The Creative Class – In the ‘Burbs

Much has been written about the “Creative Class”, the group of people in a city that Richard Florida (most famously) describes as being economic engines of growth. This “class” of people is often associated with a certain built form, namely downtown areas, reclaimed buildings, lofts, undulating wood floors, etc. Add in thick-framed glasses, a golden retriever and a can’t miss start up and you’ve pretty much got the stereotype down.

Unfortnately, one of the by-products of this regeneration is often the displacement of lower income creative types who can’t afford the higher rents that the gentrification will cause. No hope, right?

I went to see a presentation of a paper from Urban Studies student Michael Noble, working on his Masters at the University of Toronto and he studied the “Creative Class” phenomenon as it manifested in Toronto’s inner suburbs. (As an aside, he defines the Inner Suburbs as homes built outside the downtown core between the years 1946 and 1980, ie. post-war. Some of the areas lack community infrastructure, have lower incomes and are often the first neighbourhoods of newly arrived Canadians.)

Noble found lots of interesting stories and evidence that the philosophy of the Creative Class is alive and well outside of the downtown core and that this activity shouldn’t be ignored by policy makers as part of a larger suburban renewal project.

Some organizations doing some really neat things are:

If you take a look at a map of where these activities are taking place (Noble studied two neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs, Lawrence Heights and Dorset Park in Scarborough), while they’re on the subway line, they’re far from downtown Toronto.

While this research bodes well for future planning initiatives, one point of view expressed by Tim Jones of Artscape (one of Noble’s research advisors) was that people and organizations in creative organizations feed off of each other. Networking and social interactions contribute to an organization’s ability to innovate and be creative. (It’s the whitespace, stupid! See my very first blog post.) Tim argued that it might be better to slowly push the boundaries of the creative clusters rather than encourage disparate installations all over the city so that organizations can expand to less expensive and emerging areas while still maintaining the all-important network of weak ties. A good example of an emerging area that is still close to downtown would be The Junction.

Obviously there has to be room in any official policy for both approaches. Good policy should encourage and support the clustering effect in terms of hard and soft infrastructure. Artscape is doing very cool things in terms of physical space and there has to be good access to not only subways but but routes as well. And there should be programs and networking opportunites on the soft side for the individual organizations to find community, either in their physical neighbourhood or in their field of practice.

Hopefully the city will realize the importance of the outlying areas and work towards bridging the Inner Suburbs with the downtown core.

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