High rents = mamma’s boys?

December 23, 2007 at 2:13 pm | In cities, creativity, innovation, jane_jacobs, social_critique, urbanism | 2 Comments

And some other comments on creative societies…

Let’s start with this interesting item from Ananova, which I bookmarked several months ago:

Help for mummys’ boys

The Italian government is handing out grants to help mummys’ boys leave home.

The move comes after economists warned almost 60% of young adult Italians stayed at home and were not marrying, having children or building up homes of their own.

Economy Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa says part of a two billion euro provision in the 2008 state budget will be used to help young people move out of family homes.

He said: “Let’s get these big babies out of the home. We’re encouraging young people to leave home.

“If they don’t, they just stay with their parents, they don’t get married and they don’t become independent. This is an important idea.”

Many young people say they cannot afford to move out of home so the government has announced plans to make more affordable accommodation available and build more public housing.

EU figures show that 56% of 25 to 29 year-olds still live with their parents in Italy, compared to 21% of Germans and just five per cent of Swedes.

The relevance this has for all cities/ societies, it seems to me, is that issues around housing affordability have social consequences that go beyond the usual markers of economic disparity in cities. From the statistics, the Swedes are coming out way ahead of the game, with only 5% of Swedes aged 25 to 29 years old living at home with their parents. The Swedes are known, of course, for their advanced social programs, including solutions around housing affordability. This closes the gap in economic disparity, which in turn lets that society reap competitive rewards and capture innovation gains that elude other societies. Grown children living with their parents is clearly a step backwards, whereas independence at young adulthood (just before middle age, in fact) is an indicator of social strength and resilience.

Underscoring this idea is an article in yesterday’s Globe & Mail by Richard Florida, called Pity the tri-city Toronto. (The article continues on page 2 here.) Florida describes the economic divide that fractures American cities in particular, and that data indicate that Toronto is in danger of breaking apart along similar lines. To date, Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries had managed to …well, manage their economic disparities effectively, a trait that gave these countries an edge.

A new study by the University of Toronto’s J. David Hulchanski of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies, The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto Neighbourhoods, 1970-2000, however, sends a warning signal that things could go sideways here. Florida sees this in a “big picture” frame, historically linked to previous periods of social and economic innovation and upheaval (eg., the Industrial Revolution). As he writes on page 2:

We need to understand the tremendous economic and social polarization produced by the shift to a global creative economy. The same things happened with the Industrial Revolution. It took the leading nations of the world 50 or more years to understand it – a period punctuated by depression, epic class struggles, and two world wars – and finally for progressive leaders to enact new deals that would spread the productive capacity of the industrial engine and allow working people to benefit from the productivity improvements their work helped create.

It’s time to wake up and act on these striking new realities. The key task of our time is to build new institutions to spread the gains of the creative economy. If not, it will continue to concentrate those gains geographically and socially.

This is Toronto’s and Canada’s great opportunity. It’s also a major part of the reason why I moved to Toronto. Absent a major miracle, the level of economic and social polarization is so deep in the United States that it may well prohibit the kind of concerted action required to overcome that class divide and build a more cohesive and shared creative economy.

In my view there are at best three economies worldwide that have the social capacity to navigate and lead in this change. Canada is one, Australia another, the Scandinavian nations still another. And that leadership, given the absence of awareness of these issues at the national level, will have to come from the major cities in these nations.

In a sense, I’d argue that big kids living at home with their parents is another indicator of badly managed, possibly crippling socio-economic disparity. It’s not just a case, simply, of “mummy’s boys,” but also of lost horizons, nowhere to go, and most especially: an inability to afford to move out to be independent. What a waste!


That ends my commentary on this issue, but since Globe & Mail articles tend to disappear off the web quite quickly, I’ll append a chunk of the article from page 1 for context (and see also Florida’s blog entry on this topic). In the Globe & Mail, he introduces the topic as follows:

For decades we’ve heard that new transport and communication technologies – from the street car to the Internet – would make geography and place irrelevant. We could all spread out and locate wherever we liked. The suburbs would boom, edge cities would predominate and the urban core would fade away into irrelevance. Some told us that the future of the centre of cities was to become little more than a “sandbox” or “reservation” – a holding pen for the urban poor.

It turns out that these prognostications were dead wrong. A close look at the real data shows that the world is quite spiky, defined by surging mega-regions, declining hills (like the Clevelands and St. Louises of the world) and sinking valleys (the poor mega-cities and even poorer rural areas of the emerging economies and developing world).

Florida then quickly moves on to summarize what Hulchanski’s data indicates:

The three Torontos are defined by an increasingly rich and advantaged core, a shrinking middle-class zone, and low-income earners and immigrants at the outskirts. In some ways this is a good thing: Toronto is the opposite of hollowed-out American cities like Detroit and Cleveland. And the pattern is strikingly similar to what is happening in places that are becoming the epicentres of the creative economy. The gentrification of the urban core, with out-of-sight housing prices, is occurring in London, New York, San Francisco, even in Washington, D.C.

From here, he looks at the findings from the perspective of the creative economy:

What we are witnessing in Toronto is the rise of a new set of economic, demographic and social patterns being set in motion by the global creative economy. There is a mass migration of highly educated and highly skilled people to a smaller and smaller number of cities. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has documented the sorting of highly educated, high human-capital households in the United States. Thirty years ago, most cities had a similar proportion of educated and less educated people; now highly educated people are concentrated in just a handful of major metropolitan regions like New York, Washington, San Francisco and Seattle.

They have gravitated to the cores of these metros to take advantage of clustered work, gain access to amenities, and reduce their time costs spent on travel. In the five-year period from 2000 to 2005, New York City took in 285,000 recent college graduates – a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of the city of Buffalo. Driving this is the benefits of economic clustering long ago identified by Jane Jacobs. It is the clustering of people, even more so than the clustering of business and industry, that today is the motor force of economic growth.

Left to its own devices, this clustering is causing the sorting of people by economic class. Not just across cities but within them, as the U of T report demonstrates.

Florida adds that “the leading U.S. creative regions (San Francisco, Austin, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and Washington) also have the highest levels of income inequality.” Obviously, if you want the creative economy to have longer-term sustainability, you have to work against destructive economic inequality. Over the long run, cities won’t be well-served by incredibly high housing prices in the trendier centre, serviced by an underclass that lives on the outskirts of town.

That would put a whole new spin on Jane Jacobs’s definition of oversuccess.


  1. Sorry. You’ve been tagged.

    Comment by Daryl — December 23, 2007 #

  2. Oh dear, how could you, Daryl! Is there a curse on my head if I drop the meme/ break the chain? 😉

    Comment by Yule — December 23, 2007 #

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