The "Contrarian" Myth

Michael Lewyn's picture

Every so often, I read something describing defenders of sprawl as "contrarians", implying that they are underdogs fighting against the elitist, anti-sprawl Establishment. For example, when I did a search for sites including Robert Bruegmann (author of one of the better defenses of the status quo) and the word "contrarian" I found over 1400 "hits."  Similarly, a search for websites using the terms "smart growth" and "elitist" yielded over 6000 hits.

But realistically, most of the U.S. built environment is sprawl by any concievable definition. So how can it be "contrarian" to defend the status quo?

Moreover, numerous wealthy corporate elites are quite invested in this status quo, and give generously to politicians to ensure that nothing changes - most notably the road-building industry and large chunks of the real estate development industry. Other well-heeled industries (such as the tire, auto and oil industries) also benefit from the status quo to some extent.* Although the majority of planning academics may support less sprawling development, they control few dollars and fewer votes. If "elitism" means favoring wealthy corporations, supporters of sprawl are true elitists.  And if "elitism" means disenfranchising the poor and the disabled, supporters of sprawl are the true elitists, since automobile-dependent development keeps jobs away from people too poor or too disabled to drive.

To draw an analogy: imagine a country called "Turkonesia" where most people (and most political donors) were Muslims. Unlike the most headline-grabbing Islamic nations, the nation is peaceful and more or less democratic. But in Turkonesia, most of daily life is structured to benefit Muslims; Muslims have more schools, those schools are located in more desirable areas, and many major employers are not close to any non-Muslim neighborhoods. Some employers are so far away from non-Muslim areas as to be almost inaccessible. Jewish and Christian neighborhoods tend to be either dangerous or very expensive. Although politicians are responsive to Judeo-Christian interests, Muslim interests come first, and when government subsidies are scarce, those most of interest to Jews and Christians tend to be squeezed out first.  Even if most of the nation's intellectuals were Jews or Christians, it would make no sense to describe Muslims as rebels or contrarians. Clearly, Turkonesia functions better for Muslims than for everyone else.

If one substitutes "drivers" and/or "pro-sprawl lobbies" for Muslims and "nondrivers" and/or "sprawl critics" for "Jews/Christians", Turkonesia is pretty similar to the United States. Just as Islam is the easier choice for Turkonesians wishing to get ahead, sprawl and driving are the default choices for most Americans. Just as Judeo-Christian neighborhoods in Turkonesia tend to be either socially troubled or expensive, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods in many American cities tend to be troubled or expensive.

Surely, someone wishing to bolster Muslim domination of Turkonesia would not be a "contrarian". And someone defending the interests of Turkonesia' religious minorities would hardly be "elitist." Similarly, the real contrarians and anti-elitists are those who dare to fight the sprawl status quo.

*To be sure, environments are quite critical of sprawl - but to them, sprawl is just one of many environmental issues.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



elitism is an attitude

In this context, the elitist label is used to describe the attitude that opponents of sprawl often have. Reading through essays, blog posts, Planning articles, etc. pretty much anyone who wants to live in a big house with a backyard 20 miles or more from their job is too stupid to appreciate the benefits of urban living, don't know any better, or worse yet, actively hate the environment, poor people, basically anyone or anything but their very similar neighbors. That's where the elitist label comes from.

As for the contrarian label, I would guess it stems from the resistance of some to the overwhelming trend in the planning profession to embrace density and urbanism and in some cases to actively denigrate 'sprawl' as the root of all evil in society today. Yes, 'sprawl' is the dominant development pattern; however, the dominant thinking in the planning profession is anti-sprawl, so any defenders of the status quo are therefore contrarian because they oppose the group think happening amongst planners today.

Name Calling Is The Last Recourse...

If you can't refute someone's point, you can always call them names. Consider the following statement:

"the elitist label is used to describe the attitude that opponents of obesity often have. Reading through essays, blog posts, etc. pretty much anyone who eats too much, who doesn't exercise, and who is grossly obese is unhealthy."

Of course, it is true that overeating, lack of exercise, and obesity are unhealthy, and it is amply documented by many studies.

If I don't like the facts and I can't refute the studies, my only remaining recourse is to say that people who talk about health are elitists.

Charles Siegel

Systematic critique is different

Choltkamp, you seem to be misreading a critique of a system for a personal attack on individuals. These are the not the same thing. I'm not aware of anyone who argues that suburbanites are "too stupid" to appreciate urban life. I'd like to see which essays you have read that make this claim. Usually, the point is that collective policies and infrastructure priorities have placed a disincentive on higher-density living arrangements while undercounting the costs of lower-density living arrangements over the last several decades. Individual decisions can only be evaluated within the backdrop of the options that are available to them at their level of affordability.

