The Conservatism of New Urbanism
Responding to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s contention that the American left is intellectually exhausted, Noah Smith argues that one place liberals are stirring up new, progressive thinking is “the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities.” As Smith explains,
In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs.
Urban planning can indeed have more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs (though urban planning is influenced by several federal government programs, it must be said). It determines the shape of our communities, and the patterns of our movement. Winston Churchill’s famous line that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us may hold doubly true for our neighborhoods. And that is why New Urbanism is such an important conservative movement.
As Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, explains in his book Suburban Nation, “The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history,” whereas
Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.
No less a conservative icon than Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined TAC‘s William S. Lind and Duany to present a report, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism,” in which they wrote,
On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally-designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war “sprawl” suburbs. As conservatives, we are supposed to prefer traditional designs over modern innovations in most things (and we do). We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.
It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.” But once we set Richard Florida’s “creative class” pablum to the side, it becomes apparent that when it comes to New Urbanism, progressives are designing better than they know.
Update: TAC will have much more coverage of conservatism, New Urbanism, and cities, starting next week, in a project funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Stay tuned.