Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Urban Policy Can Help Bridge Political Divides

Conservatives can find allies in the desire to build strong local communities across America.

Urbanists lament the fact that the average American knows and cares little about the built environment, but this sad reality has a significant upside. Because urban policy is a relatively fringe topic, it presents what is in today’s political climate a rare opportunity: the chance to make converts to conservative principles through rational persuasion.

As the left and right solidify into ever more intransigent blocs, thoughtful dialogue has been relegated to internal discussions, while cross-faction exchanges have little hope of changing minds. There are myriad explanations for the trend, but psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral judgment offers what may be the best account. As inheritors of the Enlightenment, we in the West often think of human beings as rational creatures who make decisions primarily on the basis of logic. In contrast, Haidt’s research suggests that people base most of their moral judgments on a rational instincts. “Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second,” he states in The Righteous Mind.

This has far-reaching implications for politics. Over the past few decades, more and more political issues have acquired moral content, so that intense polarization is no longer limited to the debates on abortion and sexuality. Instead, the culture war has subsumed everything from higher education to public health to children’s literature. Consequently, moral intuitions that run along the left/right divide now dominate our public discourse, making rational persuasion on a whole host of topics a practical impossibility.

However, urbanism has by and large managed to avoid conscription into the culture war. It is true that historical instances of racism in housing policy, such as those detailed by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, have drawn renewed attention in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement. And in states like California, affordable housing is a hot button issue. But for broad swaths of the country, debates about concepts such as mixed-use zoning, parking requirements, and modernist architecture carry negligible moral content.

For people deeply invested in those debates, the average citizen’s apathy is a predictable source of frustration, but it is time to start thinking of it as a blessing in disguise. Urban policy’s relative separation from the mainstream left and right means that it is fruitful ground for political evangelization.

The nonprofit Strong Towns provides a real world example of urbanists turning this potential into actuality. Strong Towns is an education and advocacy organization that promotes traditional, incremental development patterns over and against the suburban experiment. Strong Towns’ founder and president, Charles Marohn, is a Christian conservative who has often written for this publication. Furthermore, the organization’s philosophy draws heavily on conservative principles. And yet, despite these associations with the right, Strong Towns has acquired a broad coalition of support—one that includes many progressives.

It is not unusual for progressives to associate with urbanist organizations. In fact, certain aspects of the new urbanism, such as walkability and density, are widely, if unfairly, considered “liberal territory.” What is unusual about Strong Towns’ case is the fact that Marohn and his team attract left-leaning supporters while putting their conservative commitments front and center.

In his flagship “Strong Towns 101” course, for instance, Marohn positions fiscal accountability and economic prosperity as the foundations of good municipal governance. Only one lecture directly addresses the concept of human scale and the problem of car-centric development, and that session is placed at the tail end of the curriculum. In the same vein, Strong Towns’ list of core principles contains a preference for bottom-up change over top-down, state-led projects, and no mention of affordable housing or aesthetic beauty. Those topics have a significant place in the organization’s ethos, but they are subsidiary to concerns about financial irresponsibility and ill-fated central planning.

It comes across as a small miracle, then, to hear left-leaning architect Ann Sussman gush over Marohn in a recent interview, saying that “the work you’re doing at Strong Towns is so important,” and that his podcast series is “the best,” or to read glowing recommendations for the Strong Towns book from Democratic politician Michele Martinez. How is this possible in 2021?

Strong Towns attracts supporters from across the political spectrum for two reasons: because its arguments ring true, and because the debates it engages in are not so morally charged that neophytes’ instincts displace their reason. In today’s fraught political environment, we need to carefully evaluate our rhetorical strategies. The more hostile and ideological progressives become, the more conservatives will be tempted to give up on any attempts to change their opponents’ minds through the art of rational persuasion.

Given the polarizing power of the culture war, a modicum of resignation is no doubt justified. But there are still debates in which the brain can take precedence over the heart. Strong Towns’ success story should inspire us to retain some faith in rational persuasion. Moreover, it should motivate conservatives to take advantage of the opportunity that urban policy presents for winning converts to the right by way of discussion.

Collin Slowey is an independent writer whose work on politics, culture, and religion has been featured in Public Discourse, Fare Forward, and Public Justice Review, among other outlets. He is also a Fall 2021 Fellow with the John Jay Institute. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.