Could Hating Sprawl Unite Left and Right?

An aerial view of Sydney on August 4, 2008 sho...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

At the end of last week, a fascinating mini-meme broke out in the political blogosphere’s brainier precincts: a left-right convergence on the subject of urban sprawl.

The proximate cause was a typically deep-thinking broadside from ABC News’ resident libertarian goofball, John Stossel, in which this living tribute to ‘80s porn fashion blasted “smart growth” and extolled endless suburbia. I can’t find the appropriate Stosselian link, but I think we can summarize: Free market…elitism…social engineering…free market…live how I choose…American dream…did we mention the free market?…et cetera.

Anyone who follows this delightful issue has seen the like about a million times, from sources ranging from John Tierney’s ponderous NYT Mag encomium to the expressway to Portland’s own professional property-rights talking shop, the Cascade Policy Institute. The “libertarian” conception of sprawl as an organic manifestation of America’s free-living mercantile zest (rather than a byproduct of massive Big Gub’mint regulations and subsidies) dies hard.

In this case, bloggish reactions came swiftly. Of course, everyone would expect a geeky liberal like Matthew Yglesias to rush to high-density zoning’s defense. And so he did. The more intriguing responses came from a few clicks to the right. My True/Slant colleague E.D. Kain brought the hammer down with particular force:

…zoning and central planning is the culprit when if comes to urban sprawl. I think this issue rests at the heart of what went wrong with conservativism…I believe that the death of Burkean conservativism and the rise of this hyper-ideological movement conservativism has many roots, but one important and oft-overlooked one is this modern American landscape of sprawl and steel, of suburbs and hour-long commutes, of strip-malls and vast concrete scissures.

Over at The American Conservative, Austin Bramwell echoed Yglesias, in his own way, in a link-heavy salvo well worth clicking through:

For the 101st time: sprawl—an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States—is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations…If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

This analysis—in which, if I may make my own extrapolation from what I think Kain and Bramwell are getting at, sprawl is just another symptom of community-destroying, tradition-eroding liberal materialism, and a root cause of right-wing distemper—seems most at home among what you might call the blogosphere’s introspective conservatives. Within this loose constellation of writers, the word “Burkean,” as per Kain, looms large; philosophy matters; and a sort of tweedy wistfulness about modernity’s discontents tends to prevail. I would put ur-crunchy con Rod Dreher in this camp, as well as the Times’ charming (if often super-weird) Ross Douthat and just about everyone who writes for The American Conservative. David Brooks flirts with this kind of stuff in his more soulful mode, as does Andrew Sullivan—though Sullivan, of course, contains multitudes.

True, these writers hardly find themselves at the white-hot center of the current “conservative” resurgence—but that’s a good thing. As a bike-riding, organic-egg-loving Portland nerd, I can find some common ground with these dudes. I wish the American electoral system provided an opening for a radical-localist, anti-corporate small government party composed of neck-bearded Tolkein fans—hell, I might even vote for such a party from time to time. (I wrote about the rough British equivalent to this alternative tendency, the Red Tory tradition, for Good last year.) In the absence of such an opportunity, these thoughtful characters must revert to their habit of staring into the middle distance and talking about Michael Oakeshott every time the Republican Party suffers one of its frequent hormonal imbalances.

Or—maybe not? Could last week’s minor alignment over shared hatred of stripmalls point the way to a practical, issue-oriented rapprochement, to use a French term, between some segments of our nominal left and right?

At the moment, sprawl is not a top-tier national political concern, sharing its obscurity with urban policy in general. (I’ve been disappointed that Obama’s campaign-trail talk about a new vision for “metropolitan policy,” and his early establishment of a White House office on urban affairs, have not so far yielded much.) But you never know. A major transportation reauthorization is due from Congress soon, and some creative ideas are percolating in that area, inviting bipartisan support. As far as the issue’s broader potential goes, some current Oregon affairs are at least suggestive.

Oregon adopted the nation’s most comprehensive land-use and anti-sprawl (or, as I suggested in another recent article for Good, “slow sprawl”) laws back in the 1970s. The original, landmark legislation resulted from a collaboration between a renegade Republican governor and a Democrat-heavy legislature. Even today, as this Oregonian article reports, the entwined issues of urban growth and agricultural preservation can forge alliances between “conservative” farmers and “liberal” environmentalists.

