The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.

 

Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental.

When New Urbanism emerged in the early 1990s, it made perfect sense to a Catholic humanist like Bess, a Thomist who believes that the purpose of the city is to provide an environment in which people can live virtuously—that is, achieve excellence in their vocations—in community. New Urbanism is not expressly theological; indeed, Bess concedes that most New Urbanists are secular progressives. But they are “implicitly Aristotelian,” he contends, because they affirm that there are certain design forms consonant with human nature.

In this telling, the Thomistic belief in a natural order that can be ascertained by right reason justifies the New Urbanists’ desire to conform the built environment to their conception of the good. Dreher procedes to specify Bess’s position in more detail:

The history of human settlement, he argues, shows that an ordered and just urban environment, the kind that resonates the best with human nature, is one in which the needs of daily life—commercial, recreational, religious, and so forth—are within easy walking distance.

Did you get the sweeping implications of that statement? According to Bess, walkability is the sine qua non of well-ordered human development. Suburbs are disordered because moms are able to put their kids in a car, drive to the supermarket and haul back enough food to feed their family for the week. Suburbs are unjust because dads are able to load up their SUV and take the boys to a fishing trip.

Such hyperbole apparently falls on deaf ears even amongst many traditionalist conservatives, as evidenced by the episode relayed by Dreher.

Even some socially conservative thinkers, who know why natural law matters to social constructs like marriage, puzzle over its connection to social constructs like neighborhoods. “I just spent a sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow,” says Bess, referring to the program organized by law professor Robert P. George, “hanging out with brilliant and generous people, a lot of them natural-law political theorists. I think even contemporary natural-law folks, when confronted by a natural-law argument for urbanism, are less likely to find it convincing if they live in suburbia.”

Roll back that tape. Did Bess just accuse these fine folks of Rob Portman-ing? It sure sounded like he said that these scholars’ rejection of the self-evident case for New Urbanism is motivated by an attempt to legitimatize the behaviors of their families. That insult aside, does Bess’s analogy actually hold up? Are suburbs as discordant with human nature’s need for walkability as polygamy and incest are transgressive of the form of marriage?

But Dreher desires to do more than underline the connection between Roman Catholic natural law thought and New Urbanist ideas; he wants New Urbanism to fly the “conservative” banner as well. He sets this up by asserting one of the classic dichotomies in analyzing conservative thought:

Traditional conservatives, as distinct from our more libertarian brethren, believe that there is a sacred order to which individuals and communities must conform to flourish, and we have an obligation to protect, nurture, and develop that order as it comes to us through tradition. Many believe this refers only to morality, but others have a more holistic view: for them, the built environment must also in some sense embody that transcendent order and make it accessible.

So, for Dreher, New Urbanism’s “Smart Growth” diktats makes intuitive sense to traditional conservatives while the libertarian conservatives view the movement as “social engineering that stifles individual liberty.” This is a false dichotomy. Dreher has elided one crucial detail. Not all pro-market conservatives deny that there is a sacred order that promotes flourishing. I certainly don’t. Rather, the Hayekian critique of social engineering is most fundamentally an epistemological one, namely, that no human central planner can so completely grasp the structure of that order that they are able to “protect, nurture, and develop” it. As no ruler or planner can have that kind of knowledge, the conservative desires to see decisions be made at the individual or family level. The good of Edmund Burke’s local platoons is found in the way that they serve to defend liberty from totalizing, rationalistic planners.

 

The “Conservative” Case Against the Suburbs

Charles Marohn’s piece is a more direct attack on conservatives who love their suburbs. He marshals a litany of little barbs all invariably pursuing the end of converting conservatives into urban boosters.

Marohn first contends that suburbs were not organic creations of the free market, but were subsidized by the Federal Housing Administration, Freddy & Fannie, and the dread Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. I hold no brief for the bureaucratic wisdom of FDR’s alphabet soup agencies (though I’m mostly okay with Ike’s highways), but I will grant that, cumulatively, they probably did serve to marginally lower the cost of moving into one of those new-fangled sub-divisions. However, it was not some Cash-for-Cleavers government largess that caused Levittowns to blossom across the fruited-plain. People had long desired to get a nice big house, and, due to their post-war prosperity, they were finally able to move from Pottersville to Bailey Park.

Apparently attempting to tar this suburban expansion by associating it with a conservative bogeyman, Marohn describes it as taking place under a “Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment.” If government spending was really just as good as private investment, where are all the government-constructed suburbs? Don’t laugh. Federally-built suburbs were not as far-fetched an idea as it might seem today. During the New Deal, FDR’s central planners built the D.C. suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland as a planned, cooperative community, and at the conclusion of World War II, there were heated debates over how the pent-up demand for housing should be met. In fact, in 1947 and ’48, Senator Joseph McCarthy (yep, that Joseph McCarthy) grandstanded in hearings considering public housing and planned towns. He believed that some of the public housing projects already in operation had proved to be “breeding ground for communists.” McCarthy’s side won the debate and the suburbs were built by private developers. It’s hard to see a victory for Tail-Gunner Joe as some sort of Keynesian triumph.

After attempting to undo the suburban creation myth, Marohn shifts to making a pragmatic case that suburbs have failed to deliver on their promise. Marohn critiques the accuracy of suburban-booster Joel Kotkin’s claim that suburbs ““represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility.” If the American suburb is actually so great for upward mobility, Marohn contends, then (1) the United States would have higher rates of upward mobility than Norway, (2) the median net worth of a U.S. citizen would be higher than that of a Swede, and (3) U.S. households wouldn’t have a lot of debt. But all of these statistics compare the statistics of the entire American populace–urban, suburban, and rural–to the populations of other wealthy countries. So even if the median net worth in American suburbs is much higher than the median net worth in American cities, Marohn would blame suburbs for the fact that the overall median net worth of Americans is lower. Are America’s suburbs responsible for the country’s high gun violence statistics and high infant mortality rates, too?

He concludes his piece with a bit of grand language about what the future may hold:

I see the unwinding of our great suburban experiment. As government’s ability to subsidize this artificial pattern of development wanes, a return to more traditional living arrangements is inevitable. For thousands of years, cities have been engines of wealth creation. In America, they are becoming that again.

Again, Marohn’s narrative is divorced from fact.  The “traditional living arrangement” for all of human history was rural. As late as the American Founding, the planet was still 97% agrarian and just 3% urbanized. If “conservatives” are really against “artificial” human developments, maybe they should be rooting for the demise of cities as well.

All these things leave me wondering if Marohn really understands what makes a conservative a conservative. He pleads that cities need conservatives because city-dwellers long for “a more responsive bureaucracy.” If that’s all conservatives can offer, I suspect the urban set will stick with their hope-and-change progressives who promise exactly the same thing.

 

American Conservatism and The American Conservative

Which brings me to the main reason my conservative instincts are not moved by Bess’ New Urbanism of the heart or Marohn’s case against the suburbs. Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good. We already have an American political tradition that stands for that proposition; do we really need another?

How is Bess’s central planning of Chicago or Marohn’s kinder-gentler commissariat conservative in any way? Traditionalist conservative Russell Kirk condemned “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.” And while Kirk’s Old World-tinged conservatism had some room for hierarchy and elitism,  today’s American right-of-center is largely devoid of that worldview. Instead, American conservatism is now overwhelmingly “Reaganist” in character. In their book The Right Nation, Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge explain the contrast between Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan.

