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.