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‘PLACE AND PROSPERITY’: Auburn native’s new book provides playbook for downtown, community growth

  • / Updated:
  • Josh Durso 

Editor’s Note: Bill Fulton will host a book signing event for ‘Place and Prosperity: How cities help us to connect and innovate’ Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m. It will take place at Willard Chapel in Auburn and will be a fundraiser for the historic site. For more information click here. If you want to buy the book click here.

Bill Fulton says two communities shaped his view of cities more than any others he lived or worked: Auburn, New York and Ventura, California.

His new book “Place and Prosperity: How cities help us to connect and innovate” is a collection of essays, blogs, and columns written by the urban planner. More accurately, though, Place and Prosperity is a collection of experiences. The Auburn native has a long, impressive resume of experiences having served as mayor of Ventura, California and later as planning director for the City of San Diego. He also spent 8 years at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Place and Prosperity: How was the name chosen?

It took Fulton about two years to put Place and Prosperity together. It’s not your traditional book. A collection of essays written over a span of years, expertly woven together by the urban planner and editorial team at Island Press.

“I started working on this during the pandemic, because all of a sudden, I wasn’t going to the office,” he recalled. “I had more time, I had a little bit of energy, and I started looking through all of the stuff that had collected.” The concept of essays-turned-to-book wasn’t new. However, he felt more compelled to make the book a reality after publishing a prominent essay about Auburn’s urban renewal period.

“It focuses in large part on my understanding of cities, and, what I call urbanism, and how I was shaped in understanding how cities work, and how any human settlement works, and improves the lives and prosperity of its people,” Fulton explained. He says urban renewal in Auburn, now 40+ years ago, did not accomplish the task.

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

Growing up in Auburn, then spending 25 years in Ventura offered the most valuable experience. “They’re both smaller cities,” he continued. “But they’re cities that have tremendous qualities of place, which really shaped me. So there’s a lot of different things in the book about a lot of different places. A good portion of the book is about California, but the cornerstone essay is about Auburn.”

Fulton boils these down to the ‘twin pillars’ of his career’s work. Place represents the environment, historic fabric, and other qualities that make one city unique from another. Prosperity represents the need for city’s to improve quality of life for residents whether it be through work, life, recreation, or some combination. 

“I have spent a lot of time in my career on economic development, working with cities to try to figure out how they can maintain and improve their prosperity through business growth,” he explained. “And during that time, and Auburn did play an important role in shaping this for a variety of reasons, not just the place part, but the prosperity part. I began to believe that these two things are linked, and that you usually can’t have prosperity without having a strong sense of place. And you usually can’t create a strong sense of place without also having prosperity.”

In Fulton’s mind there are countless examples around Auburn of communities with tremendous sense of place. Ithaca, Corning, Aurora, Skaneateles, Seneca Falls, Geneva, and Rochester all made his list of places in the Finger Lakes and Central New York, which have historically successful roots from the late-19th century. It set the stage for what many of these communities do in the present day.

‘Place Competition’: Remote workers begin reshaping cities

Things have changed a great deal in all of those communities over the last 100 years. Industry has mostly left with few remnants of that late-19th or early-20th centuries. To be clear, there is plenty of history in these communities, but there is also a lot of ‘place competition’. 

It’s a term Fulton used to describe the competition between communities. The pandemic changed the way people work, and that’s a reality for communities of all shapes and sizes to consider as they plan for the future. 

“I live in Houston,” he started. “In the old days, if you were a petroleum engineer, where else in the world were you going to move to? It’s the Hollywood of oil and gas, right? Same goes for the entertainment industry, Los Angeles was the center of it, and you had to be there. Nowadays, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is remote work and technology — we don’t have to be in any particular place in order to have a career.”

Fulton says cities that want to find success in growth need to up their game when it comes to place amenities. He believes communities in the Finger Lakes are headed the right direction on this front. “The last couple of years have shown me the place qualities of Central New York and the Finger Lakes have become much more apparent to people from farther away, many of whom are visiting more often or even moving there,” he continued. 

Small cities like Auburn, Canandaigua, and Geneva are finding larger success, and thereby the success is being shared in even smaller towns and villages around the Finger Lakes and Central New York because place and prosperity have been intertwined. Fulton says the natural qualities of the collective region, combined with proximity to small and medium sized cities, has been a recipe for success. “Place and prosperity are intertwined in ways that they cannot be separated,” he concluded.

Leverage community: “There’s nothing more powerful than a small, close knit neighborhood”

Fulton cites Charleston, South Carolina has one of the best examples of uninterrupted historic, urban fabric. “It’s truly remarkable, you get a sense of what [life in the] late-19th, early-20th century was like. Block after block after block with no freeways, no big rail lines. What’s interesting, I think now, is the desire to knit cities back together by removing some of these big infrastructure projects — like freeways — that got in the way and disrupted the urban fabric,” he explained. 

“Cities need to be more walkable” is the tagline to a lot of modern development initiatives. But Fulton says it’s a lot more complicated than that. “Any successful city is a series of neighborhoods, a series of business districts, all of which are knit together,” he said. “So even in cities that have been extremely disrupted by, say, freeway construction, there are still very strong neighborhoods, they’re just separated from other neighborhoods by the freeways or large infrastructure projects. There’s nothing more powerful than a small, close knit neighborhood.”

Success for small and large cities comes by way of knitting together these micro-communities within the community-at-large. And as Fulton pointed out, cities can do this without eliminating every freeway, and demanding residents give up their personal vehicles.

“There’s a lot of people in urban planning who basically think we should discourage or do away with cars,” Fulton continued. “I think that’s unrealistic, personal vehicles are something that, I think, we’re always going to be with. The question is how do you treat them? In the 1950s and 1960s people were afraid that cities would lose out to suburbs, so they built these giant freeways and arterioles in order to make cities more like suburbs. Today people realize that driving looks different depending on environment.”

Building blocks of growth: “Create using the existing urban fabric”

As for the leaders in communities like Auburn, Canandaigua, Geneva, or even smaller towns and villages — Fulton says the key to successful planning is not that complicated. Every community has ‘urban fabric’ even if it’s a village or town. “You have to create districts, even small districts. When I think about every place I’ve lived, that has been the quality that’s returned over the last 20 to 30 years. It’s similar to downtown Auburn, and how it’s reinvented itself as a place for arts, culture, and restaurants. When I lived in San Diego, I lived in ‘Little Italy’, which is maybe the most vibrant urban neighborhood in the entire country. It’s people on the street, outside dining, and a real sense of community within that district. It’s not all urban and downtown. There’s also natural environment trails, biking, those things have become more important too.”

Those are the building blocks, Fulton contends, that will separate the haves and have nots over the next several years as cities of all sizes attempt to rebuild and rebrand themselves in the post-pandemic world. “I think the bottom line is if you want to attract and retain businesses and attract and retain talent, talented employees and workers, you have to have these policies in place for them to experience because that’s what people want now.”

As for people who aren’t policymakers, Fulton hopes the takeaway from his new book is renewed thought about place. “I hope somebody walks away from the book thinking, ‘Oh, place does matter, and the experience of place that I have on a daily basis really does matter to me’,” he added. “And the quality of place that I live in actually does matter to me, and that’s actually the result of a variety of political and economic decisions that I should be part of. I think too many people don’t ever think about that.”