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Conservatism for the City

Beauty, streetcars, and dual codes are the right ideas for urban policy.
union station

Paul M. Weyrich, the long-time head of the Free Congress Foundation, was one of the great, if unsung, heroes of the conservative movement. Paul’s main work was behind the scenes. When he was a staffer for Sen. Gordon Allott (R-Colo.), he saw how liberals organized to promote legislation they wanted, so he taught and organized Capitol Hill conservatives to do the same. Paul created and was first president of the Heritage Foundation. He convinced Jerry Falwell to found the Moral Majority, and he gave it its name. His campaign schools taught generations of conservative candidates and campaign organizers how to win elections.

Paul Weyrich was also a strong supporter of New Urbanism, as well as the high-quality rail transit successful cities require. New Urbanism is the movement to return to traditional, pre-World War II towns, cities, and urban neighborhoods as an alternative to automobile-dependent, postwar sprawl suburbs. I worked with Paul for more than 20 years at Free Congress, and we both knew our cities and towns were on the whole better places 80 years ago than they are today. We had watched them hollow out throughout our lives. Now a movement was trying to bring them back. How could conservatives not support such an effort?

Paul thought they should, and for years I attended the annual Congress on the New Urbanism as an official representative of Free Congress. In his last book, The Next Conservatism (which I co-authored), Paul endorsed New Urbanism strongly.

It is easy enough to identify good things New Urbanism offers conservatives. At the top of the list is stronger communities. Community is a highly important conservative value because it is through community expectations and pressures that traditional morals are best upheld. People in communities care what their neighbors think of them. If they don’t, they feel the community begin to exclude them. Because most people find isolation unpleasant, they are led to amend their behavior, to return to living by traditional middle-class rules. Those rules reflect what many generations have learned works best to create order, harmony, and prosperity. If community is too weak to enforce the rules and their enforcement must be left to the state, the battle for the traditional culture is already largely lost. More, the state soon becomes overly powerful.

New Urbanism benefits conservatives in other ways. Making towns and cities attractive places where  those with disposable income want to spend time, and money, boosts local prosperity. We have seen that in a number of cities that have adopted aspects of New Urbanism. Successful, thriving cities have reduced crime rates, always a conservative goal. People who have long been on the dole are able to find jobs and become self-supporting, relieving the burden on the taxpayer. Investment that might have gone overseas is made instead in our own cities.

Paul Weyrich was so convinced of the conservative merits of New Urbanism that a few years before his death he joined with Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) founder Andrés Duany and myself to co-author a study, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things In Common?” The conclusion is that we have quite a lot in common. New Urbanism’s charter lays out 27 principles, each of which the study examines from a conservative perspective. We had problems with only a few; most we thought conservatives could support enthusiastically.

So far, so good. But looking at what New Urbanism offers conservatives raises another question: what might conservatism offer New Urbanism? Some answers are obvious. We offer the understanding that traditional middle-class values work. Without them, no city, neighborhood, or town, however well designed, is likely to function. We point out the reality that order, safety of persons and property, is the first essential. Duany said to me at a recent CNU meeting, “I’m beginning to understand that we design beautiful public spaces to which no one dares come.” Indeed. Conservatives understand that for New Urbanism to succeed, it must create an arena where businessmen can make money. Urban areas that are not market-friendly will remain poor.

Beyond these, my observation over the years of New Urbanism’s strengths and weaknesses leads me to identify three important things conservatives can bring to New Urbanism. Those three things are beautiful architecture, dual codes, and streetcars.

Although many of New Urbanism’s founders recognize the need for beautiful buildings and know there is an objective, traditional canon going back to the Greeks that tells us what is beautiful and what is not, New Urbanism officially is neutral about architectural style. The reason is ideological. Like the rest of academe, academic architecture is dominated by cultural Marxism, the Marxism of the Frankfurt School, particularly by the thinking of the Frankfurt School’s most creative mind, Theodor Adorno. He argued that because, by Marxist definition, life under capitalism was alienating, all art, including music, architecture, and sculpture, must be alienating to be “true.” The ugliness that has dominated all the high arts since World War II has been intentional, thanks principally to Adorno.

