Or, does urbanism belong to the left?
The whole “Urbanism just is a socialist outlook and program” quote is so strange and interesting to me, and speaks to something I’ve been thinking about a long time. If something is achieved primarily through libertarian (ie deregulatory) means, but achieves a progressive outcome (more social mobility, equity, and sustainability), is it therefore a progressive policy, a libertarian policy, a centrist policy, or what? My inclination is that it shouldn’t matter, good policies that help people are good and it doesn’t really need to be more complicated than that. Don’t know why that’s so difficult for people.
Solid lefty here :) I read your newsletter precisely because I believe that urbanism can (maybe, even needs to) cross political lines. I don't always agree with your perspective but it serves as a good reminder that there exists diverse thinking about cities. I suspect there are a number of actions that people on the left and right could get behind, even though their ideology for supporting such action may be different. For example, I think we should minimize zoning regulations partly because of their racist/exclusionary history and nature and partly because I think that is the best way to get us to build the diverse and much needed housing many of our cities desperately need (clearly very left ideals). While conservatives may not like that ideology, might they sign on to minimizing zoning rules because that means less 'big government' interfering in our day to day lives?
This is a really interesting question that begs a more fundamental question: "what does it mean to be a conservative?" I consider myself to be fairly conservative. Most of my motivating principles and assumptions are religious in nature. I value family, tradition, financial responsibility, social responsibility, property rights, etc. These very values are what most motivate my commitment to urbanism! Increasingly though I find that these values put me at odds with other self identifying conservatives. When I try and tease apart what the fundamental difference is it's easiest to point to the individualist and libertarian strain that has come to define (I think wrongly) so much of what it means to be an American conservative.
Surely there are conservatives in the vein you mention that love living in NYC for all that a city and true urbanism offers... And in smaller cities towns. I don't equate conservative with wanting to be isolated. As you know, large numbers of Strong Towns acolytes are conservatives and we know Strong Towns principles work at all scales. These are just a few arguments for "hell yeah, ubanists can be conservative" (with a little c or a capital C).
Using terms like 'unavoidably' and phrases like 'There’s just no way around it,' makes that entire line of reasoning only look like special pleading. It's pretty clear just by looking at the vibrant range of viewpoints on urbanism that such a rejection can be avoided and there may very well be ways around it. What's more, a diversity of good faith viewpoints should make conversation around and even the urbanist project itself better, right?
Conservative is a really broad brush, but I liked the more particular question - "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?"
While it's an easier sell to me, as I'm on board with each of those ideological concerns, I think there's another potential angle to say "Let's continue what we did for hundreds of years - think of Old Town Europe". Perhaps that strikes more reactionary than conservative, but it's one approach I've seen pitched from you and from others. Another is articulating how suburbia destroys the family (again, depending on the conservative - my conservative friends are more socially conservative than fiscally conservative, and my mother bought a book titled "Death By Suburb" when we had to move to the suburbs in a different town for a few years.)
The irony of "Urbanism just is a socialist outlook and program” is that Urbanism is mostly a prescription to address the ridiculously restrictive land use policies found in "progressive" suburbs throughout the US.
Longtime real estate developer here and I can tell you that getting "good Urbanist" projects approved in deeply blue suburban Chicago was always a battle, but getting even denser similar projects done here in "the new South" has been rational, predictable and generally successful.
At its core, Urbanism is a fundamentally reactionary movement--recreating the successful small town geometry that resulted in folks knowing their neighbors and caring for one another as extended family--environments that support the flourishing of the nuclear family and 180 degrees from socialist collectivism.
Real urbanism is real conservatism. A real conservative values slow, incremental change and the rewarding of success and the abandonment of failure.
Sub-urbia can be seen as a huge, failed experiment in applying the same techniques of mass production that won WWII to the conversion of vast tracts of farms and forests to house returning veterans.
Suburbia can also be seen as a capitalist conspiracy that tied these veterans to monthly payments on mortgages and car loans. GM’s vision in Futurama in 1939 conflated mobility and freedom. Postwar, it was realized in Levittown and the shopping centers and office parks that followed. All connected to each other by arterials that maximized the amount of time spent driving.
In this brave new world, driving and lawn mowing would replace time spent at the neighborhood tavern and thus reduce the likelihood of talk about revolution that was so common in the 1930s.
One can be a capitalist, as I proudly am, without being a conservative who thinks that suburbia is the natural order of things, or that auto-mobility equals freedom. Suburbia represents huge subsidies for road building, cheap fuel and post WWII redlining of rather than reinvesting in urban neighborhoods.
