Misguided Attacks on Suburbia Undermine Essential Values, Affront Critical Voting Bloc

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published September 26, 2014

Writing in The Orange County Register, the distinguished urbanologist Joel Kotkin notes that many conservatives are now “waging a war on middle-class America” through their support for trendy progressive “smart growth” policies. Such policies are the stock in trade of an urban planning movement that has been in power for about a quarter-century now, promoted by certain business interests (aka rent-seekers) in a coalition with elitist progressive politicians and upper-class and aspiring-upper-class cultural snobs.

Kotkin notes that elitists on the right have joined the movement in recent years, always on the lookout for ways to make themselves momentarily respectable in the eyes of the progressive left and its powerful news- and culture-making industry:

[O]pposition to suburbs – usually characterized as “sprawl” – has been spreading to the conservative movement. Old-style Tories like author-philosopher Roger Scruton do not conceal their detestation of suburbia and favor, instead, European-style planning laws that force people to live “side by side.” Densely packed Paris and London, he points out, are clearly better places to visit for well-heeled tourists than Atlanta, Houston or Dallas.

There may be more than a bit of class prejudice at work here. British Tories long havedisliked suburbs and their denizens. In a 1905 book, “The Suburbans,” the poet T.W.H. Crossland launched a vitriolic attack on the “low and inferior species,” the “soulless” class of “clerks” who were spreading into the new, comfortable houses in the suburbs, mucking up the aesthetics of the British countryside.

Not surprisingly, many British conservatives, like Scruton, and his American counterparts frequently live in bucolic settings, and understandably want these crass suburbanites and their homes as far away as possible. Yet, there is precious little concern that – in their zeal to protect their property – they have also embraced policies that have engendered huge housing inflation, in places like greater London or the San Francisco Bay Area, that is among the most extreme in the high-income world.

Add Rod Dreher and other writers for The American Conservative to this list, and you have a good start on identifying the movement. Some of these complaints echo thoughts common among the Agrarian movement on the right in the years before World War II and among traditionalist conservatives in the decades since, but the open embrace of political mandates and subsidies as the solution is relatively new.

These conservative critics of suburbia offer a litany of complaints, largely centering on aesthetic considerations but also echoing the decades-old progressive claim that suburbia destroys the soul:

Of course, the conservative critique of suburbia does not rest only on aesthetic disdain for suburbs, but is usually linked to stated social and environmental concerns. “There’s no telling how many marriages were broken up over the stress of suburb-to-city commutes,” opines conservative author Matt Lewis in a recent article in The Week. In his mind, suburbs are not only aesthetically displeasing but also anti-family.

What seems clear is that Lewis, and other new retro-urbanist conservatives, are simply parroting the basic urban legends of the smart-growth crowd and planners. If he actually researched the issue, he would learn that the average commutes of suburbanites tend to be shorter, according to an analysis of census data by demographer Wendell Cox, than those in denser, transit-oriented cities. The worst commuting times in America, it turns out, to be in places such as Queens and Staten Island, both located in New York City.

Cox (a colleague of mine at The Heartland Institute), is an economic analyst of a highly independent cast of mind who goes wherever the data takes him. And the data clearly show, as Kotkin notes, that the progressive complaints about the suburbs and claims of the superiority of dense urban living are simply a pack of lies. Kotkin notes that conservatives’ newfound commitment to government as the solution does not fit the facts about urban and suburban life:

Other conservatives also point to the alleged antisocial aspect of [suburbanization], a favored theme of new urbanists everywhere. A report co-written by the late conservative activist Paul Weyrich supported forcing “traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop,” which “will encourage traditional culture and morals,” such as community and family.

Once again, however, a serious examination of research – as opposed to recitation of planners’ cant – shows that suburbanites, as University of California researchers found, tend to be more engaged with their neighbors than are people closer to the urban core. Similarly, a 2009 Pew study recently found that, among the various geographies in America, residents in suburbia were more “satisfied” than were either rural or urban residents.