Fuller analysis:

I have posted my fullest analysis of these issues so far, HERE:

I can kinda see the elitism/contrarian thing, but we don't have

The contrarian label often gets affixed to the "pragmatic" who describe reality with an unjudgmental eye. Stephen Leavitt is the most famous example, but the term contrarian really comes into its own in climate change and transportation circles. The reason they're contrary is that they accept the status quo as perfectly acceptable, even preferable to any other plan.

In their Candide-logic, this is the situation we've got, so it must be the best.

A lot of planners and advocates for better transportation (or better carbon policies, aside) get tarred with the label "elitist" for exactly the same reason. Wanting something radically different from the status quo is fundementally an alienating stance. We are calling all those schlubs who drive till they qualify, live in single family homes over an acre of septic fields, and clog up the arterials part of the problem so long as we focus on the status quo as the bad we are opposing.

I would suspect we'd shed the elitist label pretty quick if we started positively advocating transit oriented development, better zoning, and land-use/transportation solutions.

Consider the iPod. Apple was an also-ran in the 1990's until it sidestepped the PC wars and manufactured a gizmo everyone wanted. They didn't do this by dissing on Microsfot out of hurt, or CD players out of competetion. They just sucked all the market away from the old music players.

No metaphor is perfect, but the way to win is by working to offer a better value than the competition, with regard for what the public wants, not the old ways.

Good piece, though.

Elitism, zoning, and automobility

I will agree with you so far as THIS, Michael:

Opposition to mixed uses of land that would allow for more choice for everyone, of convenient locations to jobs, schools, retailing, and sports and cultural amenities; IS "elitist". I see this as the main problem, not "automobility". Opposition to connectivity between nodes is also "elitist".

"Automobility" itself is far from elitist, it is one of the most democratising forces imaginable. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive cars.

There IS a form of auto-based elitism in Germany, involving that obtaining a driver's license is so expensive and demanding (after all, you have to be competent to drive on no-speed-limit autobahns) that a significant proportion of the population simply cannot obtain a driver's license at all. The USA is the opposite contrast to this - automobility is so democratised that low speed limits are preferred to stringent driver training - and strict testing laws and mandatory expensive servicing for older cars- so that everyone can drive.

If you are against auto-mobility, high level of inter-connectedness between urban nodes, and mixed uses of land; you are an elitist. This is especially the case if the reason for your opposition to these things is that it would undermine the viability of transit proposals - which it does.

Good points, especially on

Good points, especially on the difference between German and American barriers to entry and social modes.

I am not sure what you mean by your first full paragraph: Are you saying that defense of status quo land use assumptions is elitist, but not status quo trasnportation assumptions? How are the two distinct?

Per your last paragraph: what if you are for walkability and bikeabiliity becasue it makes more fiscal sense for governments, retailers, residents, developers, commuters, environmentalists and employers? Not to mention all the land use savings you'll get from reduced parking needs. Is that elitist? It might be Cassandra, but it doesn't strike me as elitist.

Elitist and contrarian aren't along the same axes, really, though they are the loaded terms that most often get placed as bookends on the argument.

Freedom is actually strongly anti-elitist

Alan; glad to elucidate further.

Europe's old cities, and even the USA's old cities, HAD walkability at one time, not through design, but through freedom and natural growth patterns. It was chaotic and unhealthy, sure, but almost anyone could find accomodation right there among the factories where the jobs were.

America's planners destroyed this walkability with urban renewal and auto-oriented development. Europe's did not, due at least partly to much stronger societal resistance to renewal.

It is a question whether motives of public health could be accused of being "elitist" as well, if conveniently located low cost accomodation , was thereby eliminated. I say that if zoning was so arbitrary that high accomodation prices and/or long commutes became obligatory, yes, that is "elitist". One man's blight is another man's low cost accomodation close to the urban centre.

Where planning has resulted in extremely high land prices and high median multiple home prices, and lower income groups are literally forced right out of whole districts, yes, that is elitism at work. Denial by planners that this is a responsibility of theirs, is also elitism.

Where non-monocentric urban development has been freely allowed, the price premium for convenient location is much "flatter" - convenience of location is kind of "democratised". What many urban planners have against this, is that it renders mass transit unviable. So the best of intentions can lead to highly elitist outcomes.

5 minutes by auto, to work, schools, amentities, etc, is far superior to 1 hour train journeys. Believe it or not, the latter was a reality in the former USSR, and one reason behind the sheer inefficiency of their whole non-free-market system. Planning ended up imposing a whole lot of increasingly stupid outcomes - refer Alain Bertaud's "The Costs of Utopia".

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