I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That ev’ry boy and ev’ry gal
That’s born into the world alive
is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative
Just as it is with people, so it is with issues. For reasons (or lack thereof) I find puzzling, New Urbanism is perceived by Left and Right as a “liberal issue.” Conservatives are supposed to love sprawl, but many of us actually like the idea of living in traditional neighborhoods, villages, and towns—cities perhaps a little less. We have nothing against walking and want nice places to do it. As conservatives, we believe traditions should be upheld, in architecture as elsewhere. And conservatism has always favored local variety over broad-scale uniformity.
Edmund Burke told us more than 200 years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.
In traditional communities we interact with the people who live around us, while in conventional suburbia we usually do not. The typical suburbanite gets up in the morning, grabs a quick cup of coffee, and heads out the door. But the door leads to the garage, not outside. He gets in his car, turns on the air conditioning and the radio, and backs out. He might wave to a neighbor in his car. He knows where he lives but doesn’t know his name.
At work, he may be stuck in an office park or strip center, unable to walk down a sidewalk for lunch with his fellows. Coming home in the evening, if he stops at a store or restaurant, it is probably several miles from where he lives. The other people there were drawn from a wide area. It is a rare occurrence to see anyone he knows.
Once home, he probably stays in the house. If he exercises, he drives to a gym. Most evenings he spends in front of the TV or computer. He may go outside on weekends to cut the grass or barbecue, but most of what he does requires a trip in the car. He couldn’t walk or ride a bike if he wanted to; the streets have no sidewalks, and he would quickly hit a major road with fast traffic.
Contrast that to life in a traditional town, village, or neighborhood. Grocery stores, shops, restaurants, coffeehouses, churches, the library, and the post office are all within walking distance. So is the elementary school and maybe the high school as well. Streets have sidewalks, and a grid pattern means people can always find a back way with less traffic if they want to walk or bicycle. Kids play outside of structured, supervised activities. To get to work, people may drive, but they may also walk to the bus or Light Rail stop.
These conditions draw residents out of their houses and cars. They spend more time walking. And because the area is small and relatively self-contained, people get to know their neighbors—the first step toward the formation of community.
Most conservatives agree that two of the most important things we want to conserve are our traditional culture and morals. Conserving those means passing them on to the next generation, despite the surrounding pop culture, which does its utmost to undermine them. We can do so much more effectively where values are supported by a community than when we have to try to teach them in isolation.
The family is the most important institution for ensuring the survival of traditional culture and morals. Churches and schools come next and do their jobs best when the people who attend know one another in other contexts. That happens much more easily when students walk to a local school and families walk to worship than when they have to drive miles away. And when both adults and children live in a genuine community, the peer pressure to do the right things instead of the wrong can be intense.
This, then, is the basic equation: traditional towns, villages, and neighborhoods, which the New Urbanism seeks to offer as alternatives to sprawling suburbs, greatly facilitate the growth of community. And conservatives value community because of the vital role it plays in transmitting and upholding the culture we have and the morals we hold. But these aren’t the only reasons conservatives should find the New Urbanism worthy of their support.
New Urbanism recovers many of the practices that created the original North American settlements, the urban pattern common until the 1930s. Its designers tend to work within well-tested precedents. That doesn’t mean banning large house lots, multi-car garages, and parking lots, but putting them in appropriate places and providing other choices. No one is intrinsically wrong when it comes to his urban preferences. He may only be wrong in where he want to exercise them. Good New Urbanist plans endeavor to accommodate most of society’s preferences, from churches to tattoo parlors.
Moreover, the New Urbanism has been primarily market-driven. Projects are developed by the private sector for profit, and residents can decide whether or not to buy in. The problem is that most of the market is not free. New Urbanism is illegal under most current regulatory regimes, where codes mandate sprawl. Building a New Urbanist project typically requires securing a large number of variances, which is expensive in both time and money. But given the choice, a substantial number of people will choose New Urbanist communities.
Some New Urbanists favor toll roads as alternatives to publicly subsidized highways; especially where parkways are concerned, commuters should shoulder the true cost of their travel and lifestyle choices. Many also believe parking should be metered rather than subsidized. Most New Urbanists favor congestion charges for use of urban streets where good public transit is available. Subsidies may be required for building and operating transit, but only at the same level as building and maintaining highways. The object is a level playingfield, which a free market requires.
