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.
Never mind the fact that conservative icon William F. Buckley rode a scooter, or that conservative icon Russell Kirk refused to drive a car, warning that automobiles would increase rootlessness in America. No, these days America seems to assume that conservatives, if they must live near a city, will seek to buy the biggest house with the longest commute they can possibly afford and endure, and buy the biggest, least fuel-efficient car to take them there. And you know what? Based on our choices, it's pretty clear that we conservatives believe this, too.
Well, there's a better way for conservatives (and all Americans), and it's called New Urbanism. Essentially, New Urbanism promotes walkable (a side benefit: exercise!) mixed-use neighborhoods and homes of all shapes and sizes with narrow streets and retail on the sidewalk level, and apartments above. And it's not just about high-density, high-rise buildings. New Urbanism lets you live within safe walking distance of your church, baker, stores, bars, restaurants, and more.
I recently interviewed two modern New Urbanists about this on my podcast. Sid Burgess calls himself a "Coolidge Republican," and Kerry S. Decker, who considers himself a Tea Partier, briefly worked as a city planner. Their stories illustrate why modern conservatives should embrace these ideas. But converting them won't be easy.
"Whenever I start mentioning any kind of New Urbanism items — for conservatives and Republicans who I talk to who don't know me personally — I'm instantly branded a Communist," said Decker.
Burgess tells me he came to support New Urbanism after he heard James Howard Kunstler's 2004 TED Talk. During the presentation, Kunstler showed slides of urban and suburban sprawl, and then declared, "These are places that are not worth caring about [and] when we have enough of them, we're going to have a nation that's not worth defending."
Kunstler then asked his audience to think about the people who were then fighting and dying in Iraq, and said, "And ask yourself what is their last thought of home? I hope it's not the curb cut between the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store."
This really hit home with Burgess, who had just returned from Iraq himself. But whether he realized it or not, Kunstler was also tapping into a sentiment conservatives ought to be familiar with.
"To make us love our country," Edmund Burke said, "our country must be lovely." Burke, of course, was talking about the spiritual attributes of a people — something Kuntsler doesn't deal with. But it's not out of bounds to think that aesthetics — and the search for the sublime — are somehow interrelated to the intangible and spiritual aspects of a people. As Joan Didion declared, "style is character."
Another way of looking at it: 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.
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.
At what cost, nobody can really quantify. There's no telling how many marriages were broken up over the stress of suburb-to-city commutes — or how many hours of the day children were deprived of their parents who, after all, were in the car making a big sacrifice so that little Johnny could have a huge yard, live in suburbia, go to a supposedly nice school, and have "rugged individualists" as parents. It's also hard to quantify the spiritual and psychic cost associated with endlessly frustrating commutes, disconnection from a community, and ugly buildings. And there is certainly an economic cost of taxpayers maintaining low-density areas and infrastructure that yield relatively little revenue.
If, after hearing all this, you think New Urbanism sounds consistent with conservative values, you're not entirely alone. We may be small in number, but we're in good company with Kirk and Burke and modern writers like Rod Dreher — and the good folks I've mentioned and interviewed. In an old report titled "Conservatives and the New Urbanism," Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined the American Conservative's William S. Lind and New Urbanist Andres Duany in making a pretty compelling case for why more conservatives ought to embrace this. Here's an excerpt:
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. [Conservatives and the New Urbanism]
So what is the fix?
Nobody I know is suggesting that big government — or the U.N.! — ought to mandate or impose these sorts of development policies. The idea is that local governments should think of these things — and that conservatives who actually hold traditionally conservative values should probably want to live in such communities.
As someone who grew up in a very rural part of western Maryland, I love the country. I also love the city. What I don't love is the often-ugly in-between. We've all heard of that shining city on a hill. I'm afraid to tell you that there is no shining cul-de-sac on a hill.