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How cities like Auburn tried to compete, but lost battle with suburbs: What’s next?

Editor’s Note: This feature is built around a recent conversation with Bill Fulton, author of “How My Hometown’s Failed Urban Renewal Strategy Shaped Me As An Urbanist.” The full-conversation can be heard in Episode #176 of the Daily Debrief.

Bill Fulton grew up in Auburn, New York. It was a different Auburn than the one many know today.

From a young age he had an interest in cities – spending his early days as an adult covering City Hall in Auburn as a journalist. He became an urban planner, which meant taking a critical look at cities in a different way.

Fulton served as the planning director for the City of San Diego, as well as mayor of Ventura, California.

He recently wrote a piece published on Medium about Auburn’s place in history and how the Urban Renewal period changed it during the 1950s and 1960s.

“The idea at the time was that cities were not competitive with the suburbs,” Fulton explained. “And part of that reason is that buildings were old, street patterns were old – and cities had to be renovated in order to compete.” He says it led to historic buildings being destroyed all across the country in cities like Auburn, Canandaigua, and Geneva. For its part, the federal government bankrolled these efforts with a lot of money for small cities.

On the left – the city of Auburn before the period of urban renewal. On the right – the result of it. Source: Fulton/Medium.

“Just about everything you would ever need in terms of a store was in downtown Auburn,” he recalled, thinking back to his childhood – and the way that city shaped him as a planner. “It seemed very vibrant to me, very accessible. You could walk anywhere – none of the streets were too wide – and everything you could ever need was contained in a six-by-three block area.”

Fulton says cities of all sizes were ‘self contained’ in the sense that a person could live, work, and handle most of their personal business in a city. But even when he was a young adult – the changes were taking shape, suburbanizing the previously- well-rounded Auburn.

“Suburbanization was occurring everywhere,” Fulton added. “Eventually Pyramid Company from Syracuse built the Fingerlakes Mall in the town of Aurelius, which drained a lot of the business out of downtown. The other thing that I think what was easy to overlook is that many of these older buildings downtown were old.” He says that even then, maintaining them would cost money and extensive renovation to keep them up.

It all begs a question: Were officials trying to solve for a problem that largely didn’t exist?

“So I don’t think that they were trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist,” Fulton said. “I think they were just trying to solve what they saw as an emerging problem, and do it in a way that was predominant at the time – which meant competing with the suburbs.”

He says that the character of downtown spaces was the major loss.

“In retrospect, what happened in Auburn and many other cities is that the unique character of the city or downtown was at least partially destroyed,” Fulton continued. “That’s the stuff we value now far more than our parents, or grandparents valued at the time.”

He says that could be the one of the most-striking developments to come out of that era of American history. “That’s maybe the most striking theme that developed out of this era – is the loss of that or the loss of some history that very easily, or at least more easily could have been saved. There was a lot of history that could have been saved if we had been more careful and more patient.”

Fulton says communities of all sizes are trying to get back to their complete roots. But even larger cities are moving in the direction of developing cities-within-cities; meaning internal communities where people can easily walk or move around. Through the pandemic we are also seeing a change in habit: People are getting more comfortable working from home.

Fulton isn’t sold on whether communities like Auburn, Canandaigua, or Geneva will see a sizable enough change in work from home habits of residents to mean more development in small, neighborhood blocks – the way it was in generations’ past.

Are cities destined to morph into what they were 50+ years ago? Likely not. But, there is plenty of good to be mindful of in cities like Auburn, as its downtown space transforms again toward walkability and long-term sustainability.