A new right hook for New Urbanism

For nearly a year, The American Conservative, a right-leaning national magazine, has been running well-written, informed, and positive online articles on the New Urbanism. Two of its editors joined a panel discussion at CNU in Dallas titled “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

Source: The American Conservative, Shutterstock

Source: The American Conservative, Shutterstock

This is newsworthy for two reasons:

1) No national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted this much coverage to New Urbanism.

2) Coming from a mainstream conservative source, such writing has been as scarce as hen’s teeth. For close to two decades, conservative pundits like Wendall Cox, Randal O’Toole, and Joel Kotkin have relentlessly bashed this trend. The Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party, and the American Dream Coalition are among the institutions of the right that have attacked new urban planning and development. Goaded by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party equates density and mixed-use with an anti-American, world-government agenda.

Leftists, too, have attacked the New Urbanism–but these attacks tend to come in the halls of academia (mostly architecture) and not pundits, think tanks, and political movements.

So the coverage from The American Conservative is refreshing, surprising, and, at the same time, makes sense. As William Lind, Andres Duany, and the late Paul Weyrich wrote in 2008:

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 designs 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 tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

Two conservative iconoclasts and an internationally known planner with conservative sensibilities nailed it—and were ignored.

Drumbeat of opposition

I had become so used to the drumbeat of negativity from the usual conservative suspects that I hardly noticed a growing chorus of support. In the August 2013 issue of Government Finance Review, Cato Institute’s Mark Calabria wrote “Overcoming Opposition to More Compact Development,” which praised the fiscal advantages of walkable urban places.

Last July, Matt K. Lewis wrote “New urbanism isn’t just for liberals — conservatives should embrace it too,” an article in the American edition of The Week, a right-of-center British magazine.

With support from the Driehaus Foundation, The American Conservative takes this emerging trend to a new level. Like the New Urbanism itself, the coverage is wide-ranging and multidisciplinary–including social, cultural, fiscal, economic, historical, and transportation-related topics.

A sprawling—no pun intended—article by national editor Benjamin Schwartz explains how urban renewal tore apart the British working class in the 1950s through 1970s. “Rarely has a magazine article made me as mad as this one. This is probably the best article I’ve read all year,” wrote one reader.

The piece begins: “Social collapse, always a long time coming, usually owes as much to good intentions gone terribly wrong as to malevolent design. The rot creeps in through weak seams and unattended fissures. It insidiously spreads and corrodes, thanks to humanity’s usual admixture of hubris, fecklessness, and evil.”

That’s powerful stuff, and Schwartz doesn’t let up for 5,000 words.

Like many new urbanists, I am aware of nearly every detail of how urban renewal tore cities apart in America. I did not know that Britain experienced even worse damage. The best recent American planning history I have read is Dead End, the 2014 book by Ben Ross, which recounts how sprawl and urban renewal changed the face of the US. Ross, a liberal activist, is reviewed in The American Conservative.

“Regardless of your political persuasion or your views of suburban style development, you will find Ben Ross’s scholarly and precise writing style captivating and edifying,” says Glen Bottoms. “This journey through the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the American suburbs to the sprawl miasma of today is peppered with surprising facts and meticulously supported conclusions.”

The American Conservative coverage is concerned with a wide range of communities—suburbs, cities, towns—and how people have suffered due to planning that “disintegrates a society’s physical setting.” And the stories are not just about the negative side, but also explain alternative new urban ideas.

Pragmatic New Urbanism

New Urbanism is pragmatic and non ideological. Conservatives and liberals alike appreciate the beauty and human scale of Nantucket, Savannah, Old City Philadelphia, and Rome—and newer and revitalized neighborhoods built along similar lines. When O’Toole came to CNU in Chicago in 2004 for a debate, Lind stood up and said that new urbanists are pragmatists, and O’Toole is the ideologue.

Jonathan Coppage, editor of The American Conservative, writes:

It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as (writer Noah) Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.”

Go to any gathering of new urbanists and you will find staunch conservatives, although they may be in the minority, working with liberals on terms of the greatest respect. That’s a diversity that is rare these days, at least in the public arena. The conservatives who have studied the New Urbanism are among the movement’s most effective people. To see this attitude filtering out into the wider conservative marketplace of ideas is encouraging.

Andres Duany, who may have talked directly to more citizens about New Urbanism than anyone else, recounted a week in the late 1980s when he visited Chico, California, a liberal college town, and then a community in Maine, where the audience consisted of “retired admirals and the CIA.” He gave precisely the same talk, at which point he realized that “It works to both left wing and right wing. We just have to talk about what we know–creating community.”

theamericanconservativeThe American Conservative’s New Urbanism blog was launched last July. “We see this as one of the most important issues that faces the country because this will determine where our grandchildren live,” says Coppage, who didn’t know how readers would react to the topic.

“We were blown away. I was amazed by how many people reached out when we started this conversation,” he says. The positive feedback came from Congressional staffers, and people at right-wing media outlets and conservative think tanks.

“They said ‘I thought I was alone,’ ” he says. “These were conservatives who wondered ‘Why can’t I have a main street?’ There are conservatives who are receptive to all of the elements of the New Urbanism charter, but are waiting for somebody to reach out.”

We will continue to hear from Kotkin, Cox, O’Toole, the Tea Party, and other critics from the conservative side. Now we also have a new generation of conservative intellectuals making cogent, well-informed arguments for human-scale design and development. Right field is no longer owned by the pro-sprawl folks.

Some things do change. What’s next? A new urbanist on the Harvard Graduate School of Design faculty? Or, rather, world peace—Let’s not get too carried away.

This column was originally published here.

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