Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Tripping Across the Political Spectrum in Search of a Home

Last week, I had a pair of productive and interesting conversations with Petaluma urbanists, one over beers at the estimable Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern and the other over breakfast beverages on a deck next to the Petaluma River.  (What, you thought urbanists went to chain restaurants?)

After touching upon a number of local themes, I posed a question to both that I’ve been pondering.  For the fall 2016 municipal elections, what urbanism-leaning candidates might be running?

Both responded that they hadn’t heard any rumors about possible progressive candidates.

Do you see the flag in those responses?  The automatic equation between urbanism and progressivism?

In contrast, I was reminded of something an original member of Petaluma Urban Chat told me when we first met.  He told me that whenever he followed the threads of his core beliefs to their political manifestations, he found that the results were all over the political spectrum, so he had no idea where he belonged.

I thought there was much value in what my acquaintance said, so decided to try to follow the threads of my own urbanism philosophies to their apparent political connections.

To begin, I’ll offer simplified versions of the major forms of political thought in our time:

Conservatism: The belief that things may still be okay today, but can’t keep going the direction we’ve been going and would be even better if we went back twenty, thirty, or even more years into the past.

Liberalism: The belief that things need to get better and that the best path is to unfetter individuals to do their individual best.

Progressivism: The belief that things need to get better and that the best path is to empower government, as the expression of our collective will, to undertake additional tasks.

(On the last two, I understand the common perception is that progressivism is on the same scale as liberalism, but further down the scale, something like an uber-liberalism.  My definitions instead put liberalism and progressivism on different paths, which I find a more accurate model.  Politics, like much of the world, can’t be explained by one-dimensional models.)

 Using these definitions, where does my urbanism fit?

Urbanism as a conservative strategy: I find urbanism a conservative approach to land use, arguing that the land-use patterns of the past had many inherently good ideas and that we should taking lessons from them, rather than continuing to put the past further in the rear view mirror by encouraging drivable suburban development.

Also, as particularly championed by StrongTowns, many urbanists, including me, are uncomfortable with the current funding model by which much infrastructure is built using “transfer funds” from higher levels of government without adequate consideration of local need or ability to maintain.  The StrongTowns folks instead argue that we fostered better and stronger communities when we only built the infrastructure that we could build and maintain with locally generated resources.

When Petaluma Urban Chat was jointly reading the “Curbside Chat” booklet by StrongTowns, one participant noted, to his surprise, that “StrongTowns is the Republican argument for urbanism!”

I don’t want to know the party affiliations of the StrongTowns membership, but agree that many of the StrongTowns arguments fall into the conservative camp.

So clearly, my urbanism is conservative.

Urbanism as a liberal strategy: One of my frequent arguments for urbanism is that we know how to build workable places that don’t rely on the automobile, but that we can only build those places if we stop incentivizing drivable suburban development.  Instead, we need to give the folks who know how to work in a subsidy-free environment the freedom to develop the vibrant communities that we need.

So clearly, my urbanism is liberal.

Urbanism as a progressive strategy: There are many progressive arguments I could make for urbanism, but I’ll pick an easy one, walkability.

Imagine a block of ten homes where nine of the homeowners, following their good liberal tendencies, maintain their sidewalk segments with dedication, sweeping it clean, pulling weeds, patching cracks, and replacing entire sections when needed.  But imagine that the tenth owner, whether from a lack of goodwill or financial constraints, does none of those things, with the result that the sidewalk in front of his house is deeply cracked and weed-infested.

What’s the result?  The block is impassible for those in wheelchairs or walkers, or who just might be unstable on their feet.  Walkability is absent for those who might want to walk to do their shopping or other chores.

The only solution is to empower local government with the authority to maintain sidewalks, which is a progressive strategy.

So clearly, my urbanism is progressive.

And there you have it.  My urbanism and I are securely in the progressive liberal conservative camp.

Isn’t it nice when you know you have a home?

In my next post, I’ll offer a story about an Iraqi village that offers an insight into land-use planning.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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