The heroes of Burke’s conservatism were paternalist squires, who knew their place in society and made sure everybody else did as well. Mr. Reagan’s heroes were rugged individualists, defined by the fact that they do not know their place. He packed his kitchen cabinet with entrepreneurs who built up businesses out of nothing and he worshipped the cowboy. He kept a bronze saddle in the Oval Office…

As for the sixth characteristic, elitism, instead of dreaming about creating an educated “clerisy” (as Coleridge and T.S. Eliot did) Mr. Reagan was a populist who argued that “Bedtime for Bonzo made more sense than what they were doing in Washington.” His was the conservatism not of country clubs and boardrooms, but of talk radio, precinct meetings and tax revolts.

At least since Reagan, American conservatism has been quintessentially middle class and has stubbornly refused to grant authority to Bess and the rest of the “clerisy.” The editors at The American Conservative are not arguing that this extant political philosophy condemns suburbia, they are arguing that this brand of conservatism should be abandoned for a more elitist and pro-planning political platform. What they have written is not so much “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs,” but “The Case for Redefining Conservatism to be Against the Suburbs.”  I think it likely that The American Conservative’s effort to fundamentally alter the American Right in this way will fail, not least because American progressivism is already so elitist and technocratic.

I like suburbs and I am a happy supporter of an American conservatism that has long been and will continue to be a largely suburban phenomenon. While it should never be anti-urban, a conservatism that speaks to the mundane normalcy of middle-class suburban life is both politically viable and, to my lights, good.

Posted by Keith Miller

Keith Miller is an Assistant Solicitor General in the Federalism Unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. He is married and has four children. You can follow him on Twitter.

  • Keith,
    1. You don’t actually refute Marohn’s first argument. In fact, you ignore the fact that federal housing & tax policy has subsidized the massive growth of the suburbs into the unsustainable monstrosities that they are today.

    2. In trying to critique the “upward mobility” claim, you ignore the history of white flight/redlining that contributed to the dessication of African-American urban wealth.

    3. You point out that humans are, historically, more rural than urban while ignoring the fact that a great number of AmCon’s New Urbs articles draw out a great many ways in which urban areas ought to be more like rural areas (more farming, etc.)

    4. Your final set of paragraphs demonstrates a phenomenally shallow understanding of “pro-planning” conservativism. Unless you’re prepared to deregulate everything and take away the government’s power to build roads or zone property (who knows, you might– I certainly can’t tell what kind of conservatism you stand for based on this article), we have to figure out how we build and zone well. The choices of the last few decades have been intentionally designed to facilitate sprawl, subsidize car travel, and put people as far apart from their neighbors, their work, and their worship as they can stand– even *within* cities, where this is hurting the urban poor more than anyone else while it rots out the near-city suburbs that are starting to get just as poor. New Urbanism is calling for us to move the policy needle in the other direction.

    • Keith Miller

      I argue that the role federal housing & tax policies played in subsidizing suburban growth has been overstated and has been a used as a red herring by New Urbanists. Just because a governmental policy favors a particular private action doesn’t mean that the policy was either necessary or sufficient to create that action. I claim the child tax credit, but I didn’t have my kids because the government incentivized me nor is it fair to say that my procreation is a result of a government policy. Politicians much more often bless things because they are popular, than they cause the popularity of a thing by giving it their imprimatur.

      • Abe Lueders

        Government policy supporting something I don’t like = socialist diktats from bureaucratic overlords!
        Government policy supporting something I like = NBD, it’s just helping people get what they already want.

        • Keith Miller

          Fair point. As you said in your comment above, smart growth regulations are another version of legislators responding to the market. I don’t like it either case, but it is par for the course.

        • Abe,
          Unless you have worker councils passing laws, you don’t have socialist diktats(sp). What you have instead are bourgeoisie diktats.

          Now I do know what your point is, that some are too prone to assign pejoratives to what they disagree with. But as a Socialist, I get tired of the imprecise way in which the term “socialist” is used.

      • you’ll have to bring in some numbers to support your claim that this role has been “overstated.” Counties got FHA loans at rates up to 6 times a high as cities did: http://ti.org/JacksonFedSubsidies&Suburbs.pdf

        There probably would have been a city-to-suburb exodus to some degree with all the racism-induced redlining, but without billions– yes, billions– of federal dollars to subsidize it, I doubt that it would have had nearly the same effect. Saying that federal spending worked in tandem with preexisting cultural urges to spur the growth of the suburbs is not the same thing as disproving the fact that housing policy overwhelmingly facilitated this growth.

        • Keith Miller

          May I ask you to look up a stat first? What was the percentage change of city residents in 1950 v. 1970? Or 1940 v. 1980? My point is, a great deal of the suburban explosion was part of the countryside moving closer in, not the cities emptying out.

          • figures 1a & 1b: http://papers.ccpr.ucla.edu/papers/PWP-CCPR-2010-019/PWP-CCPR-2010-019.pdf

            the countryside was moving in– in fact, that was part of the urban growth that did occur as African-Americans especially were actually able to own homes and get work in cities (aka The Great Migration.) But the movement (and the subsidization!) was still overwhelmingly suburban.

          • Keith Miller

            Interesting figures, but not exactly the numbers to which I was alluding. The declining fraction in those graphs was the central city’s share of metropolitan residents. As a share of the entire population, the central city’s share of residents is even more stable over that time period.

          • We appear to have moved on from the question of whether or not the suburban boom was federally subsidized to a significant degree. I’m not sure exactly what you’re trying to get at otherwise– are you trying to assert that white flight and redlining aren’t significant factors in urban/suburban development? For many (but not all) of those decades, there was indeed urban population growth in the churn– but again, it was mostly poorer people moving into urban areas, richer people moving into suburban areas.

          • Matthew,
            The suburban sprawl was supported by energy companies, the auto industry, and the federal gov’t. And the latter supported it in multiple ways. And now we have a monstrosity that, if we are honest, should be recognized as being hazardous to our future

        • RobD

          I’d have to agree with Miller’s point above. Attributing the rise of the suburbs to the tax code and racism is just too simplistic.

          I grew up in a north suburb of Indianapolis. My parents had grown up in a small town in northeast Indiana. They moved to the suburbs because they seemed to offer a practical compromise between their desire to retain certain aspects of small-town living and their decision to enter the white-collar workforce. I recall that that was the case with most families in my neighborhood. I can’t recall a single family that had fled to the suburbs from inner-city Indianapolis.

          I suspect that the suburbs would have emerged, even without the tax benefits. Perhaps people would have built smaller houses. But the suburbs would still have emerged. As to white flight, I suspect that that too is a fairly small factor. Minneapolis and St. Paul have just as many suburbs as Cleveland, even though the former cities experienced comparatively little African-American immigration. The same goes for Seattle.