Several years ago, a Washington-based architect invited me to lunch. An Israeli, he still designs buildings in the time-blessed neoclassical style. He wanted to know why, at conferences of academic architects—whose comfortable tufts free them from the need to get commissions—he was called a Nazi. I told him about the Frankfurt School and its baleful effects on beauty. He replied, “So that’s why they are always talking about Adorno!”

Conservatism rejects cultural Marxism and all its works, which frees us from the spurious need to be “neutral” about architecture. We demand beautiful buildings. That demand leaves architects with wide choice, ranging from the neoclassical—usually the best for monumental buildings—and Georgian to the Romanesque and the Gothic.

A good way to think about beautiful urban buildings is to consider the monumental core of Washington, D.C., and especially my favorite building there, magnificent Union Station. Union Station is neoclassical, a style inspired the Greeks—think of the Parthenon. Usually characterized by careful proportions, columns, white marble, and other elements that harken back to Greek temples, neoclassical architecture is often the right choice for buildings in a city’s downtown. It has echoes in housing designed in the Federal or Greek revival styles, which is what you find in many New England towns. Take a walk through Boston’s Beacon Hill or Alexandria, Virginia and you will see what conservative New Urbanists want to build more of.

Beautiful architecture does not include the cold, repellant International Style, much less the efforts of too many modern architects to plop a steel-and-glass excrescence into a setting of traditional buildings, as a monument both to Adorno and to their own massive egos. The proper setting for such buildings and their designers is in the pillory next to the fruits market.

Some decades ago, while heading west on board the Super Chief train, I got into a discussion about architecture with a fellow passenger in the first-class lounge car. While I expounded on the many sins of I.M. Pei, a woman at the next table interrupted and said, “I live in a house designed by Pei.” I asked her, “Is it unlivable?” She thought for a moment and replied, “Yes.”

If conservatism can free New Urbanism from the absurd requirement to be “neutral” between beautiful and ugly architecture, it will have done the movement a vast favor. The academic architects are irrelevant to New Urbanism. Leave them to howl to other academics and instead give the public what it wants in its cities and towns: beauty. The public will repay New Urbanism with a desire for more.

To this contribution to New Urbanism’s substance, conservatives can offer two valuable mechanisms that can help New Urbanism spread and succeed. The first is dual codes.

With few exceptions, today’s planning codes demand sprawl. Developers build sprawl because they have to. To deviate from the codes is expensive. One developer told me, “In order to build one small Traditional Neighborhood Design [TND] development, I have to get 150 variances.” Each of those cost him time and money.

Left-wing urbanists seek to promote urbanism through government regulation. The prime example is Portland, Oregon, and its famous “growth boundary,” which is intended to compel high-density, presumably urbanist development. Not surprisingly to conservatives, it doesn’t work. Much of what you find inside the growth boundary is sprawl.

New Urbanism does not need government compulsion to succeed. It will do far better if it relies on the free market. The mechanism that opens New Urbanism to the free market is dual codes. Every urban area should offer developers two codes, one sprawl, the other intended to facilitate Traditional Neighborhood Design. The sprawl codes are already in place; they are the only codes in most of America. They demand separation of home, shopping, and work by distances too great to walk, and the suburbs they create, with large lots and often no sidewalks, depend completely on the automobile. (As New Urbanist founder Andrés Duany says, “If a Martian came to earth, he would conclude that the first article of the U.S. Constitution states, ‘Cars must be happy’.”) Sprawl promotes “strip” stores dominated by parking lots and, from sea to shining sea, as ugly as anything this country ever built. Sprawl usually forces long commutes on workers, during which they must spend hours daily sitting in traffic. The assumption behind sprawl, as well as one of its effects, is that individuals or families live isolated lives, having little or nothing to do with their neighbors. thisarticleappeared-janfeb15

New Urbanist codes, of which there are several, share an intention of walkability. People should be able to walk from their homes to their schools, churches, shops, and workplaces, or to rail stations where they can take fast, comfortable public transportation to and from work. This is called “mixed use” development, and it is what you see in old towns and “trolley suburbs,” near-in neighborhoods that grew up along the trolley lines. People still have cars, but they are no longer dependent on them, nor does every member of a family have to have his or her own automobile. You can shop at a downtown you can walk to, and those downtowns look like old towns and cities, not strip malls.

