There are few more powerful questions than “Where are you from?” People feel intensely connected to cities as places and to other people who feel that same kind of connection. In other words, we tend to understand and experience places in a very personal way.
Yet to understand place—indeed, to understand human settlements in general—it’s important to recognize that places are not created by accident. They are created on purpose to further a political or economic agenda. Better cities emerge when the people who shape them think more broadly and consciously about the places they are creating.
As fundamental as the concept of place is, it cannot truly be separated from prosperity. For thousands of years, cities have existed in large part as vehicles of commerce: locations where people come together, where knowledge and goods are exchanged, where raw materials are transformed into manufactured goods, and, in some cases, where goods are simply transferred from one form of transportation to another. As much as we urban planners like to think of cities primarily as places to live—and of our jobs as creating great places to live—cities grow or wither, and people lead fulfilling lives or not, primarily because cities either succeed or fail as engines of prosperity.
Throughout history, cities have emerged in particular locations for the reasons described above. But over time they often prosper—or don’t—based on their ability to adapt to new conditions and move beyond their original purposes.
Think of Boston, for example. How is it that, over a period of hundreds of years, a place that was essentially a seafaring town turned into the world’s leading center for higher education? How did Pittsburgh, a steel town, successfully reinvent itself in large part by leveraging the assets of one small university, Carnegie Mellon? Why has Pittsburgh thrived while the Great Lakes cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo have struggled so much to adapt to post-industrial conditions? Perhaps most miraculous of all, how did Silicon Valley, which in the 1950s and ’60s was primarily a manufacturing center for electronics, transform itself into the high-tech center of the world?
The answers lie in the relationship between place and prosperity and the vision that each city’s leaders bring to the task of using place as a platform for prosperity. A city’s prosperity over time by and large does not depend on one individual business, no matter how many people it may employ or how splashy the mayor’s announcement was when it arrived in town.
Rather, prosperity depends on using businesses to build assets in a particular place that can be recycled. Those assets might be a labor force, a university, a port or airport, or the wealth created by previous generations. That’s why Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh are successful: they have recycled wealth and knowledge through their local universities to create a new generation of prosperity. That’s why Boston has succeeded in being a dozen different cities over four centuries. That’s why my hometown of Auburn, New York, is still a successful manufacturing town: because after 200 years, people still know how to make stuff, and they love doing it. Over time, a successful place creates enduring economic assets that don’t go away and lays the groundwork for future prosperity.
At its core, prosperity is not about a single business but about the permanent assets that an economic development effort creates. The most relevant economic development question is not “What business are you attracting?” but rather “What do you have left the day after that business leaves?”
And the answer is place: the character and the quality of the location that you’re selling to businesses in the first place. In the industrial era, this usually meant proximity to natural resources or transportation routes. These days it more often means providing both urban and natural amenities attractive to the smart folks who drive the innovation economy. In my adopted hometown of Ventura, the city’s most successful company was the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which was located on the outskirts of downtown for one simple reason: The founder, Yvon Chouinard, liked surfing there. And to this day one of the selling points about working at Patagonia is: surfing at lunchtime.
Of course, these days we live in a world of extreme inequity, a world in which place amenities are highly valued—and, therefore, hoarded by the affluent. In that sense, place and prosperity are more closely linked than ever before. It’s getting to the point where only the prosperous can afford the good places. This hasn’t always been the case, and it’s not inevitable.
Historically, cities provided places for everybody to live and work: working- and middle-class families, the rich, the poor. In recent decades, working- and middle-class families have decamped to the suburbs, leaving the rich to reside in high-amenity neighborhoods and the poor to live where there are almost no amenities whatsoever. Most urban policy today is focused on rectifying this problem—by, for example, more equitably distributing infrastructure and economic opportunity within cities.
I don’t know whether cities can solve all our society’s problems through urban policy. The inequity we see across cities today is partly the result of larger socioeconomic trends. However, I do know that cities are resilient. They’ve been buffeted over the decades by white flight, decay, urban renewal, unequal investment, increasingly extreme weather events, and now the worst pandemic in a century—and they’re still going. At their best, they not only inspire and uplift us, but they make our daily lives more convenient and more fulfilling. At a time when the divide between the rich and the poor is troubling, maybe cities can go a long way toward taming inequality. But it will work only if we understand the fundamental link between place and prosperity—and make sure that great places are available to everybody who lives in cities, not just those with the means to hoard urban amenities.
Featured image: Philadelphia via PACDC.