum of talent resources in our city, we also need to give our next generation the economic opportunity to participate in the city's creative energy by investing in programs like Creative Youth Center, Boys & Girls Clubs and the University Prep Academy.
Creativity isn't bound to a particular industry. It's an approach and a mentality — one that's propelling Grand Rapids into uncharted growth.