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Why Conservatives Must Engage Urbanism

Now is the moment to shape the next century of community building.
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Is there a place for conservative urbanism?

That was the question prompted by Charles Marohn’s recent New Urbs article, “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” Ben Adler, an environmental reporter over at Grist, said the conservative base will never listen to the lonely (though growing!) conservative urbanist voices. Keith Miller at Mere Orthodoxy argued conservative urbanists are abusing Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in favor of elitist technocratism. Both pieces help illustrate just how limited urbanist politics have been, and just how important the New Urbs project (along with our like-minded friends across the conservative landscape) could be for broadening this discussion.

Adler documents how “urbanism is actually growing in popularity among a small cadre of conservative intellectuals,” who “understand that the traditional town design favored by urbanists—houses that face the street, with porches and stoops, sidewalks, public parks, and shared mass transit—fosters strong communities.” Yet he warns: “Just don’t expect their ideas to catch on in conservative America.” He continues, “The main problem for conservative urbanists isn’t the quality of their arguments, but rather that they fall on deaf ears within their own movement.” Adler argues that popular American conservatism is about tribalism before principles, and subsidized suburbia suits them just as Tea Party retirees are fiercely defensive of their own entitlement checks. American conservatives are coal-rollers and Sarah-Palin-Big-Gulp celebrators, who “have adopted pro-market, small-government values as a loftier framework for their politics of resentment.”

Keith Miller’s critique of New Urbs does not resemble Adler’s redneck parody, but instead embodies a different very familiar, very instinctive backlash against urbanist ideas among many American conservatives:

Which brings me to the main reason my conservative instincts are not moved by Bess’s New Urbanism of the heart or Marohn’s case against the suburbs. Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good. We already have an American political tradition that stands for that proposition; do we really need another?

Miller also makes the tired jab that a Burkean disposition is a foreign, European elitism (though he also tries to wrap himself in Burke’s mantle). Most fundamentally, Miller argues that Reagan liberated conservatism from Burke and built a broad suburban coalition around populist appeal. Any criticism of that coalition is seen as a necessary endorsement of large-scale central planning of the sort Reagan opposed.

In Adler and Miller’s critiques, we come to see just how deeply infused development patterns have become with the culture war’s identitarian politics. Miller’s anxiety at suburbanites being looked down upon is fed by Adler’s disdain for coal-rollers. Conservatives and progressives are two different creatures, and if one has anything in common with the other, they must be a secret sympathizer for the other side. Likewise, if one has any differences with a self-identified brother-in-arms, that brother must be a closet enemy.

The Atlantic writer and former Carter speechwriter James Fallows encountered just this issue in a reader letter responding to his accounts of how mayors and cities are making things work at local levels. In his recent post “In Which I Am Recruited to Switch Political Teams,” Fallows conveys some reader feedback:

I write to needle you a little bit. What you are discovering on your road trip is the genius of conservatism. A smart conservative could use your title, ‘national problems, local solutions’ as a title for a fine book or lecture. Laboratories of democracy, etc. People know what is best for their own community, and they know best how to deal with local issues. … I’ll go away now, but you could be a fine conservative.

I look forward to reading Fallows’s eventual full response to his reader, but for now he simply notes that he once was just such a fine conservative, and that “local sensibility has historically found supporters and backers independent of party alignment.”

That last point is very true, and Bill Kauffman’s lovely ode to local sensibility from Friday is a testament to how a love of the local can cross both national parties and national fads. Republicans talk a good game about devolving power, but often carry that rhetoric on down to the most local level, where self-governance should be happening. Democrats often give fine words to localism and good urbanism, but have a persistent tendency to try to enshrine their arguments in legal codes at the earliest political opportunity.

Conservatives, taken apart from Republicans or Democrats, should be in place to ground the urbanist discourse, to curb its excesses and overreach, and continue the long, hard work of bringing the most suspicious to the table. When Charles Marohn, who wrote the suburbs piece, goes to towns and places in his day job at the nonprofit Strong Towns, he talks about building a sustainable tax base, which any fiscal conservative should be able to appreciate. He doesn’t, and we here at The American Conservative, don’t talk about those who live in the suburbs with disdain. That’s our family, that’s our staff. It’s not about what’s “hip” or fashionable. It is about what conduces to community.

