Progressives and Urbanists- A Difficult Relationship

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Much has been written about the difficult relationship between conservatives and urbanism.  However, leftist progressives (that is, Americans who perceive themselves as more “progressive” or leftish than the average national Democrat)*  also come into conflict with the smart growth movement (that is, people who wish to limit sprawl and make it easier for people to live in pedestrian and transit-friendly environments).

To be sure, progressives generally are not hostile to cities in principle, nor do they consistently oppose public transit or pedestrians.   Nevertheless, left-wing values are sometimes in tension with those of smart growth supporters.

Leftists value equality, diversity, and (more broadly) preventing oppression in all its forms- especially oppression of the poor and of ethnic minorities.  In addition, leftists tend to be suspicious of all large-scale private enterprise, because they worry that such businesses are likely to oppress laborers, consumers or the environment.  By contrast, conservatives and libertarians may share these values to some extent, but are generally more interested in protecting individuals and corporations from government coercion and in the protection of social order.    

In addition, leftists are more likely to see the world as a zero-sum game: that is, they worry that policies that help large businesses or the well-off may harm the poor.  By contrast, conservatives and libertarians believe that policies that help the middle and upper classes are often likely to help society as a whole (including the poor).

As a result of these values, leftists place a high value on cities being accessible to the poor.   Smart growth supporters, by contrast, believe that the late 20th-century policy of turning cities into holding pens for the poor has been disastrous, and wish to make cities places where most Americans can live- not just the poor, but also the middle and upper classes. 

These values come into conflict in a variety of settings.  If sprawl is ever to be reversed, cities must have many more housing units and many more jobs.  But progressives tend to worry about gentrification- that is, they tend to worry that if the middle class and upper classes are allowed to return to cities, the poor will somehow be squeezed out. **  Although progressives claim to support racial and class integration, they worry that short-term integration will ultimately lead to a new kind of segregation,  in which the poor are merely shifted from urban ghettoes to suburban ghettoes.   
More moderate urbanists can sometimes reach common ground with progressives by supporting government-imposed safeguards to prevent displacement, such as requiring a percentage of new housing units to be affordable to poorer renters.  Such safeguards, however, may increase the cost of doing business in cities, thus reducing affordability for everyone but the direct beneficiaries of such safeguards.
Progressive concerns about corporate power may also get in the way of infill development.  For example, leftists are, I suspect,*** more likely to oppose allowing large developers to build new high-rise office buildings, or to oppose allowing new retail chains in urban locations (especially if, like Wal-Mart, those chains are really large and/or have a history of poor relationships with left-leaning labor unions).  By contrast, more conservative, market-oriented urbanists tend to be more supportive of private development, and to believe that any infill is good infill, at least if it is built in a reasonably pedestrian-friendly manner.  
Although leftists worry that too much integration will lead to gentrification, they also oppose segregation.  This too creates tension with smart growth supporters in some contexts.  For example, leftists believe that it is really, really important for every school to contain a fairly even mix of races and classes.   In the alternative universe where suburban and urban schools were equally subject to this principle, more moderate smart growth supporters would generally agree.

But in the non-alternative-universe United States, many suburban public school districts tend to have very few poor people, and thus to have non-diverse public schools.   As a result, these schools have  become much more popular with middle- class parents than urban schools.  Leftists are more likely to believe that urban classrooms must nevertheless be “diverse” (i.e. reflect a city’s class and/or racial balance) as possible, while more moderate urbanists are willing to relax the left-wing insistence on diversity in order to attract middle- and upper-class parents.  

For example, in the 1970s, federal judges required every urban school to be equally diverse (and thus unattractive to middle-class parents), while a more moderate Supreme Court prevented the expansion of such “school busing”**** to the suburbs.  Leftists nevertheless continued to favor busing, while moderate urbanists did not.   Today, a moderate or conservative urbanist would be more likely to favor public support of selective urban schools that, because of their selectivity, might be attractive to parents seeking to place their children in academically demanding environments.  By contrast, leftists are more likely to worry that such schools would reduce diversity and drain resources from more diverse schools.

In sum, neither left-wing nor right-wing priorities consistently line up with those of the smart growth movement.  It follows that smart growth supporters have neither consistent friends nor consistent enemies- only consistent interests.

*As opposed to moderates and moderate liberals, whose views tend to be a not-so-coherent mix of conservative and leftist sentiments.  If you think of yourself as ideologically closer to Dennis Kucinich than to President Obama or the Clintons, you are probably a progressive leftist.  If you are closer to the latter than to either Kucinich or to Republicans you are a moderate or moderate liberal. 

**Although I am generally skeptical of this view, its merits are best left for another post.

***My suspicion is based on this: when I see attacks on high-rises and large-scale retail, they are often accompanied by anti-business rhetoric about "greedy developers", etc.  Having said that, I can't prove my suspicion with more concrete data. 

****So named because to facilitate racial balance, school systems bused students from black parts of town to white parts of town and vice versa.


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

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