          I have spent the better part of my adult life in urban areas. A year ago, I left my big-firm job in DC to take a position with a start-up biotech company in suburban Chicago. I enjoyed my years living in the city, but I’m quite content with life in Naperville, Illinois. My rent is roughly one-third of what it was in DC. My gym is directly across the street, and I don’t have to share my lap lane with 3-4 other swimmers. There are three massive forest preserves within a 10-minute drive, where I can do my long weekend runs without having to stop for a single stop light. And my commute to work is a mere 8 minutes in the car instead of 8 minutes in a cramped, urine-scented subway car. So, despite the fact that I’m an openly gay, socially liberal member of the cognitive elite, I’m pretty sold on the suburbs. And I don’t think it has anything to do with tax benefits or a secret aversion to having black neighbors. (In fact, my neighbor here is black. Everyone in my building in DC was white or Asian.)

          • RobD,

            Beyond not offering an argument on the tax code specifically, your comment is a rather pitch-perfect example of how a personal heuristic works with structural racism to perpetuate continuing inequity in housing policy: “I’m not a racist, I can’t recall other people I know moving out of the cities for racist reasons, and I’m perfectly happy with how things are working right now for me. The fact that Minneapolis-St. Paul have suburbs means that we can dismiss the influence of white flight.”

          • RobD

            I answered your tax code allegation. The mere fact that people availed themselves of available tax benefits does not necessarily imply–as you suggest–that such tax benefits caused their action.

            I just got back from the store and found that sardines were on sale, so I bought 6 cans. The fact that I availed myself of the sale doesn’t mean that I went to the store for that purpose. It does, however, explain why I bought 6 cans instead of 2.

            As to the white-flight allegation, the pattern of suburban development in places like MSP and Seattle are indeed relevant. You asserted that white flight played a key role in the emergence of the suburbs. Well, if that’s so, then we should expect to see materially different patterns of urban-suburban development in metro areas that had few racial minorities (e.g., MSP and Seattle). But that’s not what we see. To the contrary, we see patterns of urban-subirban development that track similarly with places like Cleveland and St. Louis.

            Moreover, as my anecdotal evidence and Miller’s statistics demonstrate, white flight is something of an urban legend. The suburbs grew primarily by attracting people from rural areas closer to the city, not be sucking white people out of the city. Sure, some number of whites left the inner cities. But this was not a significant factor in the emergence of the suburbs.

            White flight is a complicated issue. Sure, the emergence of the suburbs played a role, but that doesn’t mean that white flight drove the emergence of the suburbs.

          • A threefold increase in sales is a pretty significant statistical bump for the sardine makers. As I cited elsewhere in this thread, the suburban/urban skew of FHA was sixfold. No one has ever claimed that federal policies “caused” the growth of the suburbs– it was facilitated, subsidized, strongly encouraged, and (by a sixfold amount, at least) market-distorted.

            Best estimates say that white flight was responsible for up to a quarter of population loss in the largest cities. To say “white flight is something of an urban legend” is a laughably ill-informed statement: http://www.econ.ucla.edu/lboustan/research_pdfs/research02_whiteflight.pdf

            I don’t agree that we would see different patterns between MSP/Seattle and Baltimore/Detroit if white flight was a factor (surely it could be a significant factor some places and not others– also, Seattle barely saw any urban population loss and so it isn’t exactly comparable.) I was not able to find any data quantifying rural migration to the suburbs (perhaps you can)– again, the best-studied migration patterns in the 20th century have been rural->urban (primarily black) & urban->suburban. There was surely plenty of rural->suburban migration in America for the reasons that you and Keith assert, but dismissing federal housing policy and white flight strikes me as willful ignorance.

          • Keith Miller

            Yeah, white flight isn’t an “urban legend,” but will you admit that it is “distinctly overstated” in the public imagination?

            As far as what extent the suburban boom was influenced of federal housing policy, it seems we are arguing in circles. Obviously, I can’t prove that the suburbs would have grown exactly as they did without loan guarantees and the like. On the flip side, you can’t prove that the “traditional building pattern” would have flourished but for SUBSIDY, REGULATION, and RACISM. Are we doomed to talk past each other, or are there some more modest claims we can agree upon?

          • Eh… given that so many urban neighborhoods are still dealing with the effects of white flight/redlining, I can’t say it’s “distinctly overstated.”

            How about we say “racism played a large role in the erosion of urban populations with commensurate growth in the suburbs” and “federal subsidy was an important but not definitive factor in the rise of the suburbs” and agree to disagree otherwise? (Heck, I’ll add in “People like being in the suburbs and there’s nothing inherently wrong with living in a suburb BUT suburban lifestyles are increasingly unsustainable subsidy.”

            That work for ya? : )

    • Keith Miller

      “a great number of AmCon’s New Urbs articles draw out a great many ways
      in which urban areas ought to be more like rural areas (more farming,
      etc.)”

      That’s a noble goal. One way people used to articulate the benefits of suburbs was that they combined some of the best of cities (access to density) with some of the best of the countryside (space for kids to roam). I just think it’s hogwash to say that suburbs are new and artificial while cities are old and natural when a tiny fraction of the world’s population lived in cities the day before yesterday.

      • Skyler Yost

        To this point, it’s important to note that an astronomically low amount of the world’s non-urban population was anything but the poorest kinds of poor – hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. We live in a modern, wealthy, trade-based society today; cities throughout history are the precedents for this modern world, not the abject rural poverty of most of our ancestors.

  • Abe Lueders

    The idea that sprawling suburban areas are caused by free markets, whilst dense, walkable cities can only be created by centralized bureaucracies is just an example of basic ignorance. There’s no doubt that demand for suburban housing wasn’t something that the government created, even though massive transportation projects and other forms of subsidy had a definite impact on the rate of suburban growth. But the fact remains that the suburban form is intensely controlled by zoning codes and other regulation. Simply put, in most areas, it would be illegal to build anything resembling a traditional city, and private developers who wish to do so have to demand large changes in government policy. These changes to zoning laws are typically met with strong challenges from current residents (some based on sound reasoning, some not), who use zoning laws as a way to prevent other individuals from using their property as they wish. Both urban and suburban areas have government planning, and neither represent a pure free market. (Which I think is fine, by the way). Additionally, the point that suburbs “allow” families to have cars and drive to grocery stores and camping trips (opposed to, I guess, cities, where the sun never shines and children must scavenge food from dumpsters), and that people who want walkability clearly oppose this evil lifestyle is a bit silly. The issue is not that no one should be able to drive (most new urbanist developments accommodate cars), but that car ownership shouldn’t be an absolute necessity for life. In the end, your arguments seem to be contrarian trolling, based on a hearty helping of strawman arguments. Ultimately, it’s highly unlikely that suburbs will disappear. Lots of people like living in big ol’ houses, with big ol’ yards, and big ol’ cars. But there’s clearly a lot of unmet demand for different forms of living, and private development is shifting gears to meet this demand, with the help of government financial incentives and transportation policy (which was previously used to meet demand for suburban housing in the post-war period). These are, of course, largely market arguments, and don’t touch on the moral aspects of different modes of living. However, this comment is long enough as it is. Good luck with the book — I’m sure it will find a receptive audience of people who already agree with it, and attract plenty more derision from people like me.

