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Is New Urbanism Only For Leftists?

The movement is not a secret scheme for socialism.

Yes, the New Urbanists are coming for your neighborhood. And naturally, they are leftists.

One recent notable example of such scaremongering is a Wall Street Journal piece entitled “New Left Urbanists’ Want to Remake Your City.” In Christopher Rufo’s telling, these urbanists promote a dastardly scheme to use zoning codes and control all aspects of an American city-dweller’s life. Yes, some want more options of where to live and how to get around. Some of them, according to Rufo, even want to invest money in the New York City Subway so that the cars don’t smell of urine, and make the stations accessible in wheelchairs or who have young children in strollers.

And why is this all so terrifying, to Rufo? Because “their plan would restrict curbside space for cars.” As we all should know from our high-school civics class, the American Revolution was fought primarily over the issue of whether the Colonists had the right to free parking on the street—by virtue of being free men or if they had to petition Parliament for it. We all remember the climactic moment when open war began in 1775 when the Minutemen assembled on Concord Green to foil a British plan to ticket all the cars parked illegally on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington.

Most of our fellow citizens have to spend huge amounts of money on fuel, insurance, parking, and maintenance just to participate in the labor market (and often trapping them in a cycle of high-interest loans and bankruptcy). This is not indicative of freedom, but Rufo complains that expanding transportation options is only leftist “compulsion.” Not only are most Americans deprived of the choice of alternatives to driving, paying taxes for vast federal subsidies for car-only infrastructure, but local zoning rules also require excessive amounts of parking. Most traffic engineers value maximizing vehicle throughput over every other consideration, despite the fact that these rules often make it dangerous to step outside in anything other than a moving half-ton of metal and plastic. 

On top of that, laws were changed in the 1920s, under pressure from automobile companies, so that the blame for death and injury fall on the person hit, and not the operator of the motor vehicle. It is as though in a case of murder, the prosecutor insisted on charging the victim with the heinous crime of getting in the way of the murderer’s bullets. Thousands of people are killed in this country by drivers every year thanks to awful design that prioritizes automobile speed—and survivors and prosecutors often have little to no recourse to justice.

Nowhere is Rufo’s confusion about New Urbanists more telling than in his retelling of the “Historic laundromat” battle in San Francisco. A man who owned a one-story laundromat, built in the 1970s, wanted to tear it down and build an apartment building in its place, adding some much needed housing. In Rufo’s telling, the valiant entrepreneur was opposed en masse by “new left urbanists” who “have seized real power in city halls” and have “learned how to use the zoning and permitting bureaucracy to stanch private development.”

In reality, the fiercest opponents to private development are not the New Urbanists, Right or Left, but the oldsters of the baby-boom generation. This generation then-Governor Ronald Reagan joked “Dressed like Tarzan, looked like Jane and smelled like Cheetah” staged sit-in protests against the Vietnam War, bought houses in the 1980s, and have been working to preserve San Francisco in amber ever since. They created the complex rules and regulations that make development costs in California among the highest in the country, and wield them like a weapon to prevent shadows from falling on their zucchini crop. By contrast, the people who are working to abolish single-family-only zoning are generally 30 to 40 years younger, and many in this cohort support the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement.

Yes, there are young leftists who want to do things like abolish private housing and cars altogether. There are also young leftists who think Stalin did nothing wrong. But these people are few and far between and not representative of New Urbanism. Meanwhile, Rufo’s status-quo approach also sounds like empty ideology: “Making cities better and more beautiful requires bringing neighbors, developers, employers and governments into the conversation. Thriving cities are built through cooperation, not compulsion.”

It’s a pretty-sounding platitude. Too bad it ignores the reality that today’s cities are being held hostage to the narrow special interests of a few elite homeowners with the leisure to brigade public meetings. Too bad the reality is that governments have seized by eminent domain and demolished taxpaying homes and businesses for tax-funded highways. Too bad the reality is that a lot of people in America’s cities are being left out of the country’s prosperity because they were born at the wrong time or in the wrong zip code. 

At least Rufo will be there, defending free parking and single-family homes—even though many Americans can’t afford cars or pay their rent.

Matthew Robare writes from Boston.