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Strong Towns for Conservatives

When we travel to cities and towns to share the Strong Towns message, we generally present it in three parts:

  1. The current way we are building our cities and towns is financially disastrous.
  2. The objective of our cities should be productivity, rather than "growth."
  3. To get healthy our cities are going to have to stop business as usual and rethink just about everything.

We encounter a wide range of reactions to the Strong Towns message.

In my previous post I talked about the Three Languages of American Politics, and idea I picked up from from Arnold Kling on the EconTalk podcast. In short, Kling suggests that American's tend to think of "the good" and "the bad" in terms of one of three axes:

  • Progressives: Oppression vs. The Oppressed
  • Conservatives: Barbarism vs. Civilization
  • Libertarians: Coercion vs. Freedom

It's fair to say that the reactions to our message group into these three categories as well. Today I'm going to start the first of several posts about how we respond to the initial reactions of people of different mindsets, proceeding in order from the most vociferous objections to the least.

I'll start with Conservatives.

More than any other group, Conservatives tend to initially react very negatively to the Strong Towns message. In fact, much of the DNA of our organization is built on the idea that Conservatives are not seeing the problems with the current development pattern, and that we have to reach out to them and help them see what's going on.

So, what is it about the Strong Towns Message that Conservatives would object to, and how do we respond to that?

The Conservative Reaction

While Kling describes the "Conservative Axis" as "Civilization vs. Barbarism", I think this could also be described as "Stability and Continuity vs. Instability and Change."

Conservatives tend to believe that "Things are the way they are for a reason," and that's mostly a good thing. Sure, there are plenty of issues where Conservatives call for change, but those are often argued in terms of a return to an earlier, better condition.

So, when we start explaining that "growth" in the form of horizontal expansion is generally a bad thing, and that we should be focused on productivity instead, Conservatives instinctively react against this. After all, "we all know" that growth is the key to prosperity. If you're not growing, you're dying.

Where I find the biggest breakthrough with Conservatives is when we explain how the way things are today is not the way things have always been. A number of significant changes took place from the 1930's to today that led us to the status quo. Among the most important concepts:

  1. Historically, mortgages were short-term instruments (5-10 years) for no more than 50% of the value of the property. The first fixed-rate, amortizing mortgages (20 year term, 20% down-payment) were created by government programs during the FDR administration, and sweetened into their current form (5% downpayment) as part of an economic stimulus policy immediately following World War II.

  2. Historically, land uses were determined by the property owner with very little intervention from the government. Zoning was conceived of as a tool for relocating industrial pollution out of densely populated areas, but was rapidly adopted across the country as a tool for segregation. Even in places where racial segregation was not official policy, zoning was often intentionally wielded as a tool for keeping different socioeconomic groups separate, and continues to have negative socio-economic consequences.

  3. Historically, cities were built with highly connected street patterns, either as designed grids (most American cities), or organic street networks (see Boston). Starting in the FDR administration, grids were actively discouraged by the government in favor of superblocks and the traffic hierarchy.

  4. Historically, streets were seen as shared spaces where many activities took place, driving being simply one of those activities. Led by Ralph Nader and AASHTO, this view was dramatically changed in the 60's and 70's. The engineering community adopted a mindset that all streets should be designed according to highway geometries, the idea being that the road should facilitate high-speed driving while also "forgiving" driver error. This made the historic Main Street, with slow speeds and everything happening close to the street, a non-starter.

These changes dramatically reshaped our lives. The fact that they happened over a long enough time horizon that they now seem "normal," doesn't mean they are historically tried-and-true. The more you dig into the history of American cities and city planning, the more you find todays "norms" to be the result of social engineering on a massive scale. That's not the kind of stability and continuity that Conservatives are interested in.

When we break things down in this way, we can usually get people interested in looking back at the history and understanding the context for themselves. For Conservatives, that tends to make all the difference in the world. From there it's easy for us to have a productive conversation about how to build Strong Towns.

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Reader Comments (11)

Words you'll ironically never hear a conservative or libertarian say: "Get the government out of our lives. End minimum parking requirements."

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

Here's some real live history I lived through that you might interested you:

My parents were married during the depression and never owned their own home. My in-laws bought a house in 1927 and came close to losing it during the depression, but managed to hold on. I don't know how much they put down, but the mortgage was for only 5 years at a time.

In 1959, my husband and I built our house in a new subdivision, a former cornfield on the outskirts of town and took on, what was then, typical mortgage terms: 20% down, 20 year mortgage with an interest rate of 5 1/2%. New sub-divitons popped up on both sides of town and all the houses were financed in this way. None were built on a grid; all the streets were curvilinear.

The children were bussed to school; we had to drive to the shopping center to purchase anything. There was no bus service. Today, there is a school, a shopping center (although the grocery store has closed) and bus service. There are less children there today, so children from other areas are bussed in. to the school.

My town had 3 S & L's where one could apply for a mortgage; none of them gave FHA or GI loans that required less of a downpayment and a 1/4 point less interest rate.

A developer in a small town to the north of us built a sub-division specifically for returning (white) GI's from Chicago with $100 down and $100 a month for 20 years, available at a local S & L. The houses were small--less than 1000 sq. ft.--and built on a slab. Middle class people distained them, but to someone who was living in a crowded Chicago apartment, it was paradise. The houses haven't held up well, the streets haven't been maintained,the shopping center built across the street from it has failed, and the population is entirely Mexican. Definitely not sustainable. The developer died a multi-millionair.

I began selling real estate in the late 70's. Down payments were still required, 10% rather than 20%, and people still had to qualify for a mortgage; for the first time the income from wives was counted in the equation. Then inflation struck and interest rates went as high as 18%. Various financing plans were put in place: adjustable rate, convertible ARM's and seller financing. We were relieved when interest rates came down to 11%.