I don’t know if this adds up to much. But perhaps the old saying that all ideology is false is especially true when one is standing in a Chili’s parking lot.

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About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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9 Responses to Could Hating Sprawl Unite Left and Right?

  1. Mr. Dundas,

    To answer your question “Could Hating Sprawl Unite Left and Right?” the answer is a very simple “NO”.

    At the end of the day conservatives are about conserving the profits for giant corporations – i.e. the status quo. For the last century urban sprawl, based upon low density housing and individual automobiles has been enormously profitable. Of course a dense, urban, mass transit based model would be profitable too, but not nearly so much. Further it would involve shift political power away from existing centers of profit to others. Finally, suburban voters are generally conservative while urban voters tend to be less so. This so in part because urban dwellers tend to be more inter-dependent and reliant on government functions and are geographically close to urban problems (it is harder to argue that they someone else’s problem). In contrast, suburbanites tend to rely less on others in general and government services in particular and are far for the social problems of the city (i.e. someone else’s problem).

    Conservatives have every reason, however short-term or short-sighted, to favor urban sprawl.

    • jake brodsky says:

      What you have done is to construct a straw man argument and then explain why it can never work. I’ll agree that your notion of what conservatism is can never work. But that’s not what conservative thought is.

      A conservative may not care about whether people live in cities or farms. But that’s not the same thing as subverting cities in favor of sprawl. Cities have done that to themselves very nicely by regulating away any industry that might attempt to find a niche. Cities have regulated away even the opportunity for light manufacturing or tradesman industry. Just try and find a gas station, let alone a mechanic anywhere downtown.

      Conservatives didn’t do that. Cities have scared away the middle class families by adopting values and policies for public schools that the middle class simply couldn’t live with. So they voted with their feet.

      First came minor suburbs, than they grew and grew and now we have exurbs: people living on small unincorporated farms surrounding urban sprawl. Why do they do it? Because the regulations and the busybody politics are making cities and even inner suburbs un-livable.

      Conservatives do think for the long term. No, we don’t like changes, we do prefer the status quo in many cases –but change for change sake is just as bad.

      The real issue isn’t change or the lack thereof. It’s an amalgamation of some really horrible ideas that took hold in cities across the country. These are no more conservative ideas than they are liberal. Let’s call a spade a spade: They’re stupid, wasteful ideas.

      As a conservative, I’d like to see the investment my grandparents made in the infrastructure of a city continue to pay off. I’d like to see a city where people could take full advantage of the transportation hubs, restore a vibrant downtown shopping district, make room for at least some form of light industry, and take advantage of the quality public museums, libraries and cultural institutions.

      And while many are dogmatic about taxes, I’m basically a realist. I’m happy to pay taxes as long as it provides services and features I consider to be worth the money. I also don’t want to see governments get insolvent from charging too little or too much tax.

      Many on the left seem to think that the solution to insolvency is always more taxes, but what that does is to scare away many people who can’t afford the higher taxes. With too much tax, overall revenue can actually go down. As a conservative, I’d like to see my government tax structure optimized for minimal expense, and maximum revenue. There is a happy medium that governments should seek. It’s simple economics, really.

      Toward those ends, cities have got to clean up corruption; find ways to attract the very middle class families they’ve been alienating for decades; and make peace with those who only seek to make a living.

      But seeing as how many cities are havens of childless professionals (except for the poor who do not have the means to leave), seeing how they are only interested in white collar professions, it’s no wonder that people with families have to endure significant hardship just to live there.

      That’s why sprawl happens. As long as cities remain inhospitable to significant segments of the population, you can expect the sprawl to grow. I won’t pass judgment on the sprawl by saying that it is universally bad. But I do lament the fact that cities are so inhospitable that many who might otherwise want to live there can’t afford it.

      • Zach Dundas says:

        Jake—

        Thanks for this extensive and intelligent reply. (I think your “straw man” comment aimed at a previous commenter; but if not, I’ll have you know that I build my straw men exclusively from local, organic and seasonal straw.)

        While I would agree that some cities have high costs of living, not all do. A motivated family with $100,000 could do a lot for Detroit or Cleveland, from what I understand.