New Urbanism is also small-business friendly, since it facilitates working at home. Thanks to the Internet, virtually every home in the 21st century will be a live-work unit. New Urbanists believe that providing affordable business quarters is no less important than providing affordable housing. There are in fact two American dreams, not just the “little house in the woods” but also “being your own boss.” New Urbanism provides opportunities for both.
Further, the New Urbanist housing practice encourages ancillary dwellings for rent. The income from the rent helps the homeowner pay the mortgage, and the rented room or outbuilding provides housing that students, newly married couples, or the elderly can afford.
Finally, the New Urbanism fosters community by making walking easy and pleasant, by providing places such as coffeehouses and diners where people can meet, and by creating attractive public spaces. It promotes social cohesion and local democracy that can look beyond individual interests. While housing is carefully designed to provide privacy in the backyard and indoors, it is also designed to be sociable to the pedestrian realm in front of the house.
* * *
Like Fu Manchu, New Urbanism has many faces—27 to be exact. These are the principles laid out in the Charter, the formal document by which the movement defines itself. Most are compatible with a traditionalist creed, but not all are above conservative criticism.
The first group of nine deals with “The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town.” “The metropolitan region is a fundamental economic unit of the contemporary world,” the Charter asserts. “Governmental cooperation, public policy, physical planning, and economic strategies must reflect this new reality.”
Conservatives recognize that regions are now what count economically. They generally rise or fall in prosperity as a whole. And because we believe in economic growth, we want regions to function well as economic units. But that does not mean we want regional government. One of conservatism’s long-standing principles is subsidiarity, the belief that problems should be dealt with at the lowest possible level, beginning with the most basic social unit, the family, and progressing reluctantly up through the neighborhood, municipal government, county, state, and finally the federal level. Adding a regional layer of regulation will only increase costs, burden landowners and builders, and create one-size-fits-none solutions.
Instead of regional government we want regional co-operation, working bottom-up, not top-down. Government should have the power to convene a discussion between municipalities in a region, but not to overrule them. Some matters need to be dealt with at the regional level, but most are best handled locally. By allowing each community to develop in its own way to the greatest practicable extent, we reflect conservative subsidiarity and support the New Urbanist goal of keeping each community true to its individual character.
Continuing on, the Charter states, “The metropolis has a necessary and fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland and natural landscapes. The relationship is environmental, economic, and cultural. Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.”
Conservatives can strongly agree with this. We recognize that agriculture is a culture—and a beneficial one. Farms are good places for children to grow up, and city dwellers need easy access to natural landscapes and farm-fresh produce, not just wilted vegetables picked weeks ago in California. The Charter notes: “One third of all American farms … are located in areas with at least 50,000 residents. … According to American Farmland magazine, farms in metro areas produce 70 percent of our fruits, 69 percent of our vegetables, and 52 percent of our milk.”
The Charter goes on: “Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis. … Metropolitan regions should develop strategies to encourage such infill development over peripheral expansion.”
America’s cities have long been following a pattern of development that leads to decline. The city expands ever outward, as a decaying semi-abandoned core expands toward the edge. Decay chases development. At some point, it catches up.
Conservatives don’t want America’s cities to turn into empty holes. We want them to be the uplifting, productive places most of them once were. We need to refocus development inward, not outward, but we would offer one caveat: sprawl needs to remain an option for those who want it.
“The development and redevelopment of towns and cities should respect historical patterns, precedents and boundaries,” the Charter continues. This argument is conservative in itself. Conservatives respect the past and desire historical continuity. The Charter’s discussion of this principle states:
In Colonial New England, towns were laid out collectively by the community, and the boundaries extended only as far as the town meeting bell could be heard. The building of homes and businesses once was focused around the ‘heart’ of the community—the town green was its cultural, economic, and spiritual center. From the local hilltop, people could see their community laid out and could understand it.
Community grows best where people can physically see their place as an entity and find it lovely. Pride in a place they can “put their arms around” becomes a shared sentiment, one of the bonds that create and reinforce a sense of community.