As noted above, Kotkin correctly characterizes the hostility toward suburbia as an attack on the middle class, and he noes that this is a move of spectacular political stupidity:

In working against suburbia, these conservatives are waging a war on middle-class America, not necessarily a smart political gambit. Overall, conventional suburban locations are home to three-quarters of the metropolitan population. And even this number is low, given that large parts of most large American cities – such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Kansas City and Houston – are themselves suburban in character, with low transit use and a housing stock primarily made up of single-family residences built during the auto-dominated postwar period. Only approximately 15 percent of residents in major metropolitan areas actually live in dense, transit-oriented communities. . . .

It’s hard for me, even as a nonconservative, to see how this trajectory works for the Right.

Renters, childless households, highly educated professionals, as well as poor service workers, clustering in dense cities are not exactly prime Republican voters. Without property, and with no reasons to be overly concerned with dysfunctional schools, the new urban population tilts increasingly, if anything, further to the left.

Meanwhile, the middle-class homeowner, and those who aspire to this status, increasingly find themselves without a party or ideology that champions their interests. In exchange for the approval of the cognitive elites in the media, in academia and among planners, conservatives will have, once again, missed a chance to build a broad popular coalition that can overcome the “upstairs, downstairs” configuration that increasingly dominates the Democratic Party.

That is a spot-on analysis, and it is another manifestation of the war within the Republican Party and the political right in general, pitting elitist/planner types against the entire rest of the nation’s population, including those who strongly support economic, religious, and political liberty.

The latter, characterized by the Tea Party but encompassing far more than them and including millions of political independents and even some Democrats, are now without a political home. They are intent on winning the Republican Party to their cause but seem doomed to be outbid by the campaign-contribution blandishments of Wall Street, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its state and local satraps, and the defense contracting industry. It is foolish of the GOP to reject this huge number of people, and also a violation of conservative principles, Kotkin notes:

Yet, there remains a great opportunity for either party that will appeal to, and appreciate, the suburban base. Conservative figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher understood the connection between democracy and property ownership and upward mobility. Much the same could be said for traditional Democrats, from Roosevelt and Harry Truman, all the way to Bill Clinton.

Like everything devised by humans, suburbia is not perfect, but its deficiencies are already being remedied by market forces, Kotkin notes:

For all their faults, suburbs represent the epitome of the American Dream and the promise of upward mobility. That they can be improved, both socially and environmentally, is clear. This is already happening in new, mostly privately built, developments where the “ills” of suburbia – long commute distances, overuse of water and energy – are addressed by building new town centers, bringing employment closer to home, the use of more drought-resistant landscaping, promoting home-based business and developing expansive park systems. This seems more promising than following a negative agenda that seeks simply to force ever-denser housing and create heat-generating concrete jungles.

As Kotkin notes, the suburbs—and the nation’s middle class—are healthy and self-reliant and have no need of rescue by intellectual experts in the NYC-DC corridor. Left to their own devices and given market freedom, the American people will take care of themselves quite adequately. To hare after the approbation of progressive elitists is a disastrously foolish move, and if these conservative proponents of urban density and Agenda 21-oriented policies really do believe in their efficacy, they are simply wrong, as the facts clearly show. Kotkin aptly sums up what is at stake here:

The abandonment of the suburban ideal represents a lethal affront to the interests and preferences of the majority, as well as their basic aspirations. The forced march towards densification and ever more constricted planning augurs not a return to old republican values, as some conservatives hope, but the transformation of America from a broadly based property-owning democracy into something that more clearly resembles feudalism.

Feudalism may be a program some conservatives find attractive, but it is unlikely to win a political majority or, were it to be imposed anyway, solve the nation’s real problems. Rebuilding a nation requires hard work, and only liberty combined with personal responsibility can do that.


[Originally published at The American Culture]