I left real estate at this time, so was not part of all the creative financing that has gone on since.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPat Hill

I think the analysis is interesting in that it distinguishes between conservatives and libertarians. A conservative, as defined here, would not be in favor of ending parking minimums. A libertarian very clearly would be in favor of getting rid of parking minimums. Those are two quite distinct pressures on the Republican party. Meanwhile, many Democrats are themselves conservative on land use issues. They don't want change in their town. When change is suggested from of out-of-town developers, their conservative resistance to change can be vocalized in terms of oppression, hence as progressive.

It's hard to sell a conservative on doing things differently, because if they're a proper conservative they don't want change.

@Andrew Burleson
I like the idea of appealing to an earlier, historic pre-WW2 pattern of land use. I'm a bit skeptical that it works. It was so long ago, that nobody can remember it. We might as well talk about Ancient Rome as something that happened pre-WW2.

August 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB


FWIW: I disagree that history before WWII is irrelevant. For true *Conservatives,* the belief system is that America is a great nation, but that it is declining because we're getting away from our "historical values" etc. The problem is, they often believe that cup-de-sacs, parking lots, and 5% down mortgages are part of those traditional values.

I have had conversations with many, many (hundreds of) staunch conservatives, following roughly the ideas outlines in this post and watched them open their mind and start looking at the world more critically. Most of them are shocked when I outline the history, and the conversation finishes with them seriously rethinking their opinions about towns. On a couple dozen occasions I've had these individuals come back to me later, having done research of their own, and say, "Wow, I looked up some of the historical stuff you told me about, and you're right! The government really did change all this stuff in the last couple generations. I never realized how much of our life was based on the ideas of the FDR-era policy wonks."

When you tell people the story of how we got from there to here, it significantly changes the way they feel about the here and now.

August 12, 2013 | Registered CommenterAndrew Burleson

The problem is, they often believe that cup-de-sacs, parking lots, and 5% down mortgages are part of those traditional values.
Yes--that's exactly what i was trying to say! Conservatives have internalized so many aspects of 1950s-era planning that those values now seem traditional! I'm interested to read that you think- despite this- you can get through to them.

FWIW, here are some other points I try to bring up while talking to 'conservatives'. I'd be interested to hear if you think they are valid (note: I genuinely believe these are valid points, not mere rhetoric or debating tactics)
1. Fiscal issues -- do we want to live unsustainably and use taxes to paper over the cracks? Functioning urban centers offer multiples of municipal revenue per acre compared to suburban sprawl (this has been demonstrated repeatedly in the real world). If you want a financially solvent town, you want a strong urban core.
2. Property rights-- If we interfere with the rights of the local authority figure/developer/wealth-creator to develop their land, where will that lead? To chaos.
3. Land conservancy issues-- many conservatives don't want their local field and stream paved over, because that's where they used to ride their horse or whatever when they were younger. There's a valid conservation argument.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

"In short, Kling suggests that American's tend to think of "the good" and "the bad" in terms of one of three axes:

Progressives: Oppression vs. The Oppressed
Conservatives: Barbarism vs. Civilization
Libertarians: Coercion vs. Freedom

Weird. By this criterion, I'm conservative first and libertarian second. But most people would describe me as a progressive, politically. Maybe I have a wildly different definition of "civilization" (um, "cities", y'know) than the people who usually call themselves "conservatives". Or maybe I just knew the pre-WWII history already (my father grew up pre-WWII, my grandparents even older), and those who usually call themselves "conservatives" are just poorly educated on these matters.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

To be historically accurate, the attempt to push everyone but cars out of the street was started in the 1920s. I believe Streetsblog had something on the history of this propaganda push, specifically regarding how it was done in New York City -- or was it Cap'n Transit?

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

I still find this breakdown bizarre.

When a CEO writes himself enormous paychecks out of the corporate treasury, and lobbies for lower taxes for himself, while brutally controlling every aspect of his workers' lives, while ordering them to accept lower wages or starve... and then walking away rich while his company goes bankrupt... surely this is
(1) an oppressor oppressing the workers and customers
(2) a barbarian destroying the principles of civilization
(3) a coercive person preventing people from exercising their freedom of choice

In short, in cases like this, it is as simple as "good" vs. "bad", under all *three* points of view.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanael

If I was trying to sell Strong Towns to most "conservatives", I would not try to deliver a history lesson nor would I bother with anything that even sounds like an environmentalist argument. I would focus on the fact that current infrastructure design practices require businesses and homeowners to pay higher property taxes to subsidize inefficient government spending, on too-large roads, excessive fire and police to cover sprawling development, distant schools and the bus fleet to get kids to them, and the ongoing maintenance costs of all of the above.

My secondary point would be the damage done to locally-owned businesses by taxpayer-subsidized big box stores. Some conservatives do respond to those kinds of arguments.

The history arguments do help people understand just how much government has manipulated the market in favor of sprawl. That can help to counter the typical "conservative" talking point that urbanism is just an elite liberal scheme to make everyone live in high-rises and ride bicycles.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCT

Great post, Andrew. It'll be a reference piece for me for sure.

Greengrocer's apostrophe paragraph three.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterneil21

The conservative axis as described by Kling would favor the message of Strong Towns. This is because planning, responsible stewardship of the public good, and modernizing zoning would contribute to civility. This opposed to the barbarism of chaos and the creation of negative externality that currently exists. The domestic version of conservative might be different, but I think you could make a case that the conservative axis outlined by Kling would favor Strong Towns.

August 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis
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