Genesee Street in Auburn, New York, top left; The mission in Ventura, California, lower left; These cities strongly influenced William Fulton and figure prominently in his book.

How place and prosperity interact

William Fulton combines the sharp eye of a journalist, the objective rigor of an academic, and the practical experience of a leader in a book of urban essays, Place and Prosperity: How Cities Help Us Connect and Innovate.

Ages ago, Saint Augustine juxtaposed the City of God and the City of Man. For the past forty years, Bill Fulton has been striving to reconcile the two.

The heavenly city exists only as an ideal. The patron saint of contemporary urbanism, Jane Jacobs, described the earthly city as “organized complexity.” Real cities are vibrant, gritty, and dynamic. In a series of widely influential books and articles, Fulton has evaluated city planning theories by analyzing how they actually work in practice. This new collection of essays and case studies lays bare the convergence of place and prosperity—and the divergence between popular nostrums of economic development and the way real people inhabit real places.

As we now understand, starting in the middle of the twentieth century, America’s most powerful city makers tried to impose a rigid overlay on cities all across the United States. Their formula was diagrammatic, sterile, and static. They nearly killed cities with their barbaric “urban renewal.” Their plans and policies relegated racial minorities to increasingly impoverished ghettoes and replaced human scale with automobile domination. Their misguided schemes coincided with a tectonic shift of capital investment to the suburbs and the hollowing out of America’s industrial base.

Fulton stepped into this bleak landscape with the fresh lens of a young journalist raised in an old-school industrial town. He spent the next four decades analyzing what went wrong in our cities and reporting on the increasingly robust stirrings of an authentic urban renaissance. This book is both Fulton’s Bildungsroman—tracing the arc of his intellectual development—and the chronicle of the great urban comeback of America’s cities.

Starting as a “fiercely independent cub reporter,” Fulton is the only urban thinker of our time who combines the sharp eye of a journalist, the objective rigor of an academic, and the practical experience of a leader. As he notes, his writing has always been anchored by the complementary poles of place and prosperity.

It is possible for poor places to have beauty and prosperous places to be ugly, but as Fulton repeatedly observes, enduring prosperity is rooted in attractive places. Businesses—no matter how successful—and industries—no matter how dominant—rise and fall. As Herbert Stein’s Law of Economics bluntly puts it: “Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.” If cities are to be sustained beyond the life cycle of their current economic drivers, they cannot neglect a strategic focus on the always emerging future. As he notes in his introduction, “The most relevant economic development question is not ‘What business are you attracting?’ but rather ‘What do you have left the day after the business leaves?’”

That’s taking the long view and the high road. It reflects the foundations of Fulton’s worldview, which might best be described as “visionary pragmatism.” The essence of “Fultonism” emerged not only from his reporting and academic work, but also from his long years in public service. He served as a planning commissioner for the newly incorporated City of West Hollywood when the municipality was finding its economic footing as a creative center of film, music, entertainment, and design in greater Los Angeles. When he relocated to Ventura on the coast north of Los Angeles, he chaired the citizen panel that produced the Ventura Vision, a strategic guide for the city to move beyond a declining oil-based economy. He was persuaded to run—successfully—for the city council and then went on to serve as mayor. Later, he would be tapped as San Diego’s planning director. These leadership responsibilities taught him the stark limitations of armchair critics and their textbook theories.

Writer who spent time in the arena

“No es lo mismo hablar de toros que estar en el redondel,” goes the Mexican folk wisdom: talking about the bulls is not the same as being in the arena. Fulton’s time in the arena of public service sharpened his insights into how cities actually work. As mayor of Ventura, he saw firsthand how “free parking” distorted the laws of supply and demand in the city’s historic downtown. He had embraced the policy recommendations of his former professor at UCLA, Donald Shoup, who wrote the unlikely best seller The High Cost of Free Parking. Patiently, Mayor Fulton explained to downtown merchants and customers that installing parking meters on Main Street would eliminate the perceived parking shortage by shifting cost-conscious customers to the empty parking lots behind the storefronts. But academic theories failed to dissuade dissident local merchants and customers from pursuing a divisive recall effort to oust Fulton from office. Ultimately, the parking meters worked exactly as Fulton predicted, and the recall fizzled—not, however, without marking his mayorship with the “dust and sweat and blood” of realpolitik. (You can read about Ventura’s downtown ten years later in Chapter 9, “My Favorite Street,” where Fulton notes: “Main Street Moves is a whopping success, and it shows what makes a truly great street: It’s flexible. It’s able to bend to the demands of the moment, rather than rigidly serving one purpose at all times.”)

During his time as mayor, Fulton faced similar blowback for his support for a visionary plan to remake an eight-lane suburban arterial running through the center of the newer sections of Ventura. Victoria Avenue is a typical hodgepodge of shopping centers, office buildings, fast-food drive-throughs, and strip malls that could be Anywhere USA. New Urbanist architects and planners sketched out a brilliant long-term evolution. The plan they developed was adopted by the city council, but was quickly overshadowed by a war over reducing traffic lanes on Victoria Avenue and whether to allow a new Walmart to occupy a vacant Kmart (there wasn’t much choice). The hoped-for transformation has yet to take place.

These humbling experiences reinforced Fulton’s congenital skepticism of high-flown concepts that aren’t rooted in reality. Yet one of his most significant economic development breakthroughs came from his willingness to take a risk most elected officials would recoil from even suggesting.

