Can An Urbanist Be A Conservative?
Or, does urbanism belong to the left?
Since a surprisingly non-argumentative recent Twitter exchange and some responses to my piece from last Monday, “15-Minute Suburbs,” I’ve been thinking about this question of conservative urbanism—namely, whether there really is such a thing.
I don’t mean that in the practical sense of people who lean right politically but embrace some or all of what’s generally or broadly considered urbanism: I mean, I exist. So do lots of others, like the Niskanen people, the Manhattan Institute folks, and more. Some are more libertarian, some are more typically right-wing. But they exist.
My question isn’t whether you can find self-identifying conservatives of some stripe who are also urbanists. I’m wondering, rather, whether urbanism is or can be authentically conservative in a philosophical sense. Are conservative urbanists departing from their philosophy inasmuch as they embrace urbanist ideas? Does urbanism properly “belong” to the left?
Which brings me to that Twitter exchange. Somebody responded to a tweet by Nolan Gray, a libertarian-leaning housing advocate. Gray was lamenting how philosophically and politically fragmented the urbanism/housing world is. And somebody responded to his point, “It [this movement] needs both to be adopted wholeheartedly by the political left, and to be tweaked and guided so that it becomes and remains fully a left ideology.”
I replied to this fellow that this was likely the attitude Gray was critiquing: placing ideology over the practical politics of getting results. We argued over whether urbanism really is an ideology of the left. I said no. This guy continued: “Urbanism just is a socialist outlook and program, advocating as it does a robust public life, sustainable and low-carbon living, and a built environment that acknowledges our intrinsic mutual dependence.”
He went on to say that suburbia represents a certain withdrawal from the public sphere, and an attempt to conserve or gatekeep economic privilege. I asked, then, how he explained the fact that America had thriving, deeply urban places long before it had a meaningful left. George Washington surveyed the town of Culpeper, Virginia, a real tiny city!
His answer to this was that context matters. Our old cities predate our modern politics, and in today’s context, urbanism is necessarily a leftist movement: “Urbanism today is unavoidably the rejection of this [the economic privilege of the suburbs], the dismantling of one of the chief bases for social inequality in the US today, and in this context it is a radical, or left, or socialist, or social-democratic project. There’s just no way around it.”
Now. I do not agree with this. Arguing against this is pretty much the whole basis for why I write about these issues. But it makes me think. Does “urbanism” necessarily mean more than liking small towns and wanting cities to be nice places? Does it mean more than just funding public transit a little more? A certain strain of left urbanists basically think the pure expression of urbanism is revolutionary: we’re going to come after the economic segregation that suburbs and car dependence represent. Or something like that. At some point, is something like this unavoidable?
In other words: is there a philosophical path to supporting dense, walkable urbanism that doesn’t go through, say, implying that driving is morally questionable, or environmentalism, or racial equity, or some element of self-denial (for those who already have privilege), or concerns that generally strike many people as ideological?
Is there any justification for urbanism that doesn’t route you through having to acknowledge the ideas of privilege and class inequality and racial justice? And do the realities of this subject effectively prove leftist analysis correct, making it ideologically uncomfortable for a conservative to engage with them?
Now, I don’t mean to dismiss this list of concerns. But they’re not typically considered conservative priorities.
Let me also put it this way. Say you’re a right-winger. You don’t think much about the racially tinged (at best) history of zoning or urban highways. Or at least you think the wrongs of those times have been made right. You aren’t much of an environmentalist; you might not think climate change is real or caused by human activity. You have no interest in being told that your lifestyle is unsustainable, or contributes to inequality.
You feel that you worked for and paid for what you have, and that “urbanists” are leftist scolds who want to take those things away and give them to undeserving people. Maybe when you hear progressive urbanists comparing housing to immigration—just like immigration should be pretty much free and open, and borders are kind of stupid, so should housing at every level of affordability be built everywhere—you feel like urbanists want to destroy the local community, just as open-borders advocates want to destroy the nation-state.
If those are your politics—and surely this or something like it is the politics of a large number of Americans—can you truly be an urbanist? Do we have anything to offer you?
Are the leftist routes to urbanism simply particular arguments, incidental to the underlying substance? Or are they integral to it? I’ve always argued the former. Urbanism is or can be about anything politically, but it isn’t really about any particular argument.
I’d put it this way: building cities and building housing is a necessity, like growing food. You can sell it anyway you want in the political sphere, but it resides below politics. It isn’t like other political issues. It just accidentally ended up as a political issue associated with the left.
But maybe that’s my conservatism talking. I think we tend to use “politics” or “political” as a synonym for “ideological” or “made up.” Something that can be safely ignored or dismissed. I think we like to think that some things can simply be not political. But I’m not sure they can be.
A related question, which I may elaborate in a later piece, is this. In an American context, is urbanism a revolutionary movement, or a restorative one? Are we fighting against a “conservative” status quo—of limited housing, forced car ownership, poor transit, and throttled urban growth—or a revolution that we have mistaken for a status quo? Is Culpeper the “real” America? Or Levittown?
I don’t necessarily think any of this changes actual urban and land-use policy very much—which is why I don’t think too much about the political framings—but it’s a very interesting question to me, and I think it explains a lot of talking past each other.
Please discuss in the comments!
Thank you for reading! Please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to help support this newsletter. You’ll get a weekly subscribers-only piece, plus full access to the archive: over 800 pieces and growing. And you’ll help ensure more like this!
Check out free and paid subscription options!