When you look at those colonial New England towns, you see that the most imposing building on the green is usually the church. To those New Englanders, it was the most important building: it had charge over their immortal souls. As Russell Kirk observed, culture comes from the cult. Similarly, community comes best and most strongly from the church. Some New Urbanists neglect to provide suitably prominent sites, and enough of them, for churches in their plans. If enough are allocated, places of worship will be constructed over time, as congregations obtain the resources.
In its next point, the Charter departs a bit from conservative principle, stating, “Cities and towns should bring into proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities and to avoid concentrations of poverty.”
Yes and no, but mostly no. Conservatives know that people do best when they live by standard middle-class values. Distributed, affordable housing serves that goal by dispersing the poor among the middle class, where peer pressure reinforces positive values. But that plus is outweighed by two large minuses. The first is that “diversity” works against community. Communities form most easily among people who are similar. The more diverse a population, the less likely it is to form a community. The genuine benefits of community outweigh any imagined benefit of diversity. Second, forcing the urban poor into middle-class communities risks shattering those communities since it usually pushes the middle class out into the countryside. The flight from people who are uncivil—or worse—is perhaps the single most powerful factor behind the decline of our cities. New Urbanism that refuses to acknowledge social cohesion renders itself a fairy tale.
There are two types of diversity conservatives find acceptable. Both occur naturally, not in response to ideologically driven mandates. The first is a diversity of communities, such as Chinatowns or Little Italies, within a larger city. The distinctiveness of such places strengthens rather than weakens the bonds of community. The second naturally occurring form of diversity is variety within the middle class. A place may have residents who are lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle class who still cohere sufficiently to create a sense of community. Small towns offer a classic example of this sort of variety—a word conservatives much prefer to “diversity”—within a range that is solidly middle class.
In general, the conservative reply to this principle is the same as our reply to the New Urbanist critique of sprawl suburbs: people should be free to choose. We predict the large majority will choose community over diversity.
Rounding out its discussion of the region, the Charter states, “Revenues and resources can be shared more cooperatively among the municipalities and centers within regions to avoid destructive competition for tax base and to promote rational coordination of transportation, recreating, public services, housing, and community institutions.”
This calls for turning tax money over to a regional government, forcing middle- and upper-class communities to cross-subsidize the poor inner city. As conservatives, we reject this outright. A community is stripped of much of its meaning when its tax revenues are taken from it and given to someone else. People will respond to this sort of robbery by moving out, further into the countryside, which is what New Urbanism seeks to avoid.
* * *
The Charter groups its next nine principles under the heading “Neighborhood, District and Corridor”—the three basic building blocks of cities. Describing the neighborhood, it states:
Within the 10-minute walking circle, a neighborhood includes a mix of different house and apartment types. Streets make legible connections that are easy to walk as well as drive, and there are neighborhood shops, schools, and civic buildings, all within walking distance.
With regard to the second component, the districts, New Urbanism agrees with present zoning that most industries should be separated from residential districts, but argues for mixed-use zoning, the integration of residences into business districts. Far from being innovative, this is merely a return to the way cities and towns were configured up until World War II.
The question of zoning is troublesome for conservatives. Some oppose all zoning—at least until a pig farm moves in next door. But as cultural conservatives, we accept zoning as necessary to maintaining continuity. We don’t like to see the character of places changed radically in ways that obliterate history and traditions.
In Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, author Eric O. Jacobsen discusses zoning in a common-sense way: “It makes sense to have a law preventing a pulp mill or a slaughterhouse from moving into a residential neighborhood. But is it as clear that a coffee shop or a mom-and-pop grocery is detrimental to neighborhood life?”
Corridors, the third building block, connect districts. Unfortunately, in America that has come to mean highways lined with strip malls. New Urbanism offers alternatives including parkways, rail-transit lines, and the clustering of stores and businesses at one-mile nodes along a corridor.
This section includes another point of agreement between conservatives and New Urbanists: public housing should be designed as neighborhoods and towns, not bleak blocks of Soviet-style apartments. Conservatives, like New Urbanists, do not want the benefits of traditional design to be available only to the wealthy. Well-designed public housing, especially when coupled with programs that help residents become owners, can help the poor acquire the middle-class values and habits they must have if they are to be integrated into middle-class society.
The Charter’s 16th principle states, “Concentrations of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, not isolated in remote, single-use complexes. Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them.”