    • Keith Miller

      Abe,

      I think you’ve overstated my argument by a good bit. I’m not arguing that walkability violates human nature, I’m arguing against those who say that suburbs are contrary to human nature. My rhetoric is sometimes big, but my point is small: suburbs can be a location of virtuous life. If you click in to Dreher’s piece, he even acknowledges this, but neither Bess or Marohn are so generous. They needed to be refuted.

      • Abe Lueders

        Having read much of Bess’s material, I would disagree with that characterization. Bess doesn’t argue that those who live in the suburbs can’t live a virtuous life, while those who live in the cities do. The core issue is whether the physical design of a community can have an effect — good or bad — on the lives of the the people who live in it. Bess and other traditionalists argue that smaller-scale, walkable areas are more conducive to living life well (AKA the virtuous life) than suburbs. That doesn’t mean the virtuous life doesn’t exist in the suburbs. It does, however, mean that living in the suburbs presents certain challenges to living a virtuous life, especially in the area of living life in community. To be honest, I think we do need to have a more thoughtful conversation on suburban living than the one people typically engage in, since it will undoubtedly continue to be the norm for the foreseeable future. But in order to be thoughtful about living the good life in the suburbs, I think it’s necessary to look at the good as well as the bad.

        • Abe Lueders

          One issue here is that people like Bess who deal with all this from the viewpoint of classical philosophy are very focused on pure ideals. Bess is essentially asking the question “what is the best possible environment for human living”? In real life, choices are limited, and no city that currently exists is a perfect embodiment of Bess’s urban ideal.

          • Keith Miller

            This is a good point. But isn’t the After Burnham project an attempt to apply his ideals in the real world?

          • Abe Lueders

            Yes, it is. (Although I can’t claim to have studied it in depth). The goal of any ideal is to have some kind of measuring stick to judge the real world with, and Bess is obviously interested in working to nudge places closer to this ideal. I was simply saying that I don’t think Bess’s views are meant as some kind of judgement on everyone who lives in the suburbs.

            As a sidenote, I think it’s interesting to note that a plan for a city doesn’t necessarily imply some kind of top-down control. During the Burnham era, plans (including the Burnham plan) were often commissioned by associations of private businesses, to represent the vision they were (voluntarily) working toward. This is still the case in many cities, where neighborhood businesses will join together to hire planning consultants, and jointly fund local infrastructure improvements.

  • Abe Lueders

    Okay, one last comment from me. One thing that bothers me about these sorts of debates is the oft-used contrast between “hip” cities, and “boring, normal” suburbs. This kind of dichotomy seems to be reflected in the title of your book. Now, there are some areas where this sort of contrast is legitimate, due to the rapid revitalization and gentrification of downtown and downtown-adjacent areas in many cities. However, there are many cities where the urban core is still a badly hurting place, scarred by disastrous urban renewal projects and urban highways that tore neighborhoods apart, as well as systematic disinvestment. These are not “hip” areas. I think one of the issues with “urban” churches is that they typically follow wherever wealthy, educated people are clustered, and have little to do with healing the real wounds of the city. So, I think there’s still a heavy need for churches that are truly urban in more than the notional, hipsterish sense of the word.

    • Keith Miller

      That’s a very good point and I completely agree. One of my goals for my book is to help people see beyond these stereotypes. Thanks for sticking around for some civil engagement. It’s been a pleasure.

  • Caleb

    Don’t let your desire to fit into the “ordinary, unhip Christian” identity cloud your historical judgement. If you want to like the suburbs, fine. But if you want to defend them from the range of reasonable critiques about them and their history, you need to do better.

    • Don’t let your desire to fit into the “snide, snarky blog commenter” cloud your judgment. If you want to dislike posts, fine. But if you want to critique 1500 words of analysis for you read for free and of your own free will, you need to do better.

      Best,

      Matt

      • Caleb

        Creative.
        Look, Keith’s post is misguided and defending the suburban status quo isn’t very constructive. Suburbs in their current form aren’t something we should be trying to maintain in the future. I also wonder if any of his research has made him question any of his positions or has it just been an ideologically and sociologically affirmative experience all around?
        But who said I wanted to ‘critique’ the article anyway? I don’t have time for that. I merely wanted to register dissent. Could I have been nicer? I suppose. But what’s wrong with channeling a little Mark Driscoll? Keith would be okay with that, even if you aren’t.
        Some evidence of engagement with Tom Sugrue, Kevin Kruse, Adam Rome, etc. would be nice to see too, if you want to bluster into the debate about suburbs with “sometimes big” rhetoric. And if we want to get beyond the urban/suburban stereotypes, let’s try not to embody them so enthusiastically.

        • Maybe I don’t understand the impulse behind expressive “dissent” for its own sake, with no interest in the people that you’re dissenting against. If you had the slightest bit of concern for Keith, or the fellow readers for the comments, you might offer reasons for the dissent. These things aren’t done on a democratic fashion (I actually hate the ‘upvote’ feature on Disqus for this reason), and we don’t tally up the number of dissenters and agree-ers to see which side comes out ahead.

          But you haven’t given us a single reason to think that Keith is wrong. Name-dropping doesn’t do it, nor does calling the post “misguided” or not “very constructive.” Insults followed by assertions may work for grad students who wish to posture about how much they know (I have no idea if you are a grad student or not), but they don’t add up to arguments.

          But I hope you feel better after registering your “dissent.” But I hope you want to get beyond stereotypes of insufferable internet commenters, because you’re embodying one much too enthusiastically.

          • Caleb

            I hope that the book shows some evidence of the author dealing with the work that offers a more complicated view of the history and nature of suburbs. Call it graduate student posturing or namedropping if you want, but you need to deal with the authors that I mentioned if you are serious about defending suburbia. If I had the time to rehearse their arguments for you, I would. Let’s drop one more name while we’re at it: read Philip Mirowski on Hayek’s notion of the market as the ultimate information processor.
            I don’t think that I insulted Keith w/ my comment about embodying stereotypes. I thought that I was stating a fact. He is, after all, a white evangelical conservative lawyer who admits to using “sometimes big” rhetoric in defense of the suburbs that he loves. He’s even writing a book praising “Suburban Christianity”! I’d be happy to learn more about where he diverges from the stereotype.
            I do feel better Matt. Thanks for your tough love. I hope you don’t spend too much of your time putting snarky, ignorant blog commenters in their places.
            Does Keith care that suburbs, to this point, are only possible with relatively cheap and abundant oil? Or does a real conservative not care about that kind of babble?

  • The problems with the suburbs have to do with escapism. One could escape the social problems caused by economic injustice if one moved to the suburban ghetto. For there is nothing that represents the fantasy island approach to the American dream for such large portion of people than the suburbs.

    Of course by escaping the city’s social problems and living off the other side of economic injustice, the problems of the city festered as they went unaddressed. In the meantime, the libertarian answer to Cain’s question as applied to those suffering in the city, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, came back loud and clear: He ain’t my brother!

    This dream went on until the economic injustice plague that was restricted to quaranteened sections of cities escaped and wandered off. We should note from this that the suburbs are created and sustained by an economy that provides a plethora of middle class jobs. When those jobs disappear, then the suburbs either disappear or de-evolve.

    So I have to reluctantly agree with this post about the link between suburbia and conservatism. But what should be noted are the above mentioned fringe benefits or characteristics that come with the suburbs with the question: Is that what Conservatives want to be associated with their morals?

