In Praise of Nonpartisan Urbanism

At a time when the shrill voices of partisan national politics have driven me to turn the channel to coverage of minor league baseball and golf matches, I have been pleasantly surprised at the nonpartisan nature of most discussions regarding economic revitalization of downtowns, affordable housing, parking, traffic congestion, and other issues facing today’s metropolitan centers. It’s a wonderful respite. So I was alarmed by Christopher F. Rufo’s assertion in an August 22 Wall Street Journal op ed that “new left urbanists” are trying to make local governments “rebuild the urban environment” to “set right society’s socioeconomic, racial and moral deficiencies.”

That contention didn’t match my experience reporting and writing about urban issues over the past two years. I have encountered numerous proposals that seem less leftist and more like fiscal conservatism as once practiced by old-fashioned, reasonable Republicans. Congestion pricing for automobile traffic and higher parking meter fees in intensely used neighborhoods sound to me like lessons in supply and demand. Easing zoning rules so that a developer can build housing with no minimum number of parking spaces is an opportunity for entrepreneurial risk-taking: If the developer misjudges the market, he will pay.

Perhaps Christopher Rufo has confused ‘new urbanism’ with ‘urban renewal.’ The latter went down a long time ago, along with the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

Two heroes of the “new urbanism” are former mayors Joe Riley of Charleston, SC, and Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City. You could read thousands of words about the accomplishments of either man before you discovered his political affiliation. As urbanist Richard Florida wrote in the foreword to Cornett’s book, The Next American City, “Local leadership really does defy party. . . . When I meet a national politician, it is immediately clear which side of the political divide they’re on. But when I travel to cities across the United States, I am amazed I can never tell who is a Democrat and who is a Republican.”

Mr. Rufo’s argument is fueled by some selective references to various proposals from “new left urbanists.” For example, he cites a 2018 proposal from the People’s Policy Project, written by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper, which “envision the construction of 10 million ‘municipal homes’ over the next decade” but which ignores “the abysmal record of public housing in the U.S., from crime to decay.”

Most ‘new urbanists’ would agree with Mr. Rufo on this: ‘Making cities better and more beautiful requires bringing neighbors, developers, employers and governments into the conversation. Thriving cities are built through cooperation, not compulsion.’

In fact, Gowan and Cooper seem very aware of past failures of public housing efforts. They argue that “new developments should never destroy existing functional housing through ‘slum clearance,’ instead the objective should be to expand supply by building on existing city-owned land.” And their proposal aims to add housing units for people of all income levels, not just the poor. “By allowing people of all incomes to apply to live in these new developments, local governments will be able to charge higher rents to higher-income residents, and thus capture a great deal of capital income. Instead of being a large budgetary burden on cities and the federal government, they could be mostly self-sustaining.”

The key to the Gowan and Cooper proposal is the utilization of city-owned land for such projects. Shouldn’t such efforts be encouraged by critics from the right who argue that government needs to act more like a business?

Last year I interviewed Bruce Katz, co-author with Jeremy Nowak of “The New Localism – How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Katz noted that many city-based issues cut across political party lines. Conservatives and liberals, for example, can agree on what needs to be done to shore up a city’s failing infrastructure. “The left valorizes government; the right valorizes markets,” Katz and Nowak write. “The battle between these two choices in public asset management has contributed to political partisanship by posing a false choice between management mediocrity and the loss of ownership rights.” But, Katz and Nowak continue, “between these two extremes are pragmatic and significant examples of . . . hybrid systems and partnerships that blend public control and private enterprise.”

At times Mr. Rufo seems to conflate new urbanism with the old and now discredited urban renewal. “The new left urbanists’ fatal mistake is to view cities as collections of buildings, roads, tunnels and bike lanes,” he writes. “Urbanists can demolish and rebuild physical environments, but they can’t pave over the people.” None of the new urbanists I have met would ever subscribe to that point of view. Former Mayor Riley of Charleston told me his paramount objective was to demolish as little as possible. “Every house that comes down takes away from the fabric of the community and is a memory loss,” says Riley (a Democrat, by the way; fellow urbanist and former Mayor Mick Cornett is a Republican). Riley prefers the “miracle of historic renovation. You keep a building from coming down, and then you generate energy as you figure out how to creatively repurpose it.”

In fact, new urbanists would whole-heartedly agree with the concluding sentences of Mr. Rufo’s op ed: “Life in a metropolis is simply too complex, too variable and too ephemeral—it will evade even the most careful planning. Making cities better and more beautiful requires bringing neighbors, developers, employers and governments into the conversation. Thriving cities are built through cooperation, not compulsion.”

New urbanists would welcome Mr. Rufo to that conversation.