New Urbanism’s call to return to neighborhood schools resonates powerfully with conservatives. Local schools, locally controlled, can offer better educations than vast, centralized facilities fed by busing and run by educrats.
Moreover, as Philip Langdon points out in A Better Place to Live,
If we follow this course, many other benefits are likely to follow. Communities would be less fragmented. Parents would be less coerced to spend their leisure time as chauffeurs for their offspring. Children would have more opportunities to become self-reliant and to gain experiences that prepare them for responsible adulthood. The elderly would find fewer obstacles to staying in their longtime neighborhoods.
The discussion of this principle points to another issue dear to conservatives—public order:
… large concentrations of housing in areas far removed from workplaces and shopping have led to empty neighborhoods during the day that are easy prey for thieves and vandals without the “eyes on the street” that would contribute to safety and security.
Mixed-use zoning and better provision for pedestrians means more people at home and on the sidewalks, which improves public safety.
The Charter goes on: “The economic health and harmonious evolution of neighborhoods, districts, and corridors can be improved through graphic urban design codes that serve as predictable guides for change.” There is a danger here of inventing a new form of cookie-cutter monotony—Levittowns with front porches. The Charter recognizes the problem: “Codes must achieve a delicate balance of assuring compatibility … without inhibiting creativity (buildings should read as distinct and have individual character)… Codes should encourage variety while ensuring the harmony that gives a community character.” Variety with harmony describes conservatism’s goal in many things, not just architecture.
Some may object that New Urbanist codes constrain builders’ and buyers’ freedom. The answer, again, is choice. New Urbanist buildings may be constructed in a variety of styles, not just traditional. And people should be able to build or buy whatever they want—just not always where they want. That is a matter of limiting behavior that trespasses on other people’s rights, namely the right to harmony in their neighborhoods.
Of great importance to conservatives, the Charter here acknowledges the right to build and buy sprawl. Under “Implementing Strategies,” it says: “Adopt a set of parallel ordinances. Keep the current ordinances but also offer an alternate track that will produce a mixed-use neighborhood.” This free-market approach is central to conservatives’ acceptance of New Urbanism.
* * *
The Charter’s last nine principles involve “Block, Street, and Building.” Countering a popular misconception, it argues, “At this scale, we need to accommodate automobiles as well as pedestrians. New Urbanism does not naïvely call for the elimination of the car. Rather, it challenges us to create environments that support walking, biking, transit, and the car.”
The first principle in this section states, “A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.”
The exteriors of buildings create either welcoming or alienating public spaces. Think of a public park: if the buildings around it are cold, forbidding Modernist architecture, the park itself is not a pleasant place. As the Charter’s commentary makes clear, this principle is inherently conservative, because it is a call to return to tradition:
The liberation of architecture and landscape from their traditional civic duties as the walls, portals, and passages of the public realm is a recent phenomenon that tends to displace what has stood as shared wisdom for millennia… New Urbanists regard this condition of formlessness as neither beneficial nor irreversible.
Sometimes New Urbanism is just a matter of not forgetting old knowledge.
The Charter continues, “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” The principle and commentary are so conservative they could have been written by Russell Kirk:
The architecture of our time is dominated by obsessively self-referential, isolated projects. Such projects aggrandize the individual interests of their clients. They highlight the formal language and signature of their authors. They endeavor to express in stylistic terms the mood of the cultural instant when they were designed and built …
We are left with a cultural and physical landscape of unprecedented confusion, monotony, and fragility …
In contrast to an Architecture of Time, New Urbanist architecture is an Architecture of Place … New Urbanist architecture strives to evolve by exercising critical design choices across time.
The villain here is the Modernist architect who designs monuments to ego—buildings wholly inappropriate to their settings. Such architects should be condemned to an eternity looking at their own buildings. As the Charter’s commentary says,
A genuine architectural culture can only exist within the accumulated experience afforded by historical continuity. For architecture and urbanism to prosper as disciplines, they need the wisdom and guidance of enduring values, traditions, methods, and ideas.
The next principle nods to another conservative value: “The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.”
Without public order and safety from crime, no society is viable. Conservatives have long taken the lead in fighting crime, and we know the most effective way to fight it: identify the habitual criminals, arrest them, and put them in jail for a long time. But New Urbanism adds an important element most conservatives have not considered: design.