One can be a motor-head, as I am, and not want to spend time trapped in cars for all daily activities. The New Urbanism, founded by fellow motor-heads, could be seen as a movement to protect the remaining scenic roads from suburban sprawl (by building attractive small towns and urban neighborhoods).
Levittown was absolutely part of a revolution. I'm barely calling myself conservative anymore, it isn't strong enough. I'm a reactionary. A reactionary in architecture, urban and regional planning, religion, politics, clothing, footwear, ecology, and transportation, the list is miserably long. Just ask my wife.
Really enjoyed this post and am glad you had an interesting conversation.
You and Nolan are 100% correct here. There’s an analogous conversation within YIMBYism and the answer there is the same as the answer here.
To the extent we’re all wanting broadly the same outcomes, we’re capable of justifying those aspirations in different ideological ways. There are def libertarian oriented Yimbys and I code Strong Towns as a small c conservative tinged (urbanist) group.
And to really drive that point home, there are def leftist coded positions that lead to suburbia. Mostly weird 70s era faux environmentalist neo-pastoralists. Granted, I think they’re wrong about everything even on their own terms, but they’re def left coded.
I really hate this kind of self promotion, but I'm curious if you've watched this series I did with New Polity examining urbanism through a traditional Catholic lens. I don't think we ever argue that urbanism is "conservative" per se, but we're arguing for good urbanism from a fundamentally conservative and religious thought tradition.
I’m sort of conservative, and I want walkable cities and towns because that is the traditional way for humans to live. Traveling by car every where is newfangled, and also wasteful - sounds more like “progressive” nonsense to me. In fact, if you read literature from the mid-20th century, suburbs were seen as the new, progressive way of building. I live in a small town that has not changed much since the early 1800s and I like it that way - you can walk everywhere you need to go and we don’t have a single fast food restaurant, big-box store or even a traffic light. I’m also an environmentalist because I’m conservative in a sort of Tolkienesque way. I like wild places to remain wild, and I don’t like pollution because what sort of moron wants trash and toxic waste everywhere? I have never understood why “conservatives” don’t want to conserve resources. Maybe I’m more of a reactionary.
It's funny how time and opportunity twists all political perceptions. The project to build American suburbia was clearly a product of the first Progressive era. It was a utopian effort, funded collectively and implemented by a non-elected technical/managerial class. The ideological underpinnings are entirely of the left, and of course it found its home ultimately by pairing with the corporate opportunists, many of whom you'd find on the political right. Today, it's the base of the political right that most stridently defends the earlier Progressive effort, and it's the new Progressives that are the most critical. Most people have little to no understanding of this dilemma or history, and just go with their tribal allegiances.
I think a way forward for people on the political right is to look at the current political realignment happening, and lean into that. For example, there's an increasing embrace on the right of localism, decentralized government, and a renewed criticism of the ills of corporate America. You can see this particularly in criticisms of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and now even the Military-Industrial Complex. Those critiques didn't exist on the right until very recently, but those voices are getting louder and louder.
I like to think of urbanism in its best sense as regenerative human settlements. Regenerative is a term used today in agriculture, as an alternative to industrial farming and Big Ag. Ten years ago, virtually everyone promoting this type of farming would be on the political left. I see that changing quite quickly, as noted above. For urbanists, I think attaching that mindset to city and town-making, and a critique of what the managerial revolution/corporate oligarchies did for cities in the 20th century is a great place to start. That approach will also find many allies on the left - those still embracing a bottom-up, localized approach to life.
Strong Towns is a urbanist approach that has fiscal responsibility at its core. One of their basic premises is that the level of outward building of the suburbs isn't financially viable when you consider maintainence costs, so cities should focus more on their more dense areas that bring in more tax revenue.
Urbanism also often focuses on the safety of the community, a traditionally conservative value.
Another way to put it, if you were someone who's main goal running a city was fiscal responsibility and safety of the community, you would probably be a conservative and also be doing urbanist things.
I think there's a more general thing about how having a culturally conservative philosophy doesn't mean you oppose change. There's a real "we used to be able to build and change things in this country" conservative belief and going back to it would make it easier to change the physical world around us. Conserving a culture that's able to build is culturally conservative (even if it's pro-change in physical reality).
A few years ago at an GGW function, someone asked me how I could be a conservative and an urbanist. Answer: I like cities. Why do you have to be a liberal to like cities? While walking along a country road on a crisp autumn day has its charm, I'd rather go see the symphony, or spend an afternoon in the National Gallery Of Art.