It Takes a Village

Once a week I do a short radio segment on community radio station KAXE dealing with Minnesota politics. The segment is called "Making Sausage" and I (humbly) represent the "Republican" point of view. Being a Republican - or probably more precisely in the year 2009, a Fiscal Conservative with the Social Libertarian slant typical of my generation - while also being a planner has been an interesting combination. After all, isn't it communist societies that do all those five-year plans? Isn't America all about rugged individualism, not centralized planning?

Well, yes, in a sense. But that is not the planning I do. I could never be an urban planner in a large city or someone trying to set detailed, micro-policy from a state or national level. I don't believe in it and my mind doesn't work that way. Working exclusively in small towns allows me to focus on "making things work" at the community level. Jeffersonian-style planning.

All of this is a backdrop to introducing a tremendous article that was sent to me by a reader of Strong Towns Blog. It is written by a guy named David Schaengold called Why Conservatives Should Care about Transit. It is, as a dear friend of mine said, a "must read for conservatives." Even if you are not one, read it - you will be smarter for having done so.

The article brilliantly ties together so many different thoughts and ideas that we have worked to develop here on this blog, but for today, I will focus on the central premise:

Public transit and walkable neighborhoods are necessary for the creation of a country where families and communities can flourish.

In our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Town Series we have tried to give some real-world examples of how our current development pattern - which for nearly all small towns can be best described as auto-oriented - destroys communities. Perhaps the best examples are the two postings I did on South 6th Street. The first, Brainerd's Parkway, describes how the transformation of South 6th to a thoroughfare has destroyed the neighborhoods along the corridor, stagnating the property values in the process. The follow-up, The Reality of Brainerd's Parkway, describes how "enhancements" to South 6th initially provided opportunity for economic growth but then, inevitably, doomed the corridor to stagnation and decline.

What I say in two long posts, Schaengold nicely summarizes in two brief sentences:

Transportation decisions have the power to shape how we form communities, families, religious congregations, and even how we start small businesses. Bad transportation decisions can destroy communities, and good transportation decisions can help create them.

Your average Republican is probably still with me at this point. After all, transportation decisions do shape how communities form - that is why Republicans favor all of those road construction subsidies. Every two years the mantra from my party's candidates is "roads, roads, roads". According to Schaengold,

Sadly, American conservatives have come to be associated with support for transportation decisions that promote dependence on automobiles, while American liberals are more likely to be associated with public transportation, city life, and pro-pedestrian policies. 

The idea of "dependence" on automobiles is an odd one for Republicans, so let me elaborate slightly. While we often associate the automobile with independence - the ability to go wherever you want to go - that type of freedom comes at a price. Ponder these dependencies: 

  • What happens to you when your car breaks down? Is in the shop? Is stuck in traffic? 
  • What happens when your kid needs a ride to school? You need to stop for milk? You can't find a parking spot?
  • What happens when gas goes to $4.50 per gallon?

The answer to all of these questions is: you drive. There is no other option. The reason why we are so ridiculously lenient on drunk drivers is the hard cold reality that it is impossible to live in Small Town America without driving. If you take away someone's car - habitual drunk or not - that person will not be able to survive in today's world.

That, my dear readers, is what is called "dependency".

Schaengold does some brilliant analysis on how auto-dependency impacts small businesses that I will come back to in a different post. (If you want a Strong Town take on these ideas, check out a STB post from earlier this month titled Understanding Downtown.) For now, let's use this statement of his as a jumping off point:

Pro-highway, anti-transit, anti-pedestrian policies work against the core beliefs of American conservatives in another and even more important way: they create social environments that are hostile to real community.

Inevitably when I am in a small town somewhere and start talking about "community", someone stands up and says, "I didn't move here so I could see my neighbors. I moved here to get away from them." My response is typically along the lines of, "If you can afford to live that way, good for you." The reality that readers of this blog understand, however, is that we really can't afford to live that way.

Note, if you are new here and/or that proposition doesn't seem right to you, just start browsing the archives of this blog. You can start with these four entries:

Financially, our current development pattern is bankrupting us. A more-efficient and affordable development pattern will unquestionably require more "seeing your neighbors". If we are going to remake our towns of tomorrow into Strong Towns - places that are not just efficient but desirable to live in - we will have to pay attention to the elements of planning that make towns more livable and provide a sense of community.

In that vein, I'll let Schaengold tie it all together.

Car-dependency also requires the nuclear family to become a primary transportation resource. Parents must shuttle their children to school, soccer practice, and even their friends’ houses until the children can shuttle themselves (at peril to their lives) in late adolescence. Not only does this overburden families themselves, it prevents the participation of community members in sharing the burdens of child-rearing.

Conservatives sometimes mock Hillary Clinton’s infamous aphorism that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but surely this is in fact what conservatives actually believe. Otherwise, why would conservatives care about a culture that promotes irresponsibility and license? Social conservatives, at least, recognize that children flourish best not merely as members of a household but as participants in a culture, and that families themselves have more purposes than logistical support.

Dense, walkable settlements are not just a pleasant lifestyle choice. They are a precondition of the strong, inter-connected communities that social conservatives desire. It is not difficult to envision how these communities can make our lives comprehensively better. Americans are not obliged by any law of nature or rule of the market to live in mediocre, anti-social places. With changes in public policy, over time we can begin again to create neighborhoods that promote real community.