Painting the Town Purple

A new generation of conservative pundits is cheerfully blurring the line between red and blue—by embracing smart growth and New Urbanism.

Photo: Peter French/Flickr

Though we’ve allowed them to become politicized, most of the issues we think of as “environmental” aren’t intrinsically political. The policies we adopt to address environmental problems may be political, insofar as they cost taxpayer money and are typically proposed by elected officials, but the underlying issues themselves don’t deserve to be shoehorned into the same old dialectical models—red vs. blue, left vs. right—as so many other national discussions. At the end of the day, liberals and conservatives all have to breathe the same air and drink the same water; climate change doesn’t really give a damn whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent.

Which is why it’s always satisfying when left and right amicably agree to come together over a sustainability issue that was previously thought of as the province of “the environmental movement” (whatever that term has come to mean). Not long ago, I came across a remarkable quote: a one-sentence condemnation of urban sprawl that astutely links its ethos of physical decentralization to the breakdown of certain civic ideals, like community and neighborliness, that we hold dear.

If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

 True enough, I thought—and well put, at that. The sentence appeared in a white paper on sprawl’s social costs. That one of its three authors was Andrés Duany, the architect who coined the term “New Urbanism” to describe a set of urban-planning principles emphasizing density, centrality, walkability, and shared civic amenities, came as little surprise. But upon reading the names of Duany’s collaborators, I’ll confess that my first thought was that a politically minded copyeditor was playing a practical joke. Could it really be the case that helping Duany make his anti-sprawl, pro–smart growth argument were Paul M. Weyrich, cofounder of both the far-right Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, and William S. Lind, the conservative critic who has spent the last quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union railing against an insidious “Marxist culture” that’s still hard at work corrupting America from within?

One glance at the title of the white paper confirmed that this was no joke, however. As it happens, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism” isn’t a new report—it was written a few years before Weyrich’s death in 2008. But over the last year or so it has reentered the public discourse in the wake of what can only be described as a full-on embrace of New Urbanist ideals by a cluster of (mostly) young and decidedly right-leaning journalists and thinkers, including Jonathan Coppage, Lewis McCrary, Matt Lewis, and Rod Dreher.

Many of these writers have found a home for their opinions in the pages of the American Conservative, a magazine that has long prided itself on its spiritedly heterodox approach to conservative thought. And in the ideas set forth by smart growth–oriented urban planners like Duany and Charles Marohn, they believe they have discovered a model for fixing our ruptured civic fabric through the strengthening of cities, towns, and villages.

They’re right to think so. As Lind himself pointed out in an American Conservative essay earlier this year, many of the problems that New Urbanism seeks to address—anomie and malaise, the geographical and spiritual isolation of citizens, the abandonment of shared civic experiences—are the very same problems that many cultural conservatives warn are at the heart of a decaying society.

“Community is a highly important conservative value,” Lind writes, “because it is through community expectations and pressures that traditional morals are best upheld.” One can disagree with Lind, as I do, over which brand of morality our communities should be fostering and upholding. But there’s no arguing with his basic premise: When neighborhoods are designed to maximize the potential for interactions between neighbors, and when each member of a community is encouraged to feel like part of a socially, physically, and (yes) architecturally unified whole, local culture is born.   

In May, Coppage and one of his fellow American Conservative editors, Benjamin Schwarz, hosted a panel featuring Duany and Marohn at the 23rd annual Congress for the New Urbanism, which took place in my hometown of Dallas—as culturally conservative a city as exists in modern-day America. During his portion of the discussion, Marohn described the cognitive dissonance he felt as a young and “fairly conservative” (in his own words) engineer whenever he was confronted with the fact that New Urbanism’s priorities—increased walkability, transit-oriented development, urban green space, mixed-use zoning that allows for ground-level retail and restaurants with apartments or offices above—represented the best solutions to some of our most vexing urban-planning problems. “Gosh,” he would say to himself, “I want to like this. But I’m not a lefty. I’m not one of those people.”

In 2008, having finally come out of the closet as a proud New Urbanist, Marohn founded the organization Strong Towns, mainly, he says, to promote environmentally friendly, socially nurturing smart growth ideals to city planners and governments using “the agnostic language of dollars and cents.” Like Jim Brainard, the conservative Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana (and the subject of a 2014 profile in onEarth), Marohn knew there was one surefire way to convince clients—especially those in charge of designing our smaller, more conservative cities in the so-called heartland—that New Urbanism deserved their consideration, not their skepticism: Show them how urban neighborhoods redesigned along its time-tested, human-friendly principles routinely see their tax bases rise as businesses and homeowners compete with one another to relocate there.

After the Congress for the New Urbanism wrapped up in May, the pro–smart growth blogger Robert Steuteville pointed out, rightly, that “no national magazine that covers general political topics has ever devoted [as] much coverage to New Urbanism” as the American Conservative has over the last year. Steuteville marveled that a group of editors and writers stemming from a political movement once characterized as reflexively hostile to sustainability would now appear to be among the most vocal champions of sustainable urban planning. Quoting Coppage (who himself is quoting the business and financial blogger Noah Smith), Steuteville leaves his readers with this observation—which oughtn’t seem so remarkable but which, in our over-politicized culture, has the freshness of a newly minted insight:

“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.”


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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