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Conservatives Should Live in the City
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.Published in General
I never said that it didn’t matter at all, but here is where I’m coming from. I grew up in a small rural town in Tennessee. There was no urban planning. You had to have a car to get anywhere, including the one high school in the county. I mean this respectfully. I knew my neighbors, and I had an awesome childhood. I’ve lived in big cities and now even a small European one. I’ve visited many of the beautiful European cities in Western Europe and the truth is I wouldn’t trade growing up where I did for any of them. I don’t want an urban upbringing for my kids and unfortunately the economics of today don’t make living in a small town that easy so the right suburb is as close as I can get. So please understand why the “but it’s important to be surrounded by beautiful stuff” argument don’t appeal to me.
Hmmm. I’ve read all the comments, but it’s definitely possible that I’m guilty of not reading “mindfully.” Did someone seriously advance an “objective” argument in favor of city living that depends on a judgment that all parts of all cities everywhere are simply brimming with beauty? ?!?!?!?
When has “efficiency” been a measure if quality of life? It would be more efficient to have us all live in dormitories and eat in refrectories. Think of all the wasted space in even an urban apartment. Why assign anyone more than 100 square feet of living area? What is “efficient” about people making meals in their own homes.? It uses less energy to have refrectory in each neighborhood and have everyone eat there. Less waste food, too. Dn’t eat what is served you starve. That’s efficient!
Life isn’t about efficient — except to statists. It is about quality of life. If you can find the quality of life you desire in an urban setting, fine. If you instead prefer the quality of life in suburbs, that is fine, too.
No, sorry. It was in response to #117 but I couldn’t get it to quote right.
I can’t understand why so much reflexive defensiveness.
No one is making the case that efficiency is the highest good. But can’t we acknowledge the inefficiency?
If I say Christmas has gotten too materialistic, nobody jumps up and says “Hey! Free markets!” We can engage in materialism while acknowledging the problems with it.
Lesserson: “What have I done!”
Casey: “But my time in the city has altered my suburban conservatism. Much for the better I think.”
Matty: Same for me, bro. I’ve always loved great natural places and appreciated small towns but big cities were dens of evil. Or so I thought until I lived in one.
Disclaimer: I am and have always been a Suburban Girl. I’ve lived in the NoVA suburbs all of my life.
What I find interesting is that the small town/suburban folks in this discussion seem to be saying, “I like where I live, but if you like the city, bully for you,” whereas the city folks seem to be saying, “I like the city, and so should you [for a variety of reasons].” That’s just *not* a conservative impulse. That’s a statist impulse. I reject it.
Y’know what’s refreshing about the suburbs? Your neighbors don’t assume that you agree with them on social issues. Those issues come up at block parties, but what’s missing is arrogant leftist smugness. My neighbors and I *know* that we disagree on many issues, and I think that makes us much more civil.
Garrrh! What about not trying city planning for a change?
As Matty Van pointed out on the Member feed, a non-negligible portion of our “overreliance on cars” is due to former city planners and other central authorities having planned it that way.
It was government who instituted zoning laws segregating commercial from residential buildings. It is government that makes home industries illegal in many cases. It was government who built many of our highways, despite the fact that private highways are totally a thing. It is government that mandates that people build a certain amount of parking on their property, whether they want to or not.
Houston is famous for its relative lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.
So let’s not try a new type of city planning. Let’s get rid of the restrictions imposed by old city planning. Then people will be free again to build walkable neighborhoods if they want to.
Let’s try un-planning for a change.
Many suburbs are infested with zoning restrictions. Do you not know this?
What if real community can’t be planned? At least not planned by any one person.
What if real community arises when people free to plan for themselves freely cooperate to plan things together?
Suburbanites are saying “I like where I live and that’s enough. ” More to the point, conservatives say “We’re right and that’s enough. ”
Well, ok. But be prepared for the consequences.
I don’t mean consequences in a negative sense but in a political and economic sense. There will be inefficiencies, there will be infrastructure costs, there will be traffic, there will be a loss of influence in cities, a loss of shared experience and so on. We ought not be dismissive of that reality.
If the country was dominantly conservative, this may not matter. But as it is we need to consider these things seriously.
What consequences? What inefficiencies? Average commutes haven’t budged from 30 minutes in decades, and there’s evidence they haven’t budged in millenia -but cars let us live away from the belching smoke of downtown and still commute in 30 minutes. The decentralization of the metropolis has reduced traffic congestion because we’re not all going to the CBD. Suburbanites spend less time in their cars because of telecommuting and working in regional or remote offices -and they spend less time idling in traffic. They get to own their own property, be with their families more, and not be subject to the whims of the Downtown Interest Groups.
So your argument is “walking.” If the ancient Romans -no urban slouches they -heard you talk like that, they’d bowl over laughing.
And politically: central city voters are less than a quarter of the electorate.
Let me come at this another way – do you believe there are particular political issues and consequences that arise when people move into urban areas? Or rural areas?
Would you expect those who live in urban areas to be somewhat out of touch with Suburbanites? Would it be helpful to the liberal cause for liberal urbanites to experience suburban life?
I don’t think anyone here would do anything but nod. Put the onus on them and it all seems very reasonable. But say the same about ourselves and everyone goes bananas.