  • RobD

    I appreciated this essay. In many ways, this discussion illustrates something of the divide that lies between conservatives who operate with more of an idealist epistemology (e.g., Dreher, de Maistre, Robby George, etc.) and conservatives who operate with more of a realist epistemology (e.g., Burke, DG Hart, Oakeshott, etc.).

    We’re often united in our opposition to progressivism, but that may be where the similarities end.

  • Philip Bess

    Dear Mr. Miller:

    Chuck Marohn’s most extended arguments against suburbia can be found on his web site

    strongtowns.org

    which I commend to you and your readers. His arguments are essentially economic —measured, calm, dispassionate, in my opinion persuasive; that whether we like them or not, post-1945 suburban arrangements require extensive infrastructure for low-density development that simply cannot pay for itself— and his conservatism is a conservatism of thrift, fiscal responsibility, and the durable wealth that typically results from such character virtues. All of us (and especially our children) would benefit both individually and collectively by a wider distribution of these virtues and their consequences.

    Regarding my own views on urbanism: you raise a number of good questions, warranted by the necessary complexity of the subject, that unfortunately do not lend themselves to sound bite answers. I have attempted to address most if not all of those questions in a two-part essay published in Public Discourse found here

    http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/07/3379/

    and here

    http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/07/3381/

    Regarding the in progress Chicago 2109 project: you mis-characterize it as an exercise in top-down planning. It is intended rather as an attempt to identify and illustrate both multiple subsidiary authorities and necessary reciprocal relationships at the scale of a metropolitan region, but intended above all as an exercise of imagination; from which we who are working on it hope that better political arrangements might someday ensue.

    Cordially,

    Philip Bess

    • Thanks Phil. As always, you are the gentleman.

    • Keith Miller

      Dr. Bess,

      Thank you for your gentle engagement. I had not previously read your Public Discourse pieces and I appreciated them. One line you wrote, therein, stuck out to me:

      Sprawl, therefore, is only “justifiable” as the physical form of a Tocquevillian individualist culture,

      Would it be fair to say that a “Tocquevillian individualist culture” is a pretty good description of America as founded? If so, then suburbia would be consistent with what you understand to be the American tradition, and your objection to “sprawl” is part of your opinion that American tradition to be irretrievably marred by its liberalism (ala Patrick Deneen)?

      • Philip Bess

        Mr. Miller:

        You ask:

        “Would it be fair to say that a “Tocquevillian individualist culture” is a pretty good description of America as founded?”

        I don’t think so. Tocqueville was describing a tendency and a danger —in T’s view a mortal danger— to which American democracy is susceptible; but which (he notes approvingly) Americans combat by means of family life, religion, and the art of association. In the absence of these as countervailing forces to the individualist temptation, he imagined that individualism would triumph and democratic freedom be lost.

        Remember that Tocqueville both valued the individual liberty he witnessed in democratic America and recognized its fragility; was very much a virtue ethicist in arguably a classic Aristotelian-Thomist way; and recognized that virtues flourish amidst communal practices (e.g., American associations). But for a virtuous citizenry, Tocqueville thought American democracy would devolve into selfishness and tyranny. Hence he is regarded by many as a prophet; and rightly.

        So the somewhat paradoxical question for us is: Are more traditional urban formal arrangements more conducive than suburban sprawl to the communal relationships within which liberty can flourish? For a variety of reasons I think that they are; and that if this is true it places a certain moral imperative upon us, viz., to make walkable mixed-use settlements.

        This is not a forum in which it is possible to pursue that argument in detail. But I will say three things in conclusion: 1) much of what suburbanites *seem* to desire about suburbs —detached houses, yards, parks, playgrounds, adjacent landscape, etc.— is available as part of an urban transect that also includes higher density housing arrangements (and not necessarily high-rises); 2) that in terms of public policy it would be a plus for urbanists for zoning law to allow both conventional sprawl development and traditional neighborhoods and towns as-of-right; and 3) that for reasons both demographic and economic (primarily infrastructural), I think post-1945 suburbs are unsustainable, and will therefore at some point cease to exist as we find it necessary to live more compactly than we now do.

        I think the good news for suburbanites is point #1 above, and that if we can learn again the classic urban virtues (e.g., civility [sic]) many of us will be surprised by just how pleasant and spiritually sustaining urban life can be (in a way that has nothing to do hipness). The big challenge facing contemporary urbanists, I think, is to make cities more family-friendly, because cities without children are not sustainable in the long run either.

        Cordially,

        Philip (a professor, but not a Dr.)

        • Keith Miller

          Phillip,

          Thanks for explaining how you fit Tocqueville into this analysis. I suspect that our differences stem from the fact that I am stubbornly optimistic that American family life, religion, and association can succeed even within modern Suburban environments. I’d point to the fact that the modern American right and the American Church are both disproportionately suburban and they are vibrant in a way nearly unduplicated in the rest of the West.

          The big challenge facing contemporary urbanists, I think, is to make cities more family-friendly, because cities without children are not sustainable in the long run either.

          Agreed.

  • You know….I would happily engage on some of the intelligent points here if the conclusions weren’t so intellectually lazy.

    “Both Bess and Marohn appear to be geeked-up about urbanism because it gives more latitude for the bureaucrat and the meddler to conform the world to their conceptions of the good.”

    That’s called projecting. It’s lazy. I’ve got five years of material on my website and you won’t see one instance of me cheering for the bureaucrat or calling for anything that could be confused with meddling.

    What I’ve done is correctly identified the traditional pattern of city building (that is city, not rural — come on) as having evolved by trial and error over thousands of years. Meddling is throwing away this wisdom in a generation by spending trillions reshaping a continent, then spending a second generation going into hawk pretending we can keep it all going and finally entering a third where we are treated to so-called conservatives arguing that their subsidies are good (even market-based) while subsidies for others are bad.

    Lazy. If you want to edit your piece to cross out that paragraph, acknowledging that it is nothing more than your baseless projection onto my motivation — of which you are obviously ignorant — I’d be happy to engage you on the handful of substantive points you do make.

    • Keith Miller

      Mr. Marohn,

      Thank you very much for stopping by. I’m glad you found some of my points intelligent and substantive.

      I believe one point where we are in agreement is that a better policy world would be one where subsidies like 30-year mortgages and the mortgage interest deduction were repealed. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of votes in promising to take away that slop, so as a practical matter it is hard to get there.

      I saw that on your blog today you recommended Jared Diamond’s Collapse as one of the best books ever. What insights should conservatives draw from him?

      • Curmudgeon

        At the risk of presenting a position Mr. Marohn doesn’t hold, I’ll offer mine. Too often conservatives adopt a position of accepting short term growth as illusory wealth. Often not accounting for the multigenerational costs that will impoverish future generations. For instance, deficit spending, or in the topic of this post, infrastructure replacement life cycles.

      • I would have replied sooner but I spent my day empowering bureaucrats to meddle with people’s lives. It’s my obsession, after all.

        I agree with Curmudgeon. Humans have a cognative discounting bias. This is why people smoke. Even though they know there is this long term consequence, they value to small positive gain today more than they fear that potential long term consequence.

