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Ottawa as Creative City: Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class

Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist professor whose writing on the “creative class” is quoted in pretty much every cultural grant application and municipal cultural planning document, recently released the findings of his new book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

In it, he names Ottawa as the number one creative city in Canada, based on technology in the region, the ability to attract “creative” workers (i.e. knowledge workers) qualified workers (i.e. workers with a B.A. or above), and “tolerance,” which incorporates measures of gay & lesbian communities, visible minorities and what Florida calls the “integration index.”

These findings have ignited a lot of discussion both from people who agree with Florida, and from those who are surprised to see the words “Ottawa” and “creative” together in the same sentence.

First of all, creativity is a loaded word. Say it around the advertising / marketing industry, designers will think you’re talking about them. To most, creativity means art, culture, innovation and general thinking-outside-the-boxedness. However, in this context, Florida defines creativity as such:

Creativity is an act of self-expression resulting in new forms, new techniques and/or new concepts.

Fair enough, but he also defines creative workers as:

Creativity-oriented occupations are high autonomy jobs where workers are paid to think (e.g., artists, doctors, nurses, senior managers, architects).

In this definition, artists and nurses are both considered “creatives.” Certainly some level of creativity is required is all of these jobs, this definition seems to apply more to knowledge workers than “creative workers.” There is a disconnect here – creative workers under these definitions do not necessarily “create.” In many cases, they just think.

The biggest issue I have with Florida’s research is that Ottawa as a government town automatically skews this index without actually seeing the benefit of being a creative city. The government is by far the dominant sector in the region, and most of these workers are knowledge workers, or by Florida’s definition, “creative workers.” As someone who has lived in Ottawa for his entire professional life, I can tell you with 100% certainty that while very knowledgable, government workers are not there to be creative, regardless of how you define or measure it.

Surprisingly, Florida ranks Ottawa’s bohemian index (the percentage of artistic workers) as quite high. This is quite different from another study published about 10 years ago, which ranked the index well below Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. I can say from first-hand experience that Ottawa’s performing and visual arts have grown considerably in the past decade, but I find it hard to believe that it has exceeded these cities by that wide of a margin in its growth.

The other aspect that Florida misses is that not all creativity is created equal. It’s possible that Calgary’s bohemian index is higher than Toronto’s (and it is) – but it would be hard to argue that Calgary is creating better theatre, art and music. Quite simply, the bohemian index treats all artists as equals, which tells us nothing about the quality of a region’s culture. Nobody benefits from bad theatre.

In terms of “tolerance,” that’s the one metric I buy. While Ottawa doesn’t have a huge population of visible minorities or immigrants compared to Toronto, it is less segregated, and more integrated. As the nation’s capital, I think equal opportunity here is widely accepted as a way of life.

So, is Ottawa Canada’s most creative city? If we look at it in terms of its arts, its design community, its restaurants or even its local business, it would be hard to argue that we even begin to compete against a city like Vancouver or Montreal. But, if you follow Florida’s broad definition of creativity in an economic context, there’s not much to argue with. We do have a lot of knowledge workers, a fair number of tech firms and a lot of tolerance.

That said, if we’re going to use what happens in the cubicles of the Federal Government and Kanata business parks as our benchmarks for being a creative city, it’s hard to believe we’re ever going to grow into the world-class destination that you would expect Canada’s most creative city to be. Instead, we need to focus on fostering the real indicators of creativity, like the arts, new media and small businesses that are pushing boundaries in innovative ways. Anything beyond that is just counting suits.

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