The liberals live in a world of “shoulds”. I am getting tired of others telling me where I should live, how I should get around (look up “commute trip reduction”), what I should eat and how I should dispose of the leftovers…ad infinitum. We still live in a moderately free country, and the main benefit of that is that I get to decide all those things. I resist mightily all efforts to change my desires or my behavior. And I really can’t think of one good reason I would want to live in a place surrounded by people who hold me and my values in contempt. Having been immediately laid off after buying a place close to work, my philosophy is “live where you want, and let work take care of itself”.
That’s okay. I can’t understand why so much willful blindness. As you just pointed out efficiency isn’t the issue. So acknowledging “inefficiency” is acknowledging a non-sequitur.
Besides, what defines “efficiency”? More accurately relevant efficiency, because if efficiency isn’t relevant to the solution it is meaningless. A steam turbine is more “efficient” engine than a diesel for propelling ocean-going ships if your relevant measure is fuel energy per horsepower. If your relevant measure of efficiency is operating cost and life-cycle cost the diesel beats the turbine hands-down. And my romantic hankering for the more fuel-efficient steam turbine does not change that.
Similarly your romantic hankering for urban life does not change the efficiencies that lead people to choose suburban life over urban life. They have a different definition of efficiency than you do.
Again, if you choose the big city, knock yourself out. Because my my choice is different doe not make it inferior to yours.
One more comment on the joys of urban living (and I don’t mean to suggest I would have traded my 12 ‘wild and woolly’ yrs in NYC for anything), but don’t forget some key reasons liberals encourage city dwelling:
1. 25% property taxes on multi-million dollar dwellings= big bucks.
2. City and state income taxes in addition to federal mean worker bees bring home 40% of their salary and the remaining 60% goes to the govt. Again, some mighty big bucks transferring hands here.
3. Peer group intimidation to muzzle conservatives. As a friend and I were cabbing over to NYC’s 92nd street Y to hear Ayaan Hirsi Ali speak one evening, she warned me: “This is a very liberal institution, so keep your mouth shut.” (True story.)
I said not the highest good. It is a good.
You respond as if I’ve proposed a law to force people top live in cities rather than propose a way that conservatives might engage and evangelize more effectively than they currently do.
Btw, I feel like Nathan invited me over to help him move and then I suddenly notice that I haven’t passed him on the stairs recently.
I can’t understand why so much reflexive defensiveness. Oh wait – that’s your line.
ok – this comment, I think, illustrates the reality of this situation perfectly. Matty, you live in NYC, correct? I personally invite you to come out to Wyoming or Montana, and I’ll put you up with a friend on a ranch for a week or two. You might hate it. In fact, you most certainly will hate it. Because it’s not your preferred living situation.
And that is the crux of the matter. I don’t need to hear you or any other east coaster tell me that cities are better than ‘burbs or country living. If you like it, go live there. And you don’t need me to tell you that cities should be razed so we can all get back to our roots. I’m free to move out (as I have done). Conservatives shouldn’t live in the city, or anywhere else. They should do whatever the F they want.
You talk about city planning. Fine. I talk about planning your on life – and being free to do so.
That’s a political point. How about a personal one? I just spent 2 weeks in Lewistown, Montana. One evening, I stepped outside and took a walk for about 100 yards. Pitch black, not another soul in miles (except back at the house). I sat down and looked up: stars. Millions of them. The sounds of nature. The smells of nature.
Some of you people are talking about multi-family homes! Hah! I wouldn’t trade my single-family home for all the money in the world. There is a lot to life that you haven’t experienced in your suffocated existence… it’s sad.
Why so willfully blind to my argument?
Let’s also remember that the suburbs of Detroit were negatively impacted by the demise of that once great city. A little conservative elbow grease there might have helped.
Ryan, I would refer you to comment #109 but I failed to mention the pristine private beaches in my community which stay that way because you have to live in the neighborhood and pay upkeep fees to use them, my butterfly garden, my bird sanctuary and my koi pond.
And if they’d lived in Detroit, they’d have been completely wiped out. Why do you think they left?
You would have a koi pond, Liz. And you should probably get serenity garden, too… I’ve heard you on the AMU. Intense. ;)
This sounds awesome. I would love this at least as much as I love living near PNC Park. I really would.
But if we all move out to a place under the stars the world won’t become more conservative. In fact, the farther we move from liberal hives the more liberal the bees may become.
Look, I’m never going to move because of political considerations. It would be weird if I did. But that doesn’t mean my move won’t have some small impact on the larger political picture.
OK, all you anti-New-Urbanists, you can read my anti-planning rant here if you want.
I even gave it a goofy, hipster title, “Un-Planning, A Manifesto”. If pro-planning hipster types can write anything and call it a manifesto, why can’t I?
What argument? You stated “I said not the highest good. It is a good.” That is not an argument. It is a platitude. When you have an argument I will respond to it. But until you do, I cannot respond.
As to not responding to arguments, project much? You did not respond to my point about meaningful efficiencies. Instead you threw out a false claim:
“You respond as if I’ve proposed a law to force people top live in cities rather than propose a way that conservatives might engage and evangelize more effectively than they currently do.”
Um no. I did not do that. I pointed out your argument about efficiency was a non-sequitur. To which you have not responded.
My modestly sized property looks like a lush Brazilian rainforest that would impress even Simon T, which reminds me, I need to talk to him about that one snake that is destroying my serenity… :)
It was a clarification.