        Our development pattern — and specifically the way we have evolved to finance that from the top-down — provides government (as well individuals, families and businesses) with every short term incentive to overlook long term implications.

        When a Wal-Mart comes to town and builds a new store, they often build all the infrastructure: streets, sidewalks, pipes, etc… The city just has to maintain it. This works great when everything is brand new because the city is collecting all this tax revenue and not paying anything to maintain a brand new pipe. Fast forward a couple decades and the Wal-Mart moved to the next city with a tax subsidy but the city still has to maintain all the stuff because now there is a subdivision full of homes further up the street.

        So the city takes on some debt, mistaking their insolvency problem for a cash flow problem. They need to keep taxes down, which in this case means not doing the math to understand you are broke. They start deferring maintenance and things start going bad. The people who can afford to abandon ship for the place that is growing, where everything is shiny and new.

        Now you are left with Ferguson, a place with a huge amount of debt, public infrastructure that is falling apart from neglect and deferred maintenance, a really high tax rate and a population of poor people who have little capacity to fix all these problems. Insert do-gooder politicians and their ribbon cuttings and we can pretend we are doing something without making anything better.

        This is the fate of everything we’ve built post WW II. The math doesn’t work. The traditional pattern of development had suburbs, but they were the speculative place where the upstarts and the speculators ruled. As well as the poor. Over time they would grow incrementally and, over time, government would provide urban services as the tax base made that viable. Until we get back to something more like that model, we are all on the path to Detroit.

        • Keith Miller

          The math doesn’t work… The traditional pattern of development [was that] over time, government would provide urban services as the tax base made that viable.

          I’m sure you’ve written about this idea elsewhere. What is your prescription for how American development patterns could get back to this model?

  • Joe

    Great article. Thank you for offering a cogent critique to all the neo-Thomistic Aristotelian noise about how man is ordered by nature to live in walkable communities. Yeah, turns out that the very cosmic order–oh and also GOD–designed all of humanity to live the way I like to live. Didn’t we chuck this kind of logic oh, about 500 years ago…?

    also, love the Awana reference in your bio. “Firmly Awana stands . . . ” Love it!

  • Charles Wingate

    Here’s how I ended up growing up in the suburbs: my father moved up from NC to work for JHU/APL in the very late fifties, back when they were still in the miserable former garage in Silver Spring. APL bought a huge plot for their lab, and developments sprang up along US 29 to house people working there and at NSA, NOL, C&P, and other such employers who were variously well out of town. Land was very cheap and owning a car was no problem; shopping was done in Laurel or Silver Spring or even Baltimore. Zoning didn’t enter into it; I’m not sure there was zoning in the county in those days, but there certainly was no difficulty at all in getting in changed if there was.

    And owning the house and land was a BIG thing to them. My parents’ neighborhood is still intensely jealous of their prerogatives as property owners.

    All the weird postulating behind suburbanization is just that: at least a bit loony. Back in 1960 it made sense for APL and NSA and NOL to have big suburban campuses and for developers to put up tracts of houses in the confidence that they would be bought by people who would use the commercial districts of the already extant towns around them. People thought homeownership was a good thing for a wide range of reasons; it wasn’t something imposed from above, but something they thought was good for themselves. And it’s well to remember that in 1960 there was considerable contempt within the city for the city as it then stood; it wasn’t until late in the decade that the notion of the existing architecture being an asset really began to take hold, so it was easy to imagine a City of The Future in which all of the existing structure was erased, to be replaced by sleek Modernist towers (and flying cars, of course).

    • Mike

      Charles, you seem to make leaps of logic here without any evidence to back it up. I’m pretty sure that you were not aware of the government influences on development and land use when your parents moved to Silver Spring in1960.

      The Eisenhower highway system was already approved and of course one of the first places it would start being built would be the Boston to D.C. corridor. This is a subsidy to build away from the urban core. It was also used to allow for wholesale destruction of neighborhoods to build urban highways. This was the result of the contempt by planners and other government officials had towards “messy” (read ethnic) cities. In addition, federal subsidies for housing were biased towards new suburban development. Added to this were the redlining practices endemic throughout the US that kept black and hispanic folks in the poorer neighborhoods while making the suburbs lily white.

      Suburbs were being built before the 1950’s. But these tended to be trolley car suburbs that had urban cores too. Only the very wealthy could afford to live far away from cities, and in the case of Long Island they had their own well-built rail line while the roads were purposefully kept in disrepair. The wealthy didn’t want the middle class ruining their neighborhoods.

      Plus by the late 1950’s there was the social engineering that portrayed homeownership, particularly in the suburbs, as good. I remember seeing an I Love Lucy episode where Lucy, Desi, Fred & Ethel leave their NY apartments to live in the country and this was before NY experienced its decay. There are plenty more examples just like that.

      • Charles Wingate

        I do not have to make any “leaps of logic” to see how things developed (as it were), because I was there to see it. The interstates did not subsidize the development of eastern Howard County, because they did not exist; in 1960, even US 29 was still two lanes only, and had only been paved throughout a few years earlier. I-95 was not put through until Columbia was being built; the big GE plant opened just after I-95 was opened, but it was intended to draw its employees from the surrounding town. Of course, the principal DC I-95 route was never built, and the Balto. route was altered to run through the industrial waterfront, and the one piece of I-70 that did tear up the city is still orphaned, because by the time this stretch was built (one of the last, not one of the first) preservationism had gathered enough strength to check the planners.

        My parents moved to urban Silver Spring because that was where APL was then. But APL moved not to escape the blacks, but because they needed a hell of a lot more land than a run-down garage. All the labs built way out of town for that reason (or in NSA’s case, to hide, and because the army already had the land in any case). Developments followed the employers, at least at first. Columbia was the conspicuous exception, but it was believed at the time that they were building a city instead of a very large development with imbedded retail centers. And they very stealthily purchased their thousand-odd acres for the biggest reason to build out of town: land was much, much cheaper.

        It is necessary to the new urbanist cause, apparently, to romanticize the city of 1960, so that race might be the only real reason that someone might want to live elsewhere. But at the time, even those committed to city life saw the place as in need of a dramatic transformation which would render it sleek and clean. That people might want to actually own a nice new house rather than rent an old apartment, that they might want grass rather than sidewalk, that they might not be inured to the city’s grime and pollution, that they might want not want to tailor their movements to public transport: why are these such difficult ideas? The obvious starting point is that suburbia, at the time, looked like a good idea to people, not because they were propagandized, but because it was a perfectly rational evaluation.

        • Charles,

          Columbia, MD, can’t exactly be invoked in any argument because of how bizarrely specific Rouse’s master plan is; a place where you’re not allowed to build new churches is just weird.

          I don’t know any urbanist who wants to “romanticize the city of 1960,” so if you can find a citation reflecting this I’d like to see it.

          Don’t forget the FHA lending policies were first enacted in the 30’s.

        • Keith Miller

          Charles,

          Thanks for mentioning the urban grime and pollution. It is always good to remember that the cities people are moving back too are way cleaner than the cities that people left in the mid-century.

  • Will Seath

    Keith,

    I think this article displays a number of misunderstandings about urbanism generally-speaking and about Philip Bess’ arguments specifically, supported in part by logical fallacy.

