CNU XVI – Conservatives & the New Urbanism: Can’t we all get along?

I went to watch fireworks, maybe even fisticuffs, but instead a group hug broke out.

This is my first CNU, but I have followed planning long enough to know that a good number of people regard New Urbanism as a liberal social experiment and its 27-point charter as a cudgel with which to beat the stuffing out of property rights advocates and otherwise god-fearing landowners who just want to erect a gas station, mini-mart and coin-op laundry strip center on their acre of state highway frontage outside town and live in peace.

The Republic and the Empire—which side is which depends on one’s perspective—came together Thursday at CNU XVI, ostensibly to hash our their differences. At least, that’s what the sizeable crowd assembled seemed to expect. But any differences were downplayed by both sides, and everyone ended up reinforcing their acceptance and admiration of each other’s points of view.

A little back story: The Free Congress Foundation, a politically and culturally conservative group that applies its viewpoint to various policy questions, produced a paper recently exploring what New Urbanism and traditional conservative values have in common. The answer turned out to be quite a lot. In the paper, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common,” Free Congress Foundation founder Paul M. Weyrich; William S. Lind, the Free Congress Foundation’s director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism; and New Urbanism godfather and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. principal Andrés Duany wrote, “There is nothing in New Urbanist codes that conservatives should find objectionable. On the contrary, the huge number of rigid government mandates contained in the current codes are what should rile conservatives. New Urbanist codes are easier to understand by non-professional people, and they offer far more options.”

The paper was drafted by Weyrich and Lind and reviewed by Duany. On Thursday, Duany said he initially wanted the paper to have a more serious tone, but upon reading it again realized it was written not for academics, but for everyday people, the same people New Urbanism seeks to serve. Additionally, he said, when he read Lind’s writing he began to see the CNU Charter “as so profoundly conservative” that he could not envision the progressive/liberal response. He went on to call the Free Congress’ paper “a stunningly clear document,” one that gives the reader a slightly surreal feeling after reading it.

The core of the broad conservative endorsement of New Urbanism hinges on voluntary compliance with its tenets. Developers should be free to choose sprawl or New Urbanism, with the choice dictated solely by the whims of the free market. Ideally, municipalities would promulgate dual codes. New Urbanists don’t seem to have a problem with this, since at this stage merely getting elements of New Urbanist developments legalized is a major hurdle, and a dual code would by definition legalize the densities, street networks and mixed environments that are the hallmarks of the movement.

Lind said the Free Congress paper is a toolbox of terms that allow New Urbanist advocates to make their point to conservatives using language and arguments that will resonate with them. “Conservatives don’t know what it [New Urbanism] is, and they’re certainly not going to trust a liberal to explain it to them,” he said. “Conservatives tend to think that the old ways of doing things, based on generational experience, are better than the latest cockamamie thinking coming out of the academy.”

Many of New Urbanism’s 27 principles are conservative in nature. Take No. 6, for example: “The development and redevelopment of towns and cities should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries.”

“This argument is conservative in itself,” Lind said.

Principle No. 7, which advocates regional economies benefiting people of “all incomes” and distribution of affordable housing throughout the region, is more of a stretch for the Free Congressmen. “Most conservatives are not going to be enthusiastic about moving residents from the inner cities to middle class suburbs,” Lind said. Doing that is moving crime from the city to the suburb. “They don’t live by middle class standards, and conservatives will never go for it.”

Rather, builders should construct both mixed income and economically concentrated housing and see what sells. Let the market decide.

Given the financial success of New Urbanist projects, that’s an approach the CNU can likely support, and would even encourage. Letting people vote with their feet, or their pocketbooks, could give New Urbanism more legitimacy among conservatives and liberals alike.

It may not be the beginning of some new Summer of Love, but there seems to be enough common ground that it’s even possible to imagine Milton Friedman and Jane Jacobs clinking beer steins at some White Horse Tavern in the sky. In a financially successful mixed-use neighborhood, of course.

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