Conservative Choices: City, Town, or Suburb?

American conservatives traditionally have been suspicious of the city. The crowding, the anonymity, the fast pace, the dirt, and above all the attitude that one must “get on” or “move up” lest he be trampled underfoot all rankle those who see a good life more in terms of character and relationships than activities, entertainments, and material “progress.” A number of conservatives have gone so far as to identify themselves and America’s core values with “agrarianism” or a connection to rural life, with its natural rhythms and tactile sensibilities.

But very few Americans make their livings off the land, especially if one discounts the massive scale and corporate forms of agribusiness. Moreover, America was not, in fact, built on the farm, but in the town. Early settlements often included farmers who “commuted” to the field. Isolated homesteads were a feature of westward settlement, but continued to depend on the town, especially where, as was far more common than generally is admitted, those towns were settled by communities that travelled and worked together, then brought in more of their relatives and neighbors to join them.

The town’s importance to conservative values should be obvious from the disdain shown for it by Progressives and others seeking to undermine tradition. For every “Our Town” in American literature we saw beginning in the early twentieth century several Main Streets or Babbitts, ridiculing small towns and small cities as dens of cliquishness, thoughtless tradition, and mindless conformity. Nonetheless, it was to the “township” that French philosopher and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville looked for the secret of America’s success in achieving ordered liberty in democratic times. The need to live close to others in a realm small enough for familiarity did, in fact, constrain individual behavior—it caused people to interact with one another on a regular basis and so seek to make that interaction relatively pleasant by treating one another with respect.

Unfortunately, the American town is, if not dead, then at least in bad shape. In northwest Ohio, where I live, there are numerous small cities and towns, with populations anywhere from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, filled with empty houses and vacant commercial buildings. The trains continue to run through here, but rarely stop to let people on or off. Instead they stop to load (and perhaps unload) a few products then move on. The factories have mostly gone and with them the jobs. As for the farms, few can make a living on them any longer. The pattern is familiar and longstanding: Adults lose their jobs and must move away, young people go off to college or the armed forces and move away in pursuit of greater opportunities and excitement. Older folks are left to fend for themselves.

Where do the people go? Some still go to the big cities, but most head to smaller cities or, more often, the suburbs. Suburbs have been the object of great concern to conservatives since their “invention” during the post-World War II boom. As pointed out by Charles Marohn in The American Conservative, the suburb was in significant measure the product of government subsidies instituted under Franklin Roosevelt for home purchasing and assisted by Dwight Eisenhower’s massive interstate highway construction program, which continues to encourage vast government expenditures on concrete, automobile-centered infrastructure.

As government subsidies built suburbs, they also drained small towns by refocusing industrial development and by making it illegal to build towns the way they had been built since the founding of America and back into the Middle Ages in England, with central districts for mixed uses and close-in neighborhoods for families. But wait, I have skipped over the cities, have I not? They, too, have been victims of government subsidies. Sadly, however, our cities have been victims more of their own bad choices, including their own development subsidies, than of federal programs. Most cities (New York City is a prime example) are far more hostile toward middle class families than even the typical federal program or administrator.

Still, many would see the growth of suburbs as a boon for conservatives. After all, suburbanites tend to vote Republican. Suburbs are the realm of the family, and so of family values. Or so we are told. In fact, many conservatives excoriate suburban life as empty, disjointed, and destructive to family life. The two car, two income commuting household may have children in it, on this view, but those kids are being raised by electronic devices and state-run education programs while their parents chase money, status, and the possibility of a day off, coming home too exhausted to lead a meaningful family life.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay to which Mr. Marohn was responding, has argued that conservatives are foolish to see the suburbs in such a negative light. People want a bit of space and land for themselves, Mr. Kotkin notes, and conservatives in particular should see this choice as a valuable one, given that it is the one so many conservatives make for themselves.

Mr. Kotkin, who is not conservative, has a point, if perhaps not quite so large and important a one as he might think. People, especially people who want families and freedom from the essentially socialist politics of the cities, are choosing suburbs. And it would be wrong to try to force them back into the cities they have fled in a vain hope that they will reclaim urban areas populated mostly by people who despise their values and have quite intentionally constructed an anti-familial subculture too decadent and expensive for any but the richest or smallest families.

Conservative criticisms of the suburbs remain valid and relevant, however. Life in the car is not a real life, let alone a family-centered life. Sadly, it is the life our local, state, and federal governments all are pushing us to live. The answer, then, is not to join with the big city rulers in working to expand the power of urbanites and the effective boundaries of cities. Far better to work to end the subsidies. As important, we need to support those developers who have worked in recent decades to revive traditional town planning. These developers and right-minded local politicians have fought zoning boards to make it possible (and legal) to build towns the way we used to—with town centers combining shops and apartments and condominiums, surrounded by genuine neighborhoods where people live reasonably close to one another while saving space for decent parks and other recreational areas. As Mr. Kotkin rightly points out, conservatives (who speak of “neotraditional neighborhoods” where fans of more intrusive city planning tend to speak of “urbanism” or “new urbanism”) can and should take heart from the many new neighborhoods that have brought people and their jobs closer together in many parts of the country.