    You propose, first, that Bess’ (and Marohn’s) enthusiasm for New Urbanism springs from hierarchical and elitist attitudes. Your support for this assertion seems to be another assertion, that urban design on a grand scale is necessarily a function of centralized bureaucratic planning. This shows a profound misunderstanding of urban design, both as a profession and as the sort of academic exercise in which Bess and his students are engaged. Just as any architectural design requires a comprehensive set of plans, so to does the design of cities, and for that matter, the design of your beloved suburbs (I don’t need to repeat the point made here by others and emphasized in Marohn’s work, that suburban development patterns are only made possible by massive amounts of government regulation and infrastructure spending). I fail to see how the exercise of designing beautiful, coherent, well-ordered spaces automatically involves centralized, bureaucratic planning.

    Early in your critique of Bess’ comments to Dreher, you suggest that Bess argues that “…walkability is the sine qua non of well-ordered human development. Suburbs are disordered because moms are able to put their kids in a car, drive to the supermarket and haul back enough food to feed their family for the week. Suburbs are unjust because dads are able to load up their SUV and take the boys to a fishing trip.” This is not merely a flippant and unfair leap of an argument, but a logical fallacy. The ability to drive to the supermarket or to a fishing stream is hardly exclusive to suburban life – I can assure you that people who live in urban neighborhoods do drive. Bess’ judgments, then, can not be based on whether car usage in and of itself is ordered or just, as you appear to suggest for rhetorical effect. His preceding comments concerned only the ability to walk to basic human needs, a characteristic that is generally impossible in conventional post-war suburban development.

    This automobile-dependency of suburbia, when compared to the walkability of traditional small town and urban neighborhood patterns, indeed, contradicts your earlier claim of elitism on the part of new urbanists like Bess. Conventional zoning laws typically mandate the sort of single-use development that separates the places where we live, work, shop, play, and pray. As a result, in most places that have been developed or “renewed” in the last seventy years, car ownership is thus essential to the daily needs of life. Yet car ownership is relatively expensive, even for middle class families – a recent AAA study estimated that the average annual cost of owning an operating a car in the U.S. is over $9,000 – and the ability to drive requires a modicum of maturity and dexterity that may not be possible for the young, the elderly, or the disabled. Anecdotally, my wife works in a high-rise office tower along an eight lane highway in a northern Virginia suburb that is home to many working-class and poor immigrant families. Every day, she sees cars whizzing by at 50 MPH, only a few feet away from the women who can’t afford cars to drive to the supermarket next to her building. I want to suggest to you – and I think this is Bess’ point, via Dreher, in addressing justice and urbanism – that walkable places allow people of all ages, abilities, and classes to take part in the needs of daily life freely.

    I will acknowledge that, in our current age, the cost of owning or renting in such walkable places frequently comes at a premium that prices out many poor and middle-class families, especially with children. This, I would argue, is not because cities are inherently expensive – historically, urban life has not been reserved for any one economic class, whether rich or poor – but because there is a dearth of good walkable neighborhoods and great difficulty in developing such new places. The result is a supply-and-demand problem that drives up prices in walkable neighborhoods. It is worth, too, repeating the point made here by others, which I suspect may color your own preferences for suburban land patterns; new urbanism does not seek Manhattan-style hyper-densities (problematic in their own right) as an end, but rather seeks a gradation of building types and densities that certainly allows for the traditional detached single family home (as well as a number of other building types effectively outlawed by conventional zoning). This variety of housing types allows options for people of different needs and backgrounds – whether a 500-square foot flat above the corner store for the recent single college grad, to the 3-bedroom bungalow for the young family with its backyard “granny flat” – to take advantage of the benefits of walkable urban places in ways that suburban developments simply can’t permit.

    In full disclosure, I am an architectural and urban design professional, and a former student of Philip Bess.

    • Keith Miller

      Will,

      Thanks for reading me closely and offering such a substantive response.

      “I can assure you that people who live in urban neighborhoods do drive.”

      Why would they do such a dreadful thing? Why would they drive on subsidized roads when they have all that is needful within easy walking distance?

      I’m kidding, of course. I know why. Despite the fact that its very, very expensive to own a car in a dense city, and it would appear to be “unnecessary” because everything is so walkable, so why would city-dwellers go through the hassle of owning a car, the reality is that hauling two arms full of groceries even a short mile and a half is a much more onerous undertaking than piling into the car, commuting out to the suburban Costco, IKEA, or Walmart, and getting enough provisions to feed the family for a couple of weeks. That is precisely the pattern most of my fellow Brooklynites displayed. Well, that or they used Peapod and had their groceries delivered to their doors.

      I am saying that the workability of “walkability” is distinctly overrated. My hands still ache from the times I walked two miles through Northeast DC lugging bags full of Ramen and hot-dogs (the bachelor life!!). I was carless in Capitol Hill, but I soon gave up that racket and made friends with someone who would let me borrow his car to drive to Alexandria to stock up. So despite living in two nearly ideal New Urbanist places–Carroll Gardens-Brooklyn and Capitol Hill-DC–my carlessness was a hassle. And I was single most of this time; add two or three kids under five and the illusion of walkability further evaporates.

      Don’t get me wrong. I was able to function in D.C. and New York for five years without owning a car. This was a financial blessing for me during my single years and my first year of marriage. It was also kinda fun. But I cringe at the idea of trying to live in one of those walkable neighborhoods with my 6, 5 and 2-year old. That’s why I love the image of the soccer mom loading up her minivan. Kids are good and non-walkability enables children.

      • Will Seath

        Keith,

        Thanks for your reply. My wife and I, too, have been living in Capitol Hill for nearly two years now, so it is good to know that we have that shared experience of life in a great urban neighborhood. We do own a car, which we use about once a week. Indeed, we do use it primarily for grocery store runs (that is, when we’re not shopping at Eastern Market) and for excursions outside the city. It is a convenience, but it is not a necessity. That can not be said of the car in the typical post-war suburb. The point that many conservative critics of suburban land development – like myself and Bess – have largely been making is that car ownership ought not to be a prerequisite for the well-lived life, or indeed, even for mere survival, and that the practice of building and developing at the scale of the automobile, rather than at the scale of the human being, has profound and limiting consequences on our lives as members of Christian communities.

        Let me touch on the last comment in your most recent post, “Kids are good and non-walkability enables children.” Kids are certainly good, but I think that you are again misunderstanding the relationship between urbanism, the automobile, and walkability, and that you are conveniently forgetting all but the last eighty-odd years of human history, during which families with children did reasonably well without the convenience of the car. As a former Capitol Hill resident, you no doubt have seen that there are many families with young children living in an urban neighborhood, able to walk to nearby schools, churches, grocery stores, etc. without absolute need for a car. To say that “non-walkability enables children” is a failure to understand a broader history of land development patterns and the social, cultural, economic, and political factors that have made the inefficiencies and deferred expense of suburban development too often the unquestioned norm (or sadly, the only available/affordable option) for too many families.

        P.S. – The next time you’re in Capitol Hill and need to do some grocery shopping, I can loan you a grocery cart.

      • tbatts666

        Geez, get a bike rack man, or like a hand cart. I can haul 180 lbs of groceries on my bicycle. It’s pretty easy.

