Recommended Reading: The Great Reset

The Great Reset by Richard Florida is an amazing book that articulates in a convincing and eloquent way many of the principles we espouse here at Strong Towns. We highly recommend this book to anyone that wants to understand the relationship between how we have organized ourselves across the landscape and the prosperity we now find so fleeting.

The book is a quick read, unless you pause on every other page to consider the implications of what you are reading (which you likely will). Florida's approach and critique of America is neither anti-American nor anti-modernity. In fact, the thing that is most refreshing about it is that he provides a narrative that is quite American, putting our current financial crisis - and it's fix - into the correct historical context.

For example, he discusses the long depression of the 1870's and how it marked a reset in our economy. Innovations of production had outpaced our ability to make use of them. What was needed, and what occurred, was a reorganization of society. There was a massive migration from the farm to cities where work was available in factories. Only when this migration occurred did we see the productivity gains and enhanced prosperity of that the innovations of industrial production allowed.

The same trend can be seen with the Great Depression of the 1930's, where suburbanization reset the landscape, clearing out much of the old industrial cities and distributing people across the landscape. Perhaps most amazing about the story is all of the technological innovation that occurred during the Depression. It took a spatial fix - suburbanization - to actually utilize that technology in a productive way, which helped the economy grow again.

Understanding these past events, it is easy to see the current crisis as "suburbanization run its course". Cramming more and more people into industrial towns in 1935 would not have created a vibrant economy (it would have simply driven down wages even further). As we repeatedly say here, doubling down on our current suburban model of development is not going to bring about a new prosperity today. We need a different model, and as Florida explains, it needs to spatially respond to the demands of the new economy. 

Our own collapse, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is the crisis of the latest economic revolution--the rise of an idea-driven knowledge economy that runs more on brains than brawn. It reflects the limits of the suburban model of development to channel the full innovation and productive capabilities of the creative economy. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, and the highest rate of metabolism. "Velocity" and "density" are not words that many people use when describing suburbia.

So instead of chasing smokestacks - the old model - our towns should be investing in ways to make their places more connected, more dense and more vibrant. Our towns and neighborhoods need to become idea-creation machines. It is hard to put into words how counter-culture and revolutionary that thinking is in most parts of our country.

I think the revolutionary nature of the reality he suggests can be captured in this short excerpt talking about the impact of arts on creating an idea economy.

The challenge on the jobs front is twofold. It's obvious that we need to grow more jobs that are high in analytical and social skills, but we also need to increase the analytical and social skills of the jobs we have.

But public policy toward the economic crisis seems unaware of this. Less than a month after taking office, the Obama administration unveiled its massive stimulus package--a staggering three-quarters of a trillion dollars aimed at recharging the lagging American economy. In the Senate debate over the arts component of the original stimulus bill, a relatively small amount marked for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was deried as wasteful pork-barrel spending, which strikes me as ludicrous. As Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, put it, "We have real people out of work right now, and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that's going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous."

That is ludicrous. Arts are an important component of the creative economy engine. The economy benefits from considerable spillovers and synergy as art and design expertise combines with technological know-how, producing all kinds of inventive new goods and services. A quick accounting of the products created by this dynamic intersection of art and science in just the last few years includes iPods and video games, blogs and e-books, virtual music studios and on-line universities. If we want to grow these kinds of technologies and new industries, we need to spend less time and effort bailing out and stimulating the old economy and a lot more on building the new.

Again, Florida is articulate and right on the mark, even though it runs so contrary to the standard orthodoxy of modern America.

All of those cities that are closing their library, laying off their parks director and defunding their schools are going in the wrong direction. This is especially true if they are diverting their resources to propping up a system built around new infrastructure on the periphery, fighting congestion and doling out business subsidies. 

Read this book, especially if you are struggling for answers as to what can be done to make your town a Strong Town.


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