There are two ways to design for safety. The first is to make everyone live behind high walls. The courtyard house found worldwide provides this kind of security. While courtyard houses can be lovely behind their walls, they create one of the worst imaginable streetscapes. And conservatives instinctively reject this sort of hide-under-the-bed security. To us, if that is how we have to live, the criminals have won.
New Urbanism offers an alternative. It uses design to create spaces that are both open and safe—safe because they are open but also clearly someone’s responsibility. New Urbanism ensures there are no places that cannot be read as someone’s territory. The street is “our street.”
Community policing, where police on foot, bicycles, or horseback patrol a regular beat, getting to know the people and what is normal in the neighborhood, is essential for urban safety. Nothing undermines effective city policing more than putting officers in squad cars. By the time they receive a call, it is too late; the city’s peace has already been broken. Safe cities prevent crimes, not just respond to them. New Urbanism needs to adopt community policing as a principle.
Next, “Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city.”
Conservatives have long lamented the decline of civic architecture from the magnificent, neoclassical buildings of our grandfathers’ time to structures that resemble industrial warehouses. We happily cheer the Charter commentary on the matter:
It is surely one of the minor mysteries of modern times that civic buildings in America have become cheap to the point of squalor when they were once quite magnificent as a matter of course. Our post offices, public schools and colleges, fire stations, town halls, and all the rest are no longer honored with an architecture of fine materials, tall spaces, and grandeur of form. The new civic buildings are useful enough, but they are incapable of providing identity or pride for their communities.
The Charter denounces the utilitarianism behind much bland, sad modern civic architecture; conservatives have opposed utilitarianism since the days of Jeremy Bentham. Civic order and civic architecture join their cries for restoration.
“All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, time and weather,” the Charter continues. “Natural methods of heating and cooling can be more resource-efficient than mechanical systems.” Few conservatives enjoy working in cubicles resembling veal-fattening pens, cut off from natural light and air. We want sunlight and fresh air coming through open windows as much as anyone, if only to waft away the smoke from the cigars and pipes we insist we be free to smoke.
New Urbanists offer an environmentalist argument for natural light and air as ways to reduce energy consumption. This may make some conservatives unnecessarily leery. We are not environmentalists because we recognize in it a new ideology, and we know where ideology inherently leads: to tyranny. We are, however, conservationists. If we can be as comfortable with windows open as with air conditioning on, we have no desire to run up our electric bills. We remember how our grandmothers kept their houses cool on warm summer days by opening the house at night and closing it in the heat of the afternoon.
Just as traditional morals and manners made for a more comfortable society, so traditional designs for homes, schools, and offices made for more comfortable buildings. As conservatives, we look forward to reviving both.
The Charter closes: “Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban societies.” Here we find another New Urbanist principle that is inherently conservative. Respect for the achievements of our forefathers and maintenance of continuity with the past are conservative themes. The Charter commentary puts it well:
For … urban evolution to occur successfully, there must be an implied ‘contract’ about the nature of city building in which the contributions of previous generations are understood and creatively reinterpreted, even where change is substantial … New Urbanism reinforces the importance of being aware of and honoring the historic fabric of urban places.
Here, New Urbanism, with G.K. Chesterton, recognizes that conservatism is a democracy that includes the dead. As Charles, Prince of Wales noted, “I believe that when a man loses contact with the past he loses his soul. Likewise, if we deny the architectural past—and the lessons to be learned from our ancestors—our buildings lose their souls.” It is hard to imagine a more conservative sentiment.
* * *
Conservatives can accept most of the principles of New Urbanism, as they provide physical settings conducive to attaining conservative goals, especially community. We reject imposed “diversity,” but if some people want it, they are welcome to it. That should be a choice in an open market. Likewise, builders and buyers should be free to choose sprawl. As conservatives, we simply want codes to support choice: a typical sprawl code alongside a New Urbanist code.
New Urbanists shouldn’t have to wade through a bureaucratic thicket, seeking variance after variance from government regulations in order to build what many people want. They find no difficulty in selling their products—only in offering people the option our grandparents had: life in a genuine community, more, in a beautiful community, a place they enjoy residing in and in which they take civic pride. What worked then will work now, and in the future as well.
William S. Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C. This essay is adapted from the study “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?”