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In the United States there has been growing interest in “New Urbanism” - it favours “walkable” neighbourhoods on human scale. A return to the principle that “from the local hilltop, people could see their community laid out and could understand it”. Many of the Left are keen – it would reduce reliance on cars and so be rather green. It also addresses the growth of division and inequality – “suburban sprawl”, “white flight”, impoverished inner cities.

However Paul Weyrich of the Heritage Foundation proposes in an interesting paper – jointly written by William Lind and Andres Duany that Conservatives should also be supportive. They say:

“We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.”

They point to the way that modern planning has frustrated community spirit:

“You get up in the morning, grab a quick cup of coffee and head out the door. But the door leads to your garage, not outside. You get in the car, open the garage door, turn on the air conditioning and the radio, and back out. You might, at most, wave to a neighbour in his car. You know where he lives but you don’t know his name. You couldn’t stop and talk to him if you wanted to.

At work, you may be stuck in an office park, or on a strip center, unable to walk down a sidewalk for lunch with your fellows. Coming home in the evening, you do the same thing in reverse. If you stopped at a store or restaurant on the way, it was probably several miles from where you live. The other people there were drawn from a wide area. It is a rare occurrence to see anyone you
know from your community.

Once home, you probably stay in the house. If you exercise, you drive to a gym. Most evenings you spend in front of the TV or the computer. You may go outside on weekends to cut the grass or barbecue, but most of what you or your kids do requires atrip in the car. You couldn’t walk or ride a bike if you wanted to; the streets have no sidewalks and in any case, you would quickly hit a major road that has lots of fast traffic.

It is not hard to understand why community seldom forms under these conditions. People have no places where they can meet their neighbors casually, or in passing. Contrast that suburban life to life in a traditional town, village or neighborhood. Grocery stores, shops, restaurants, coffee houses, churches, the library and the post office are all in walking distance. So is at least the elementary school, and maybe the high school as well. All streets have sidewalks, and a grid street pattern means you can always find a “back way” with less traffic if you want to walk or bicycle. Kids play outside structured, supervised activities. To get to work, you may drive, but you may also walk to the bus or Light Rail stop.”

Weyrich and co argue that traditional institutions – such as the family and the Church – are strengthened by traditional architecture, traditional street patterns, cohesive communities. That is how Edmund Burke’s “Little Platoons” may flourish.

They also argue that since most people would choose to live in this way that is what would result if a proper free market was allowed:

“Conservatives who believe in free markets, and most do, should be with New Urbanists in demanding codes that level the playing field and let the market decide. New Urbanists think that, given the choice, a very substantial number of people will choose New Urbanist communities. Conservatives should insist they be given an equal chance to prove their point in a genuinely free development market…. subsidies could be cut back if we eliminated unnecessary, gold-plated standards that raise building costs, and if we removed intractable bureaucratic procedures that have eliminated the small builder, including the self-builder.”

In the Amercian context this means “dual codes” to allow developers and home buyers to decide: “We would note that where New Urbanism has been allowed to compete with sprawl, it has sold well, often at a substantial premium over the same floor space in surrounding sprawl developments”. There are zoning codes for new developments which require the nearest shop of restaurant to be so far away you have to drive to get to it. Those need to be lifted.

Of course there is a Leftist faction within the New Urbanist movement that is anti car and wishes to prohibit sprawling into suburbs. The Weyrichites case is simply that people should be free to choose. Often the suburbanites would like have a porch. They will wish to own a car. But they will also want walking to be an option.  The Weyrichites contend that traditional street patterns – “a grid of streets, which offered multiple possible routes from point to point” resulted in less traffic congestion that the arrangements imposed by modern planners where “most residential streets are cul-de-sacs”.

“Public housing should be designed as neighborhoods and towns, not bleak blocks of Soviet-style apartments.” This would mean that “high-rise buildings are demolished and replaced with townhomes, single-family homes, and smaller apartment buildings.” While “back and front yards belong to individual units, creating ‘defensible space.’ ”

This should be combined with “programs that assist residents to become owners”.

Naturally the details of the damage caused by perverse planning requirements will vary between our two countries. But British Conservatives should join with American Conservatives in taking up this issue.


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