Politics and Planning: The “Conservative” Case for New Urbanism

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Matt K. Lewis’s post “New urbanism isn’t just for liberals — conservatives should embrace it too” at The Week provides a recent example of the current ideological crisis in the conservative movement. Especially over the course of the last six years, it’s become increasingly difficult–evidenced by both policies and behavior–to discern what constitutes conservative values apart from sexism, racism, and homophobia. The anti-women, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-poc rhetoric and legislation that won the GOP its powerful base have now come to define conservatism and have alienated many voters from the party. Of course the party leadership sees it merely, and mistakenly, as a matter of style and messaging rather than substance. And so periodically, a self-professed conservative will bemoan the state of self-induced irrelevance by pointing out that an apparently liberal policy or idea is actually good fit with conservative values. Theodore Olson famously has made such a case for gay marriage.

Back to Lewis, for two points and then further into the argument itself. There’s something a little disingenuous about the opening of the article that reminds me of the way some conservatives pout about rockstars and Hollywood celebrities. “Heeeey, why do liberals get all the cool stuff?” Let’s call it the Springsteen-Nugent dialectic for short.

Conservatism has somehow become associated in the popular imagination with sterile suburbia, obnoxiously large McMansions, and gas-guzzling SUVs, while liberalism evokes images of city living in close quarters, with public transportation or bicycle commutes from high-rise lofts to open-floor workspaces.

Just “somehow,” you know. Probably a lame-stream media conspiracy! Somehow? Really? Those things compliment all of the values and policies the conservative movement has fervently embraced. Unfettered, or at least minimally regulated, development for example. Little or no concern for green fuel alternatives for another. Add to that the contempt for the working poor, labor unions, black and brown people,  immigrants, gays and lesbians, the very contempt that motivated white flight. Gated suburban and exurban communities enshrine all those Leave-it-to-Beaver fantasies. Lewis now wants his fellow conservatives to move beyond. It was Ronald Reagan, in fact, who invoked that mythical golden age (of suburban sprawl) as an ideal. The problem is that those are the very values that define the Tea Party core of the movement. It reminds me also of the GOP’s cringe inducing attempt to woo millennials with hipster Scott G. whining about the cost filling up his Audi.

After essentially laying out a classic aestheticist argument for the importance of a beautiful surroundings, one not not far removed from a dumbed-down version Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Then there’s this gem:

Ironically, government regulation (the tax code, zoning, a federally financed highway system, and so on) helps explain America’s post-WWII push for sprawl. What is more interesting, though, is that conservatives so readily embraced this modern fad as being tantamount to the American dream.

Yes, and why is that? Sexist ideas about family and home? Racist fears of living in close quarters to non-white people? Status and prestige, the social trappings of the free market money-is-everything ideology? Interesting. And, from Alanis Morisette school of irony, it was achieved through big gubmint! Okay, fine, but how does Lewis think New Urbanist projects come to fruition if not through those same basic–and yes fundamentally progressive–planning tools? In fact, conservative property rights activists tend to loathe the more restrictive regulations needed to implement Traditional Neighborhood Design. In Southern California it’s the conservative suburbanites who resist robust TOD and infill development on the cutting edge of New Urbanist practices, preferring instead more highways.  Federal, state, regional, and local tax dollars work together in successful New Urbanist projects.

Soooo, yeah. Maybe it’s your ideologically driven policies that are the problem. Less regulation and regressive tax structures aren’t going to cut it; the “free market” won’t spontaneously generate TNDs. To be sure, private developers and capital are absolutely key. Planning is all about political compromise and pragmatic approaches that defy right/left ideological purity. In that sense, conservatives are already or can be a part of the democratic processes. But, the extreme anti-government/anti-tax ideology that defines today’s conservatism refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of planning altogether. I think a more honest argument here would be a call for pragmatic cooperation and political compromise, in other words a retreat from those hard-line far right policy positions.

To be fair, Lewis’s piece is a short post and perhaps one shouldn’t expect a fully coherent argument in that form. He does cite this 2008 Free Congress Foundation report delivered at the CNU conference here in Austin, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?” So I thought I’d take a look at that to engage this idea further in my next post.  I’ll try to do it in an open-minded spirit of optimism. It would be great for all of us if conservatives did embrace the core ideas of New Urbanism. Maybe it will be a shared vision of our future that can ultimately bridge the partisan gap and start more meaningful dialogue about where we’re headed and how we want to live, together.


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