The good news is that people choose decent neighborhoods where family life is nurtured, when that choice is available. All we have to do is lift the dead hand of New Deal-era policies from our local governments to make it possible again for us to live in real towns instead of the freeway/strip mall/gated community “suburgatory” that has become the abode of too many good Americans. Sadly, this alone will not be enough to revive our older, sicker small towns. But it will make it possible for Americans to revive the values learned there.

This column first appeared December 18 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Bruce Frohnen

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Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • Isaac S.

    This is a good article. I’ve been a big fan of Kotkin’s writings on the “new urbanism” movement. The choice of where to live is a real pickle for those of us who have or want big families. My wife and I have four children and we moved into our current outer-ring suburb house in 2013. We had originally hoped to live in a more “walkable” urban or inner-ring suburban neighborhood, but the prices for homes that would be big enough for four-plus children were way out of our price range in those areas. I work in the city so we needed to be close enough for a reasonable daily commute (as it stands it’s still an hour each way), so true rural or small-town living wasn’t an option. A lot of our friends are in similar situations; the economy has changed so one can’t really make a good living in most small towns anymore, but housing prices in most cities are too extravagant for most larger families to afford (especially on one income). If suburbs could be constructed to be more like small towns, I think that would help quite a bit.

  • Captain America

    I’m on the city planning commission. We’re more or less believers in the Jane Jacobs approach, which favors diversity in the urban setting and keeps an eye on human scale.

    My sense is that suburbs can be too large to be functional. And that our notion of a good house usually includes a yard you can throw a ball around in. This kind of popular concept can change over time, of course.

    I live in a small town about an hour from a major city. There are many others here who like being able to go to the city for the big things, but avoid the suburban mess.

    For the past 20 years I’ve been intrigued with the new urbanism and our recent city plan has this philosophy, to the extent that local economics permit. BUT key to all this angst about cities and community is the fact that women are in the workforce, families have fewer kids, and the result is like a Neutron Bomb in our neighborhoods.

    • Fargo106

      Boom, your last line hit it on the head… our communities are changing because of family demographics are changing. Using the term “family demographics” may even be a stretch. Less married people and fewer kids for those who are. I dare you to ride around any of these suburbs or city centers or anywhere and find any kind of pick-up game of basketball, or softball or baseball, or anything involving kids playing together in groups.

      • They are all “pet parents” now.

  • Cathy Marshall

    Not quite sure why conservatives should support developers who build town centers that combine apartments, condos and shops. Backyards and open spaces are great for families raising children, if you have the option. Of course, the choice of where to live is up to the individual and family (and choice is also dictated by finances) but there seems to be a concerted effort, including tax incentives, to promote the “stack ’em and pack ’em” communities which is a developer’s dream because they can fit so many dwellings on such little land and make a great profit. Meanwhile, many of these town centers have few shops open and few people living there and because new ones are always being built, owners have difficulty selling when they want to. I do not see how they benefit conservatives or families, but again, for seniors and others who may prefer not to cut down on yard work, or don’t need a yard for kids and pets, town centers may be preferable. Also, the tax burden becomes greater on the county because schools, fire and rescue and other services are usually not covered by the real estate taxes paid on these dwellings. Just a few things to consider. In my opinion, the small town atmosphere where neighbors know each other is certainly not dependent upon the type of dwelling one lives in.

    • Isaac S.

      I think one of the reason these modern “town center” developments fail is that they don’t consider the surrounding area. I grew up in a small town and, sure, there was a downtown with apartments and shops, but within walkable distance of that downtown were a lot of single-family houses with yards as well. There were also sidewalks on both sides of most streets so people could walk to downtown without having to walk on the road. A lot of these town center developments go up in commercial areas and they flop because no one besides the young singles living in the condos can actually walk to the town center to shop.

  • St JD George

    One need only study electoral maps to see the great divide of red and blue, especially broken down into counties. Some might argue that there is a live free or die, or perceived security in communal mind set that draws people to own extreme or the other. Of course, dreams are always tempered by the harsh, cold reality of how to make a living, and family and friends. In my perfect world I’d live on 200 acres in the middle of Wyoming or Montana raising cattle and horses, but that’s probably never going to happen so it will always be a dream. Can’t convert them over to Christ so probably not what he has in mind for me anyway.

    • I have a friend in Montana. The pictures he sends are all imposing visages, some magnificent, some (weather) are terrifying. Takes a hardy, hardy soul to live out there.

      • St JD George

        I have a hearty soul, but that’s not the only variable in the equation of life is it. Besides, it is not nearly as terrifying as the monarchal fungus growing near the mouth of the Potomac, or the plague festering in most of our tolerant large cities. At least out there I can embrace it as being in all of God’s glory. Live free, or die.

  • GaudeteMan

    Today’s interesting fact: 96% of all Americans live within 25 miles of a Wal-Mart. As a home-schooling family of 7 we were among the 4% for several years, had a parish Church with daily Mass only 4 miles from us yet had to drive an hour to Gomorrah just to get a splash of orthodoxy from the pulpit. No matter where you go, there you are. I don’t think St. Paul would’ve been more or less passionate about the Gospel if he’d been in Shanghai or Smallville.

    • Anglicanæ

      May more Catholics like you increase. I frankly despise the “1.4 and no more” attitude. I have 3 would like 20.

  • Samuel63

    But you have missed the point. This was not new deal policies only. This transformation of America to secular suburbia was part of a larger plan. I submit to you, read Slaughter of the Cities.

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