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Conservative New Urbanism

Commentary | The tenth column of a twelve part series on "the next conservatism"

In my last column, I argued that the next conservatism needs to revive the family farm. Here, I want to make the case that is also needs to revive our cities.

Many conservatives dislike cities, for reasons I understand and sympathize with. Sin and the city is an old, old story; you can find it in the Confessions of Blessed Augustine. But cities are also the birthplace and necessary home for high culture. Without living cities, we will not have symphony orchestras and great music, classic theater, art museums, serious public libraries or any of the other venues high culture requires. Nor will we have the good used bookstores, artistic and literary cafes, salons or other informal but important places where ideas can be exchanged and culture can grow. No, the Internet is not a substitute; there can be no full replacement for people talking face-to-face.

Just as the next conservatism needs to make the culture its centerpiece, it needs to include high culture. Conservatism ought not be indifferent to whether future generations get to see Shakespeare's plays, hear Mozart's music or see Dürer's engravings. And if conservatives want that to happen, we need cities. God knows we dare not entrust culture to the universities.

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That brings us to the problem we face: America's cities are in bad shape, most of them anyway. First the upper class, then the middle class, then anyone who could afford to moved out (busing, which wrecked the public schools, played a central role in the exodus). Cities cannot live if no one but the underclass lives in them. Nor can they survive if we continue to export our industries, to the point where cities offer no manufacturing or business jobs.

Over the past several decades, a movement has arisen to restore our cities and even to build new urban communities, towns, as an alternative to suburbs. It is called "new urbanism." As a conservative, I think new urbanism needs to be part of the next conservatism. But I also think we need a conservative new urbanism, which differs from much of what now goes under the new urbanist label.

The difference is this. Much of present-day new urbanism is statist. It envisions using the power of government to force people to adopt new urbanist ideas. An example is Portland, Oregon's "urban growth boundary," a line drawn on a map by government bureaucrats that tries to stop sprawl by decree. Guest what? It doesn't work. Not only does it violate property rights, if you actually go to Portland and look what has been built inside the boundary, most of it is still sprawl.

Let me say that I am not necessarily against sprawl. Suburbs are great places for families to raise kids. What we need is suburbs and living, thriving cities, not one or the other.

Here is where conservative new urbanism comes in. Conservative new urbanism should be built on property rights. Its basis would be dual codes. At present, virtually every building code in the country mandates sprawl. One developer told me that in order to build a traditional town (something most conservatives like), he had to get 150 variances at immense expense and delay.

The next conservatism should call for dual codes, nationwide. Under one code, a developer would be perfectly free to build a sprawling suburb. But he could also choose to build under a new urbanist code, which would be consistent with the way towns and cities were traditionally designed and built. Obviously, developers would make their choice based on demand in a free market. They would build suburbs where the market wanted suburbs, and towns or even small cities (or redevelopment in existing cities) where the market wanted that.

Good new urbanism should welcome a dual-code approach. Why? Because good new urbanism sells. Sometime when you are in Washington, go look at the architect Andres Duany's Kentlands development in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is a beautiful traditional town. And houses there are selling for tens of thousands of dollars more than houses with the same floor space in surrounding suburbs.

Here as so often elsewhere, the problem is government interference in the marketplace. The next conservatism should end the monopoly government building codes give to suburban sprawl and allow the free market to restore our cities. That is conservative new urbanism, and I think it needs to be part of the next conservative agenda.

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