Fulton’s decades of exposure to flavor-of-the-month “big bang” panaceas to save cities (build a stadium, a convention center, a festival marketplace, a blockbuster museum!) conversely taught him the value of thinking small. With some colleagues, Fulton persuaded the majority of the council to turn a vacant office building behind City Hall into incubator space for local entrepreneurs and to invest $5 million of city reserves in a private venture capital fund that pledged to invest in local start-ups outside Silicon Valley, including in Ventura. The city ultimately profited from the fund and successfully launched The Trade Desk, which runs a trading platform that allows customers to purchase various types of ads to run global campaigns in digital media. From its start as a single desk in the city-sponsored incubator, The Trade Desk moved to its own large downtown office space, where it has become one of the most successful “ad tech” companies in the world. Such experiences honed Fulton the skeptical critic, Fulton the thoughtful professor, and Fulton the visionary leader into Fulton the rigorous analyst of urban economics and placemaking.

The stories gathered here cover the decades from the urban crisis of the 1960s to the unfolding challenges of today. They illuminate the dramatic transformation of US cities, big and small. Fulton traces the evolution of Auburn, New York, the factory town where he grew up. In other essays, he relates the desperate efforts of struggling communities to persuade corporations to remain—and the even more pathetic pursuit of “‘romancing the smokestack’—wooing some out-of-town business in hopes that it will come to town.” His stories are rich and varied, full of colorful characters and commentary.

In many of these stories, Fulton zeroes in on the parade of panaceas that have afflicted cities hoping for postindustrial deliverance. His keen insights debunk fevered hype and false hope. Whether it’s sports, culture, tech, or tourism, he keeps reminding us that “there is no magic bullet for prosperity.” The intoxicating ribbon cuttings inevitably lead to sobering reality checks.

Nor does Fulton spare the “next big thing” in theories of urban development. Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class imbued cynical hucksters and gullible politicians with the crackbrain idea that grunge bands and gay bars could point the way to reviving Rust Belt towns. In Chapter 13, “Kotkin versus Florida,” Fulton explores not a landmark Supreme Court case, but the nuanced debate between the “creative class” notions of Florida and the concept of “nerdistans” championed by contrarian author Joel Kotkin. He gives both arguments their due while deploring the either-or tone of their dispute.

Rejecting black and white thinking on cities

Repeatedly, Fulton detects the flaws in black-and-white Manichean perspectives and continually looks for the “both-and” synthesis. That may explain why, despite his reputation for authoritative perspectives, he has never emerged as a hot headliner for the big annual conventions where architects, planners, developers, local elected officials, or economic development professionals gather. In our attention deficit democracy, Fulton refuses to reduce his ideas to a slick TED Talk—or 140 characters.

That reticence, however, is precisely the reason to pay attention to Fulton’s work. When he asserts that “at its core, prosperity is not about a single business, but about the permanent assets that an economic development effort creates,” he’s conveying a timeless truth. His varied stories convey the challenges, nuances, and paradoxes of what it takes to make and maintain places that people love—places that hold their value over time. As Jacobs wrote in her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:“We may wish for easier, all-purpose analyses and simpler, magical, all-purpose cures, but wishing cannot change these problems into simpler matters than organized complexity, no matter how we try to evade the realities.” The stories Fulton recounts in this book uncover how timeless principles play out in real time and in real places and discern how diverse cities adapt and improve or stagnate and decline.

Ultimately, it is the application of that understanding to our challenges today that most commands Fulton’s attention—and that he insists should command ours. As he writes in his introduction: “If cities as places and cradles of prosperity are the result of intentional human actions—decisions by people with political or economic power—the revival of cities in the United States during my working life has come about because mayors and other local leaders have learned anew how to use intentional decisions to make those cities better.”

Of all those impactful leaders, perhaps the most compelling figure in these pages is the legendary thinker and doer who guided modern-day Philadelphia through its postwar evolution. In Chapter 4, “The Autocratic Citizen of Philadelphia,” Fulton recounts the saga of Ed Bacon, who “had an artist’s vision and a monarch’s will.” If New York City’s Robert Moses is now contrasted as the malevolent foil to the saintly Jane Jacobs, Fulton paints a more benevolent portrait of Bacon as the power broker of the City of Brotherly Love. As always, however, Fulton gives both sides of the story: “Tethered to such a strong personal vision and a strong personal will, Bacon did not seem to notice or care about the city’s changing demographics or the growing significance of race and class in planning discussions, and eventually that made him seem old-fashioned and out of date.”

So, if Bacon’s weak spots teach us that we can’t rely on “decisions by people with political or economic power” to overcome today’s daunting challenges, what then? In the face of global market meltdowns, pandemics, climate change, and disruptive technology, as well as deepening racial, social, and economic divides, who will produce the “intentional human actions” that can sustain our urban habitats across the United States—and around the world?

If you haven’t campaigned for and won office in the retail politics of your hometown city hall as Fulton has, it is impossible to fully appreciate the strengths and shortcomings of local democracy. Fulton knows how poorly informed and preoccupied voters can be, but he’s compiled this book for us, the people who inhabit the neighborhoods, communities, and regions that encompass both America’s present and future. Fulton insists on puncturing our delusions while also broadening our horizons. He’s right when he says that “most of us never think about the idea of place; usually, we just drift from place to place every day without consciously processing the experience. But whether we are in a city, in the suburbs, or out in the countryside, we intuitively understand place—we know whether we like the place we’re in or not.”

That intuitive understanding of place carries the potential to awaken public citizens from their private cocoons. Fulton the skeptic still maintains a guarded faith in our potential to act as champions of the places we call home—to make intentional economic and political decisions to sustain and improve those places for ourselves and future generations. His stories stand as stark warnings against short-sightedness, and his lessons reinforce our better instincts. Fulton reminds us that we are fallible and capable of folly. Still, he places his hope in the certainty that “better cities emerge when the people who shape them think more broadly and consciously about the places they are creating.”

This article is from Place and Prosperity by William Fulton. Copyright © 2022 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. From October 3-10, Island Press is running a sale on e-books, including Place and Prosperity, for $4.99. Only available at 

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