A sense of place in Howard County?

3 minute read

A little over a year ago the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations sponsored a presentation by Richard Florida of creative class fame. Florida has had his share of critics over the years, and I came across one of the more pointed criticisms in a recent blog post by Adam Greenfield, a frequent writer on issues relating to technology and urbanism:

I believe there’s a single factor that makes one or another region more attractive to the kinds of people and investment that apparently now signify above all others .... It’s a factor I think of as organic sense of place. Amsterdam, Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and London all have persistent local ways of doing and being, and that’s what makes them compelling places to work and settle, despite the inevitable hassles attendant upon doing so. These lifeways obviously evolved over historical time, and the harsh truth we can conclude from this is that there’s no turnkey way to join their ranks, no book you can read or seminar you can attend that can tell you how to be one of them.

Greenfield goes on to point out that a city doesn’t necessarily need creative class cachet in order to be successful:

... if all you care about in the end is the flow of investment, talent and human capital through your town, you can probably save yourself the half-hearted effort at draping yourself with the Creative Industries mantle. There are plenty of other ways to attract capital, and though they’re neither as glamorous nor as generative of the instant cred that goes hand-in-hand with having purchased this year’s model, they work and work reliably. I’ve never heard anyone accuse Zürich, for example, of having a blistering DJ scene, cutting-edge galleries or forward-leaning popup shops. Yet they seem to be doing OK when it comes to the cheddar, you know? Better a world of places that are what they are, and stand or fall on their own terms, than the big nowhere of ten thousand certified-Creative towns and cities with me-too museums, starchitected event spaces and half-hearted film festivals.

While I think Greenfield definitely has a point, I’m a bit of two minds as to what to do with it. On the one hand I think his criticism of cookie-cutter community development schemes is spot-on. For example, if we look at the recap of Florida’s presentation in Howard County we find relatively generic advice like the following:

The Creative Class are attracted to communities that offer: > > > 1. Basic economic security, > 2. Opportunity (challenging job choices), > 3. Leadership (visionary), > 4. Diversity of people (open minded and welcoming that can be felt), > 5. Quality of place (open space, natural beauty, clean air, green space) > 6. Who's there, what is going on, is there energy? The important message is to have a plan in place. We all need to work together and we need to do it now.

Frankly this is pretty weak sauce, at least in terms of coming to grips with the particular history, present-day reality, and future prospects of Howard County and Columbia.

On the other hand, Greenfield’s advice is equally frustrating in a sense: If you want to live somewhere that has a genuine sense of place, you’ll just have to wait a couple of hundred years to see if one develops. In local terms that would amount to ceding to Baltimore any genuine claims to urban character, and letting Columbia and Howard County settle into the torpor of bland suburbanism. Can’t we do just a bit better than this?

I’ll take a shot at that question in a future blog post. My tentative answers won’t be profound or earth-shattering, but that’s never stopped me posting before and won’t do so now.