Smart Growth for Custom-Minded Conservatives

main_streetby James A. Bacon

As I have endeavored to develop a conservative vision for Smart Growth, I have relied primarily upon conservative principles with a libertarian slant — limited government, fiscal conservatism, free markets and the like. But there is a vast realm of conservative thinking that I have neglected, which William S. Lind, director of the Arlington-based American Ideas Institute, has reminded me of in today’s post on the Center for Public Transportation blog.

In that post, Lind has kind words to say about Bacon’s Rebellion and our offshoot blog, Smart Growth for Conservatives. But he also expands the case for Smart Growth beyond the one that I have made: He appeals to the idea of conservatism that favors institutions that have grown up over time, as embodied in customs, traditions and habits. In the realm of land use planning, he invokes the golden age of American urbanism that reached its apex in the street car era before zoning codes mandated separation of where people lived from where they shopped or worked by distances too great to walk.

Traditional neighborhood development, Lind contends, fostered a sense of community — and community is a core conservative value. Community refers to informal arrangements in which citizens interact in the civic sphere, building bonds of trust, collaborating to achieve goals of mutual benefit and enforcing community norms without the need for government intervention. He writes:

Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Lind then observes that a conservative view of Smart Growth differs from a liberal view in preferring free-market mechanisms and a level playing field (the arguments that I have articulated) and in rejecting the Left’s celebration of “diversity, or the mixing of races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl.” When “diversity” occurs as a result of social engineering, rather than the natural coming of people together, it undermines community. “Community, for us,” writes Lind, “is far more important than any putative benefits from ‘diversity,’ benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.”

I would elaborate that the Left tends to worship diversity as an abstract concept with little heed for its actual consequences. In the real world, as I have blogged recently, some of the most segregated places in the United States are the most politically liberal. Liberal policies (such as giving government more power to control land use) are associated with the most illiberal results. Ironically, while a conservative version of smart growth would eschew “diversity” as a goal, by eliminating exclusionary zoning and building communities based on shared values and trust, Smart Growth conservatism could do more to erode racial and ethnic segregation than all the judicial decrees and government programs favored by liberals.

Lind, who co-authored a study with Paul Weyrich and New Urbanism guru Andres Duany that explored commonalities of conservative and the New Urbanism, has tapped a rich new vein of thought and commentary on why conservatives should embrace Smart Growth. Let’s hope he continues to develop this line of thinking.

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5 responses to “Smart Growth for Custom-Minded Conservatives”

  1. You’re getting closer to the issues.

    first – neither liberals nor conservatives want to live in places they consider undesireable, unsafe, etc. It’s not a liberal vs conservative value.

    but what liberals believe in and Conservatives and Libertarians are violently opposed to is collectivism or everyone paying for something that is a public good.

    like public education or a public park or food stamps or for some even fire service.

    using the word “limited government” allows anyone to spin any version of what they claim is representative of Conservatives and Libertarians and I can tell you that virtually no Libertarian nor many if not most of Conservatives support things like Public Education. As bad as Richmond is – think about what Richmond would look like if there was NO public education at all.

    It’s not like these views I am talking about are not fairly obvious with Conservatives and Libertarians – it’s that Jim chooses the tiny sliver of them are are open to _some_ “lefty” things – collectivist things..

    when you mention “collective’ to Conservatives they immediately dislike the concept – when you mention it to Libertarians they go bat-crap crazy.

    Family and religion is a Conservative value – but blood relatives only not the “village” liberals talk about.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Did you now that it is Lenin’s birthday?

    1. here’s the question –

      Is there such a thing as “Smart Growth without government”?

      or if you don’t like that, this please define specifically what “limited” kinds of government ARE required for “Smart Growth” ( or as Chris suggests – find another name that is endemic to conservativsm and not liberalism/collectivism”.

      For myself, I believe the most limited govt in the world – fosters 3rd world conditions and if there is disagreement with that view then please supply a short list of very limited govt cities that are not 3rd world.

  3. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    You might want to start by dropping the word “smart” from “Smart growth.” It’s a term now considered inappropriate in progressive planning circles for its suggestion that that any other kind of growth strategy is inherently “unsmart.” Salt Lake City’s wildly successful Envision Utah initiative got past this very quickly by replacing “smart” with “quality,” since hundreds of conversations with thousands of residents of the region revealed that quality is what they want to preserve as the region figures out what it wants in its future.

  4. Is there such a thing as “Smart Growth without government”?

    From what I’ve seen, the answer is clearly “no.” Let’s put aside changes to the Comp Plan and rezoning applications, as they are a part of any development. Smart or Dense Growth needs massive infusions of money to bolster public facilities. Most Dense Growth is also dependent on the construction of mass transit, most often with tracks. None of these efforts seem to be self-sustaining. In other words, the development itself cannot afford to pay the costs for the infrastructure necessary to support the development. Bottom Line: Smart Growth needs lots of government involvement to get off the ground.

    This is not to say the market cannot add density through by-right development, but such additions are likely to be relatively small. But any big development needs big government. Tysons has proven the case. (Keep in mind Tysons is the most watched redevelopment project in the world.)

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