Rise of the Bohemian class

Worth A Look, Public Sector, Frontier Centre

It’s not coal mines or harbours that determine the prosperity of a city or a nation anymore. It’s creativity. A mix of obvious and intangible assets attracts a particularly valuable workforce: young, talented, creative — but also fickle and highly mobile.

An important new study suggests that, on that new battleground, several Canadian cities, especially the largest, are encouragingly competitive. But others, especially industrial cities with mid-century economic models, such as Sudbury, Ont., and Trois-Rivières, Que., are falling behind. They are, in fact, in danger of falling off the competitive map altogether.

The most diligent chronicler of the creative economy is David Florida, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, whose book The Rise of the Creative Class was required reading last year among economic trend-watchers. Now Meric Gertler, a University of Toronto professor, has adapted Mr. Florida’s research to the Canadian context in Competing on Creativity: Placing Ontario’s Cities in North American Context.

Mr. Gertler and his co-authors find a strong link between the existence of a “vibrant, local, creative class” — a local population with lots of artists, designers, writers and so forth — and the knowledge-intensive, high-tech firms that drive the new economy.

They found similar, if less statistically significant links, between the presence of high-tech firms and two other variables: the proportion of the local population with university degrees; and the prevalence of foreign-born residents in the local population.

Mr. Gertler calls those three variables the Bohemian Index, the Talent Index and the Mosaic Index, respectively. A city that ranks high on all three variables is likely to shine in the new knowledge economy.

A city that lags cannot attract the listless young brainiacs who shop for cool cities the way they shop for MP3 players, casual designer clothes or trendy colour swatches for the master bedroom.

“Austin, San Francisco and Seattle are sparkling with newly arrived smarties who recently fled Cleveland, Harrisburg and St. Louis,” The New York Times Magazine reported on Sunday.

What is more, the gap between hip and seriously-not-hip is accelerating. “In the top 100 metro areas, the 25 [U.S.] cities that began the ’90s with the highest percentage of college graduates ended the decade with even more.”

So how do Canadian cities rate in the race for fickle talent?

Generally well, Mr. Gertler finds. Not great. There is considerable room for improvement.

Partly because large cities have inherent advantages of scale, Canada’s largest cities fare very well. Among urban areas with populations of more than 1 million, Toronto scores first for ethnic diversity and fourth on the all-important Bohemian Index, although it manages only a middling 24th on the Talent Index. Montrealers will be shocked to learn they lag behind Toronto on both the Mosaic Index (seventh) and the Bohemian index (10th) — and are at the bottom of their class on the Talent Index.

Vancouver is second among the two countries’ big cities on the Mosaic Index, third on the Bohemian Index and 31st on the Talent Index.

“The main area where Canadian city-regions appear to lag is talent,” Mr. Gertler writes. He adds, though, that a recent increase in the rate at which young Canadians land bachelor degrees suggests “the gap is narrowing.”

If the performance of Canada’s largest cities is strong, the performance of two slightly smaller cities stand out: Calgary and Halifax. If the former hick town of Austin, Tex., has quite surprisingly become the darling of the U.S. high-tech and creative sets, Calgary’s recent performance suggests “it may be Canada’s Austin,” Mr. Gertler said in an interview. “Well, maybe the music scene isn’t as cool.”

Among 39 metropolitan regions with populations between 500,000 and 1 million, Austin scored first for high-tech industry and second on the Bohemian Index. Calgary was hard on its heels: third for high-tech industry and fourth on the Bohemian Index. And while Calgary, like other Canadian cities, lagged on the Talent Index, it soundly outscored Austin on the Mosaic Index of ethnic diversity. “Those are amazing numbers,” Mr. Gertler said.

Halifax scored in the top third on every one of Mr. Gertler’s indices, among 68 metropolitan regions with populations between 250,000 and 500,000. That respectable score makes the Nova Scotia capital “the brightest light in Atlantic Canada,” Mr. Gertler said.

Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, these numbers suggest only what may be, not what must be. A high concentration of bohemian coffee-drinkers wearing berets and thumbing through design magazines may be a frequent companion of a high-technology renaissance, but it is no guarantee. Victoria, B.C., scored third in its class on the Bohemian Index — but a flabby 38th out of 68 in its concentration of technology-related industries.

But to the extent the trends he examines are reliable, Mr. Gertler says, they suggest a few conclusions. First, quality of life has joined cost of living as a crucial weapon against brain drains, both within nations and across borders.

“Public policies at all three levels of government that support immigration and settlement, as well as nurturing the arts and creativity, have played a critical role in creating the conditions for successful urban economic development today and into the future.”

Second, it is pointless to beggar Canada’s big cities in favour of the mindless butter-spreading impulse that has driven too much decision-making from Ottawa.

“We don’t have that many big cities,” he said yesterday. “We really need to take care of them properly and hang on to the advantages we have. And, as we know, politics so frequently runs in the other direction.”

The full text of Meric Gertler’s study is available online at www.competeprosper.ca

© Copyright 2002 National Post