With dual codes, it would be up to the developer to decide which code he wants to use. In many situations, he stands to make more money if he follows the New Urbanist code. Why? Because houses designed to a New Urbanist code usually sell for substantially more per square foot of space. Duany’s beautiful TND development of Kentlands in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., sells for about $30,000 more than a same-sized house in surrounding sprawl developments. People looking for houses see Kentlands and say, “Here’s where I want to live!” Beauty, proportionality, human scale, walkability, all the things New Urbanism offers, are marketable goods. They do not require government compulsion to prevail over sprawl. They just require that government, in the form of sprawl-only codes, get out of the way.

Conservatives have something else to offer New Urbanism: streetcars. Paul Weyrich and I met, in the early 1970s when we were both Senate staffers, through our mutual interest in trains and streetcars. We knew that trains and streetcars offer the best, most comfortable, most enjoyable way to travel, the one between cities and the other within them. Cities, if they are to have the large number of middle-class people downtown that they need to live, require streetcars. It is not mere coincidence that our cities’ declines began when the streetcar lines were ripped out.

Streetcars benefit cities because cities need pedestrians and streetcars are pedestrian facilitators. They stop at every street corner, their tracks show clearly where they go, and they are easy to hop on, ride a bit, and hope off to do some more walking. People like riding streetcars, unlike buses.

Not surprisingly, streetcars are making comebacks in a growing number of cities. They have repeatedly shown an ability to spur urban redevelopment, which is one of New Urbanism’s basic goals. In one city after another, a few million dollars spent to build a streetcar line has brought billions of dollars worth of new development—and growing tax revenues.

Conservatism is about preserving or restoring good things from our past, and streetcars are an example. Regrettably, some conservatives have been misled by libertarian transit critics into thinking streetcars are a boondoggle. Those critics oppose all rail transit, always promoting buses instead—which in fact require higher operating subsidies than does rail transit. Why do they do this? Because what they are really promoting are automobiles. Few people, if offered a bus, choose it over driving. Many will take rail transit instead of driving, which makes rail a threat to the dominance of the automobile. So some libertarians smear streetcars with false accusations, based on wrong facts and bad numbers—see the website of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation for some dramatic examples.

Instead of opposing streetcars, conservatives should promote them. The most effective way to promote streetcars, to bring them back to more cities, is to reduce the cost of building new streetcar lines. Here is where conservatives have something to offer New Urbanists, most of whom know cities need streetcars but understand little about costs.

Streetcars are a simple technology. Those built in the 1920s can still provide good service today, as they do on New Orleans’s St. Charles Avenue line. In the first streetcar era, the tracks were light, the overhead wiring uncomplicated. It was all inexpensively built. There was then, and there is now, no need for costly “high-tech” for a successful streetcar line. One of conservatism’s most basic rules applies: what worked then can work now.

Instead of allowing ourselves to be misled by autophile libertarians into opposing an effective tool for economic development, streetcars, let us both help our urban areas and protect the public purse by serving the honored conservative function of being cheap. Conservatives should lead an effort to keep the construction cost of streetcar lines down. Remember, with streetcars, the cheaper they are per mile, the more miles we can build.

Conservatism and New Urbanism make a natural marriage. Each has objectives that are served by the other, and each has things to offer the other. At root, New Urbanism is an attempt to bring back good things from the past that we have lost. That is what conservatives also seek to do, on a broader scale. New Urbanism offers conservatism a new venue, one where we can couple our desire for traditional culture and morals with a physical environment that supports both.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.