Communities can certainly thrive in sprawling suburbs, because the fundamental units of a community are people, and good people can overcome bad urbanism. Bad people can certainly overwhelm good urbanism. But why should we not give as many people as will seek it the opportunity to live in communities built in accordance with the wisdom of the generations?

Miller’s point that most people in the past lived in rural areas, on farms, is well taken. But when they came together to build a town, to build a city, it was almost unanimously built along lines that would look very familiar to a New Urbanist’s eye. Small blocks with interconnecting streets and alleyways, instead of gargantuan, impermeable city blocks with harsh interstates slashing through city centers, dividing the city against itself. Intermixtures of homes and shops, so supplies are never too far away, and customers are nearby, instead of zoning ordinances that exile houses to one side of town, stores to another, and never the twain shall meet.

New Urbs is not about sweeping mandates or snobbish judgments. It is about asking the question: if people have lived in similar patterns for hundreds of years, is there as a wisdom in that? And if people today want to live in those patterns, should they be allowed to do so, or should those patterns be banned? Because that is the default position of the overwhelming majority of cities and suburbs alike across this country. Traditional neighborhood designs are illegal under the current legal regimes. Someone wanting to open a corner store to serve a residential neighborhood simply can’t do it. A developer wanting to build a mixed-use community has to account for the time and expense of obtaining hundreds of individual variances from the zoning codes.

Adler argues that conservatives will not be receptive to arguments about the environmental costs of suburban sprawl. And he’s probably right. Adler and I likely have a great deal of agreement on environmental issues, but it is not a motivating factor for conservatives like it is for liberals. And that’s an even greater reason for conservatives to take up the urbanist mantle.

For a few fusion reactors and Elon Musk’s affordable electric car could put carbon-heavy fossil fuels out of business without requiring the slightest change in American development patterns. After all, most Americans already drive less than 40 miles a day, which even GM’s existing technology can approach. However, if those technologies come online too late to keep us from coasting over an IPCC-approved carbon point of no return and into an abyss of catastrophic climate change, why even bother changing how we live?

If civilization survives the next few decades, however, people will still need places to live, and they will need ideas about how best to live. That’s what New Urbs is here for. Not to save the planet in 30 years, or to save the economy in 10. We’re here so that the built environment our great-grandchildren inherit will give them the best chance to live in flourishing communities.

A firm grasp of the long-view, taking into account the living, the dead, and the yet-to-be-born, has always been one of conservatism’s greatest strengths, and it is this quality in particular that informs our work. The good urbanism of Alexandria’s Old Town has served that suburb well for several hundred years. The Victorian townhouses of D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood are skyrocketing in value these days, but their pattern was set a hundred years ago. The Main Street-style of mixed-use development that once was the standard in this country has been nearly regulated out of existence over the past 70 years, as John Norquist’s article in the latest print issue of TAC explains, but those restrictions are slowly being undone, thanks in part to Norquist’s work while helming the Congress for the New Urbanism. If new Main Streets start to be built again, it will represent a recovery of nearly lost cultural wisdom. There’s nothing more conservative than that.

To chain our ideas to those that accompanied Ronald Reagan’s 1980 political coalition would leave us, in Yuval Levin’s apt phrase, “blinded by nostalgia.” Likewise, to throw up our hands at the supposed futility of convincing NASCAR dads and baby boomers of some of the merits of traditional neighborhoods would be to surrender to a fatalism unbecoming of the time scales at which we understand culture to work.

We’ll keep arguing, and writing, and pushing, and prodding. As James Fallows is documenting, and as Bill Kauffman recounts, there is a dynamism at the local level of American life that puts our national politics to shame. There, in the city council meetings and the zoning board hearings, is where the future of our built environment is being decided. And there’s too much exciting work to be done to sit quietly, or switch sides just as the opportunity to invigorate a new conservative urbanism is opening.


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