        To take up one other aspect of your comment: I wholeheartedly agree that cities need to make room for light industry and tradesman-scale craft. In Portland, though our economy overall is quite bad, we have an encouraging number of small-scale manufacturers at work in or near the city core. See this film:

        http://www.monocle.com/small-business/3/

        Or the superb Beckel Canvas, an old-school family business that now cultivates both mail-order and local clientele and does its manufacturing in the heart of a residential neighborhood:

        http://beckelcanvas.com/

        I think the overly prescriptive zoning that often prevents these kinds of businesses from locating near their workers and customers could be a cooperative project for urbanists both left and right.

  2. E.D. Kain says:

    Zach,

    Great post. I think, first of all, that we need to move beyond the old dichotomy of “left” and “right.” Until we can shed that dividing line (at least a bit) then we’re at a loss.

    I may be on the “right” as it were, but I am hardly comfortable on either side of the political aisle. I think decentralists like myself, however, could certainly find common cause with many of the new urbanists on the left. The trick, of course, will be finding common means to common ends.

    Lots to think about.

    Cheers

    • Zach Dundas says:

      Erik—

      Yeah, I sort of figured I was engaging in crude generalizations. Sorry for that.

      On the decentralist front, the Feds could certainly loosen up a lot of transportation funding rules that historically skew towards long-haul expressway construction and allow cities to use federal funding on smaller-scale projects. (Actually, my local congressman, the bowtied Earl Blumenauer, has made great strides on that front in the last decade.) I’m sure there are many other federal tweaks that would bolster local autonomy. Closer to home, metro-wide governance can be messy, and certainly doesn’t fit the small-government mold, but can be a much more effective way to manage growth rather than allowing individual exurbs to call the shots.

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  4. libtree09 says:

    The only thing wrong with sprawl is that it lacks planning thus creating islands of boredom.

    I found your comment on Oregon interesting but for one point, a year or so before the housing crash, there was a clash between save the farms people or the save our land people and a new crop of Property Rights people. As the farmers aged and the crops grew smaller lots of people wanted to sub divide their property…but couldn’t so with the backing of land developers…experts in creating neighborhoods whole with names like shuddering oaks that jam houses as close as possible, came measure 37 which gave them the right to do some development along existing highways that wouldn’t impact an area too badly.
    What this was all about was the number of Californians, a once hated species in Oregon, selling their expensive homes and retiring to hunt and fish and look at rivers and trees in a nice new home in Oregon before they died (usually of boredom). Housing prices jumped for while and then slumped.

    Now maybe the claim of social engineering could be made in some places…I lived in New York through my childhood…mostly rentals there…with no pools or air conditioning…old city…and young couples wanted something better…so they had that Levittville or town…just that got some attention as something new and “engineered”.

    I moved to Southern California as a young teen in the early sixties…don’t remember much social engineering but do remember that lots and lots of people were moving here…we needed freeways and the San Fernando valley was all farm land…remember Chinatown and the Real McCoys? Well sprawl here was a necessity…so the farms vanished and the orange groves in the south were replaced with houses and lots of vets who came through here to go to war…moved in.

    I can attest from personal experience it lacked in any real social planning. Once the water was solved free enterprise took over. It was a housing boom that even hired sixteen year olds like me.

    This idea people were running from blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York was way overblown…as a kid I never wanted to leave Brooklyn but my mother was seduced by pictures of split level homes with backyards and a lawn and a pool and air conditioning all for $14,000 in California.
    I mean if you’re going to move…make it a big move.

    If that is social engineering it is called the American dream. I don’t know can New York take another 10 million people? Unfortunately in Los Angeles we could if we had water.

    There is urban renewal going on here in LA…the mostly one to three story buildings are being replaced with much taller buildings with mixed usage…we are becoming New York and much of this is because the infrastructure of our roads have had it…we are building subways and extensive bus corridors…you know social planning for the future. It’s a people thing not a race thing or government plot thing. It’s about money and people moved to the best situation that they could afford.

    Here is what I suggest when it comes to Stossel…think of a republican think tank as an old organ grinder and John as the dancing monkey tipping his hat crazed for attention filling his cup with old myths and nonsense from the failed conservative movement. The sight is just sad so maybe throw him a quarter but move on down the street.

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