Matt Lewis has a thoughtful piece in The Week, arguing that conservatives ought to embrace urban living. He wonders whether traditional conservative values, especially family values, are undermined by the tolls of maintaining the suburban lifestyle, and, furthermore, whether the conservative’s instinct to remain anchored in history is undermined by the artlessness of most suburban architecture.
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…
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.
Lewis is right to point out the inefficiencies and unjustified costs of suburban life, as well as its lack of beauty. As he puts it, it is not the city or the country that disturb him, but the “ugly in-between.”
There’s one big missing piece to his criticism though: kids. I believe the liberal/conservative divide that we see between cities and suburbs is partly a reflection of the willingness of conservatives to raise more children.
Do you know how difficult it is to find an affordable three bedroom apartment in most leading American cities?
I lived for a short time in New York City. My wife gave birth to our first child at Roosevelt hospital in Midtown. We brought our new girl home in a yellow cab, and rode the elevator up to our 300 sq ft apartment on the 16th floor. Her nursery was a closet just big enough to fit the crib inside.
Since then, we’ve been busy making more kids—one every couple of years. We traded the subway for a Honda Odyssey. We now have four tiny faces running around, and man, did that happen fast.
We long since moved out of our little New York apartment, where we could walk to the grocery store, to restaurants, to work, to the doctor’s office, to our church, to Central Park. The real estate in our new hometown, Nashville, is a bit easier on the wallet than it is in Manhattan, but walkable, family-friendly housing is scarce here, and getting scarcer all the time as younger well-to-dos move back in to the city core.
What remains for most middle class families is miles and miles of tract house subdivisions—far removed from where most of them work, far removed, even, from many of the public parks, libraries, museums, and restaurants that make up the city’s vibrant culture. Unlike many older, east-coast cities, public transportation here is severely limited.
Cheap land makes for affordable housing, and conservatives with average incomes are only partly to blame for not choosing to embrace new urbanism, even if they do fail, oftentimes, to calculate the emotional cost of a long daily commute, and a life spent trapped somewhere in the soulless space between “the Chuck E. Cheese and the Target store.”
The problem of suburbia may be partly a failure of conservatives themselves, but it also represents an epic and nationally pervasive failure of city planning. Then again, not all cities are equal. And being a “new urbanist” in Detroit is a heck of a lot cheaper than doing it in San Francisco.
Here in a semi-pricey city like Nashville, you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager to afford three bedrooms. If you are part of the upper-middle class, or among the wealthy, it is possible to be a conservative with van full of kids and still participate in the “new-urbanist” movement. For the middle class, it’s much more difficult. And that’s the story almost everywhere. America’s best and most desirable cities—its centers of influence and commerce and culture and power—remain firmly in the hands of millions of childless liberals who flock to these areas, and rent the one-bedroom apartments that they offer in abundance.
But Lewis is right: the city needs more conservatives, and conservatives need the city.