Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Urbanism And Conservatism

American suburbia
Hello Everyone:

Yours truly is wilting in the annual late summer  heat wave, wistfully hoping for cooler days.  Despite the unending high temperatures, we shall persevere.  Today's post is from the pile that has been collecting in the drop box.  In this case, Matt K. Lewis's post for The Week, "New urbanism isn't for liberals-conservatives should embrace it too." Mr. Lewis discusses why "socialist pipe dream(s)" are not just ideas for liberal leaning people, it is something that has traction for conservative minded individuals.

Over time, conservatism has, for one reason or another, been associated in the popular mind with sterile suburbs, grotesquely large houses (McMansions), gas-guzzling mini vans and SUVs. Liberalism come to mean image of urban living in close quarters, public transportation or bicycle commutes from lofts to open-floor workplaces.  This, as Mr. Lewis points out, is pure fallacy, citing how the late conservative giant William F. Buckley rode a scooter or how Russell Kirk absolutely refused to drive, warning that, "...automobiles would increase rootlessness in America."  If these conservative icons were to be miraculously resurrected, would discover that their fellow Americans have a completely different view of conservatives.  Conservatives, if they must live near a city, choose to by the biggest house with the furthest commute they can afford and endure, buy the biggest and least fuel efficient automobile.  Mr. Lewis concludes, "And you know what?  Based on our choices, it's pretty clear that we conservatives believe this, too."  Perhaps it is time for a change of thinking.

Seaside, Florida
Perhaps it is time for conservatives-and all Americans-to embrace New Urbanism.  New Urbanism promotes walkability (exercise without going to the gym), mixed use neighborhoods with retail-residential development and homes in a variety of sizes and shapes with narrow streets. New Urbanism is just about high density, it lets you live within an easy safe walking distances to schools, stores, restaurants, and so much more. Mr. Lewis recently interview two contemporary New Urbanists for his podcasts: Sid Burgess, a self-described "Coolidge Republican" and Kerry S. Decker, who considers himself a Tea Party person who briefly worked as a city planner.  Their personal stories describe why contemporary conservatives should embrace this philosophy, yet converting their cohorts will not be simple.

Celebration, Florida
Kerry S. Decker relates that whenever he mentions anything relating to New Urbanism in connections with Republicans and conservatives who do not personally know him, he gets branded a Communist. It is strange how the label "Communist" has become a catch all applied to anyone who does not tow the conservative party line.  Mr. Burgess tells how he came to support the New Urbanist way of thinking after he heard James Howard Kunstler's 2004 TED Talk.  During said presentation, Mr. Kunstler showed slides of urban and suburban sprawl, then declared, "These are places that are not worth caring about [and] when we have enough of them, we're going to a have a nation that's not worth defending."  Mr. Kunstler went on to ask the audience who were fighting and dying in Iraq.  He said, "And ask yourself what is their last thought of home?  I hope it's not the curb between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target Store."

I need to step back for a second and ponder this question myself.  Have Target and Chuck E. Cheese become the symbols of American values?  What does this say about a culture that has produced Walt Whitman, Arthur Miller, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Lloyd Wright?  Pretty sad if you ask me, especially in light of images from Ferguson, that the idea of defending the Homeland has been reduced to defending big-box stores and fast food restaurants.

University Place
Memphis, Tennessee
James Howard Kunstler's question hit a nerve for Mr. Burgess who had just returned from Iraq.  Matt K. Lewis ponders if Mr. Kunstler understood if, at the time he posed the above question, he was tapping into a familiar conservative sentiment.  Quoting writer and political theorist  Edmund Burke, "To make use love our country,...our country must be lovely."  Mr. Burke was referring to the spiritual qualities of a people. Yet, it is not a stretch to consider the quality of loveliness to aesthetic-and the search for the sublime-as connected to the intangible and spiritual character of a people.  Or, as Joan Didion put it, "style is character." In other words, "The place we live-the milieu we collectively inhabit-is an outward and visible manifestation of the inward.  Just as we affect our environment, our environment affects us.  And suburban sprawl isn't affecting us in a good way."

The Cotton District
Starkville, Mississippi
If New Urbanism sounds like a great solution to urban and suburban sprawl, why has not been so readily embraced and its adherents labeled socialists?  Mr. Lewis explains that government regulation is to blame for America's post-World War II mad dash for sprawl. Specifically, he cites tax codes, zoning laws, federally financed highway system, and so forth as culprits in the sprawl.  He further observes, "What is even more interesting, though, is that the conservatives so readily embraced this modern fad as being tantamount to the American dream."  What the cost of this American dream is something that cannot really be quantified. The cost, in this case, implies familial and social costs as in: children deprived of parents who were stuck in cars commuting to and from work so that junior can grow up in suburbia and go to a nice school, the break up of marriages due to commuter stress.  Also, Mr. Lewis observes that it is hard to quantify the spiritual and psychic costs associated with the endlessly psychotic break-inducing commutes and the disconnect from any sense of community.  Of course there is the economic cost of maintaining these low-density areas and the infrastructures that yields little in return.

Stapleton, Colorado
After reading all of this, you could come to the conclusion that the New Urbanism philosophy is consistent with conservative values.  Unfortunately the number of conservative journalists and thinkers who embrace this idea is small but they are in good company with Edmund Burke and contemporary writer Rod Dreher.  In a report titled "Conservative and the New Urbanism; Do We Have Some Things in Common?"  Heritage Foundation Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich is joined by American Conservative and New Urbanism founder architect Andres Duany in making a compelling argument for way conservatives should support this philosophy:

On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war "sprawl" suburbs.  As conservatives we are supposed to prefer traditional design over modern innovations in most things (and we do).  We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work, and shop encourage traditional culture and morals.  This should not surprise us.  Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes.  If you (literally) disintegrate a society's physical setting as sprawl has done, you ten to disintegrate its culture as well.  (,

New Urbanism in San Antonio, Texas
What are the solutions?  Matt K. Lewis and his cohorts are not suggesting that government is the solution for development policies.  Local governments should consider New Urbanist-type development policies and conservatives, who zealously adhere to conservative values, should want to live in these communities.

Whether you lean conservative or liberal, Edmund Burke's statement, "To make use love our country,...our country must be lovely," still rings true.  Lovely does not necessarily mean aesthetic quality it means placing a high value on the principles we stand for not the material trappings of popular culture.  New Urbanism is one way to enshrine the values that a nations stands for.  The question is can it be embraced by all?

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