        It’s actually something I see a lot of people doing nowadays.

      • Evan D

        Suburbs are disordered because moms are able to put their kids in a car, drive to the supermarket and haul back enough food to feed their family for the week. Suburbs are unjust because dads are able to load up their SUV and take the boys to a fishing trip.

        I think this is a bit disingenuous. Parents can drive their kids to the store or the lake regardless of whether they live in a city or a suburb. It’s only in a suburb that they have to do so. It seems as though you’re recasting fewer choices as greater freedom.

        I think you meant “Kids are good and non-walkability enables [people to have] children” in your reply to Will, but the first thing I read was “Kids are good and non-walkability enables children [to do things],” which I think is completely false. Having grown up in fairly rural places, I enjoyed access to forests and deserts to run around in (made possible by permissive land owners who didn’t mind a few kids rumbling across their property), but I hated depending on my parents to go a friend’s house or a soccer game. Once I got a drivers license, I found my new independence completely conditional on my wallet.

        Lenore Skenazy has documented in her blog Free Range Kids (http://www.freerangekids.com/) the loss of independence and personal growth of America’s children over the past decades, and I think a large part of that is because of suburban patterns. When kids have beg their parents to leave their own cul-de-sac, I don’t think they’re going to grow into independent, responsible adults. Suburbs may enable parents to feel more in control their household, but they certainly don’t enable their children in their growth to mature citizens.

  • Mike

    Having been raised Catholic, as was Chuck Marohn, I have some right to say the following and it’s not an attack. Mr. Miller writes in his bio that he was raised in the Evangelical church and was home-schooled. Evangelism, compared to Catholicism, is very individualistic. I’ve heard proponents say how all you have to do to get into heaven is profess belief in god. Catholicism on the other hand requires a person to do acts that help others too. That’s why Catholicism historically, at least away from the Vatican and the suburbs, focused on a good life rather than The Good Life (wealth).

    So there is a logical connection between the belief that individualism above all is better and the suburban lifestyle, which tends to favor the individual over the community (separate houses, large yards instead of small community parks, driving alone rather than walking and mass transit). Shared space in urban areas means that we must temper our individualistic urges in order to live near other people.

    One final note. What is it with conservatives and your Reagan worship? He was a middling politician (yes a great communicator but he was an actor) and had a very corrupt administration beyond the Iran-Contra Scandal. Don’t believe me. Look it up. And he was hardly a rugged individualist. Like John Wayne (I’m going to annoy a lot of conservatives now) he was an actor pretending to be a cowboy and soldier. But I guess hero worship (and Fox News) allows us to ignore the truth about Reagan.

    • Keith Miller

      Mike, you’ve picked up on one of the undercurrents of the piece. Could it be that there something about New Urbanism that is fundamentally foreign (or even hostile) to the low-church Evangelical tradition? The “metro-Evangelicals” that I’ve written about before would beg to differ, but I’m interested to see this fleshed out more extensively.

  • tbatts666

    High amounts of regulation and subsidization created the suburbs.

    There isn’t much to it but that.

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  • Jonathan Slonim

    I wish I had time to read all the other great comments before, but I think that it’s worth adding a few of my own.

    1. If you haven’t already, you should read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. This book aptly explains what makes a city work well for families and how bureaucratic planning hurts both cities and suburbs.

    2. I think you should be clear whether you are arguing against cities or for suburbs. A small town in the Midwest or elsewhere shares much with city life: walkability, close integration of family, work, and entertainment options, and shared housing units such as apartments and duplexes. You can argue that cities are too big, too smelly, impersonal, unnatural, or whatever, but that does not mean that suburbs are the way to go. You mention that rural life is the historical norm, which is only partly true. Rural towns were the norm, and farmers on the east coast of the USA and in Europe have always lived in town and gone out to plow the fields each day since Homer. Town life has always been the norm, and still is everywhere except the United States where suburbs have taken over due to highways and zoning regulations.

    3. While government has interfered with both suburbs and cities, suburbs exist as a direct result of conscious government policy – I think Dr. Carlsen or Dr. Gamble could point to more specifics than I can, but the Levittowns are a great example of FDR deciding that we needed more suburbs to support family life. Do you believe that family needs the government to make it work or does freedom have a better net effect? I think we agree on this one.

    4. I actually agree that suburbs can be good, but zoning destroys both suburban and urban life. I know places where you have to drive through 15 miles of neighborhood additions just to find a grocery store. I also know of urban developments that have been severely harmed by zoning that forbids building above a certain number of stories – much of DC is like this. Such zoning raises the costs of housing and transportation, making it harder to get the benefits of city life and making the suburbs a more attractive option. Jane Jacobs discusses this extensively in her book.

  • Michael Hendrix

    Keith,

    Here we see a wonderful example of a comments section enriching an already thoughtful post. A post, I’m afraid, that I greatly disagree with. Inasmuch as I am opposed to efforts bent on denigrating suburbs, I also cannot jump on board with efforts at showing cities to be inimical to conservatism in order to elevate the suburb.

    Both urban and rural places are in need of a free market-oriented conservatism that values community and fosters individual pursuits. Cities simply happen to be more in need of these sorts of ideas at the moment, and offer a unique seedbed in which to grow a new set of solutions for an urbanizing America.

    There’s little I can expound on that’s not already been brought up, but I would make two notes:

    First, if your issue is with the seeming elitism in new urbanism or city-friendly conservatism, then I’d try to flip that around and point right back at suburban living. To take one example, suburbs rely on automobiles in order to function, and they are hardly non-elitist. If anything, mass transit is far less elite of a transportation mode.

    Second, you expressed concerns with the highly ordered and planned nature of what you (incorrectly, I believe) saw in new urbanism relative to suburban development. Again, I would flip that assessment. Suburbs are highly ordered and planned developments (and subsequently reinforced by zoning regulations). Cities are frequently messy and disordered places, which are precisely what gives them their vitality and inherent friendliness to community.

    My point is not to say suburbs are worse than cities, but to say that both have challenges in need of conservative solutions, particularly of the Burkean strain that has coursed through American discourse since its founding. Keep up the good work, but let’s embrace the range of development that marks the American landscape.

    All the best,

    Michael

    P.S. In full disclosure, I also contributed to The American Conservative’s recent effort: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/why-conservatives-should-love-the-city/

  • Darryl Hart

    Keith, what if we don’t tart New Urbanism up with talk of justice or human flourishing? What if we only say it is a more appealing way to live (and why Americans love visiting European urban areas)?

  • JoeDokes999

    Wow – the author completely misses the point. In the past, rural and urban communities existed because they were self-sustaining. Suburbs skewed the equation because of enormous government subsidies. Most writers like the author dismiss the trillions spent building highway (a government monopoly), the mortgage deduction ($100 billion/year), the trillion dollar bail out of Fannie and Freddie (to keep mostly suburban home prices at unrealistic – not market – values) – as some sort of inevitable actions of government. They are not – they were profound government over reach that distorted the housing and office market and killed cities across the USA, along with much of our economy. Look at countries that did not subsidize suburbs as the USA did, and you will see vibrant, thriving cities, clean/safe public transit, and healthier people. And no $18 trillion national debts ($1 trillion of that alone was Fannie/Freddie).