Fields of Creativity

Several years ago I sailed my boat from Worton Creek, Md. to Newfoundland and back. Just for the fun of it and by myself. Ostensibly the trip had two goals - to increase my skills as an offshore single-handed sailor and to give me some insight into the 18th century cargo trade in English North America.

On the way back down the Nova Scotia coast, I stopped in the port town of Shelburne, NS. Known mostly now as the filming location of this particular cinematic failure, Shelburne is a small, quiet town on a very large and well protected harbor. In fact, it is a great harbor. On the beautiful bright morning when I sailed into that bay, it struck me as the best natural harbor on the Nova Scotia coast - better than Halifax, better than Lunenburg.

Upon arriving in town, I was soon found out that in the 18th century Shelburne had been as large as Halifax and Montreal and the place where many Loyalists from New York and anti-war Quakers from Philadelphia had fled during the American Revolution. A well protected harbor, a vibrant population - all the elements that should have made the town grow and prosper and become a great trading center. So what had happened?

It seems that there was one key and missing element. It turns out that the soil surrounding the town was of very poor quality and could not sustain an agricultural base sufficient to support a town much larger than ten thousand. People came, some prospered from fishing and ship building, but soon the population dwindled from a height of 30,000 to the present level of 2500. The soil could not support farming beyond a basic subsistence level.

That was the 18th century version of a commuity that lacked the elements to grow and prosper. And today our cities and towns face the challenge of figuring out what those elements are in a post industrial, global, and information driven world.

For the last several decades, community planners have focused on jobs, jobs and more jobs. Politicans have provided tax incentives for manufacturers to locate in their towns and cities. But there is plenty of evidence that these deals are often better for the companies than for the communities. Often new infrastructure costs are never sufficiently offset by new tax revenues. And in the odd case, companies simply up and leave as soon as tax incentives expire.

But in other more striking cases, companies have moved to greener fields simply because the communities are not "talented" enough. Richard Florida , a leading urban planner, is quoted in the Boston Globe:

Florida writes that Lycos had its early origins in Carnegie Mellon technology, and he remembers when the company moved its engineering and technical offices from Pittsburgh to Boston. "According to a number of my colleagues who were close to the situation, the main reason was that Boston offered lifestyle options that made it much easier to attract top managerial and technical talent."

So what are the elements that create a Silicon Valley or a Rt 128 hi tech corridor? Clearly good infrastructure, key academic institutions and a core industrial/service base are necessary. But beyond those, a new pheonomenon of our information age may be just as important. It is a combination of internet communications and more general "quality of life" issues.

For years, we have thought that the internet would make "location" less important. We thought because we could communicate from anywhere, we could be located anywhere. But what may be happening is that location is becoming more important. The fact is that if we can work from anywhere, we can choose where to live, making it incumbant on communities to make themselves attractive places in order to draw in new, creative workers.

I recently moved from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina. I moved for the weather, the architecture, the history, the access to good sailing, the small airport, the direct flights to Washington, the golf, the way people speak, the low cost of real estate, the low taxes, the comfortable size of the city, the politics. I may miss the Philadelphia Orchestra, the proximity to New York, the direct flights to Europe and my friends and family in Philadelphia. But I won't miss the traffic, the winters, the prices, or the politics.

Note that I didn't mention work. I don't have to. I can work anywhere.