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Joel Kotkin Fears Conservatives Against Suburban Sprawl

New Urbanist Kentlands development in Maryland Dan Reed / cc

Joel Kotkin warns of a dark, rising tide: conservative skeptics of suburbia. Roger Scruton’s aesthetic defense of city centers and use-agnostic “side constraints” are a Tory plot to Europeanize America. The New Urbanism-philia of Matt Lewis, the late Paul Weyrich, and other, nameless conservatives like those circulating around here at New Urbs is a helpless parroting of inaccurate liberal stereotypes. These conservatives are for some reason supposed to be advocates of “Draconian planning” and punitive restrictions on suburban development.

Reihan Salam effectively demonstrated over at NRO how the current body of law in fact restricts attempts to build densely, forcing development in the single-family lot, segregated use mold that Kotkin is so sure the American people nearly unanimously desire. As Salam explains, most conservative focus on planning codes is directed at undoing many of the distorting codes that prevent developers from meeting market demand. This is true even in the most planning-friendly conservative urbanist circles, for while Scruton may have spoken favorably about Britain’s “green belts” that concentrate urban growth within fixed boundaries, conservative urbanists are much more concerned with undoing the accumulated distortions of sprawl-directed zoning codes than adopting the Portland model of an ineffective Urban Growth Boundary.

Kotkin’s warnings about conservative urbanism seem to derive from a fear that conservatives will adopt the worst excesses of progressive planners along with an affection for beautiful buildings and Main Street-style development. That is a fear that should be taken seriously, not in the least because it is commonly heard from other conservatives skeptical of urbanism: launching this blog brought many rural and suburban residents out to voice their concern that we would be handing them over to the UN, or even worse, Washington or New York. With that perspective, one of the central missions of New Urbs is to explain how conservative principles can favor relatively dense networks of communities without seeking to forcibly turn every bedroom suburb into downtown Manhattan.

Moreover, Kotkin persists in maintaining the false dichotomy that the only choices in development are post-war sprawl and soaring “concrete jungles” like New York City. In fact, widely spaced single-family lot developments curling into a never ending patchwork of disconnected cul-de-sacs are one extreme; skyscrapers are another. Conservative New Urbanists don’t embrace either extreme, but rather seek to build interconnected networks of walkable communities, with corner stores and pizza shops mixed in with a wide variety of housing, single-family homes included.

James Bacon picks up on this very distinction in criticizing a survey that purportedly debunks Millennial urban-friendliness:

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles.

Many New Urbanist developments could accurately be characterized as suburbs, in fact, built as they were as greenfield developments with the majority of jobs still requiring commutes. But they aren’t “suburban,” insofar as they don’t partake of sprawl.

Kotkin’s own comments regarding how suburbia’s “ills” are being reformed by the free market in fact point to the many successes of the New Urbanism movement. When he describes how developers are “building new town centers, bringing employment closer to home, … promoting home-based business” he could practically be singing from a New Urbanist songbook. Town centers have long been one of the core features of NU-influenced development, creating civic cores that bring people together rather than scattering them across a landscape of stroads and shopping malls. Here in the Washington, D.C., area there have been particularly dramatic successes in the suburbs, from the Reston Town Center to the still-underway retrofit of Tyson’s Corner, to Silver Spring’s revitalized downtown core. The more distant Kentlands development in Gaithersburg, Maryland, remains one of New Urbanist icon Duany Plater-Zybek’s crowning achievements.

As Bacon continues,

One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

“Urbanizing the suburbs” is a process well underway already. If walkable, mixed-use communities were truly as unpopular as Kotkin contends, one would not expect them to consistently fetch higher prices on the open market, even as they compete against federally subsidized sprawl and have to obtain hundreds of expensive variances from sprawl-centric zoning codes and land-use regulations. As Pew showed earlier this year in a (slightly misleading) report, the pendulum certainly has not swung the other way either, and many Americans are still attached to their widely-spaced development, especially ideological conservatives.

The question for principled conservatives is whether the rest of the country should be subsidizing and legally mandating fiscally unsustainable sprawl, or whether we should provide a level playing field. Kotkin says that a pattern of freely chosen suburban retrofits and reforms “seems more promising than following a negative agenda that seeks simply to force ever-denser housing and create heat-generating concrete jungles.” I couldn’t agree more.

This post was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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