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New urbanism is a Conservative value

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/08/15 @ 3:00pm

New urbanism may be a Conservative value, but how do we get that to translate into a productive conversation and a signal that the private market recognizes?

<br />Sulphur Springs, Texas after Toole Design Group and Ian Lockwood converted a parking lot into a public space.<br />The dead spot in Sulphur Springs, Texas before it was reimagined.

Last week I was in Dallas for a meeting of transportation bloggers who have joined forces to publish their work together under the Streetsblog banner. Earlier this year, Streetsblog, a national blog and advocacy group, formed regional sites, including one in Ohio.

It was an opportunity to meet and discuss regional differences but also common ground in how we create livable cities. We also attended the 23rd annual Congress for New Urbanism, where the nation’s thought leaders and practitioners are building walkable, vibrant places and sharing ideas on how to produce more. It was quite an energizing week!

I discovered during the first two days in face-to-face meetings with the Streetsbloggers that the conversations we're having here in Northeast Ohio about finding ways to live more sustainably are happening across the country. As bloggers we are writing about similar ideas. Taking stock of the desire to get local, state and national leaders engaged in this conversation, we figure its important to hear from you all about how to get unstuck from the status quo.

People from the coasts to the Heartland want meaningful change. The kind of change we’re seeing from California where once again they have led the way like it did on regulating carbon emissions. This time, California voters understood, in order to make transportation more sustainable they would reject the old metric "Level of Service" and adopt a new metric based on community values of health and a clean environment rather than the current, narrow set of values like traffic congestion. It was really exciting to consider how California has opened the door to thinking about transportation as an issue of place, not a speed or volume problem.

Both carbon and transportation are invisible to most people, but too much of a thing can lead slowly then all at once to problems (pollution or fast and deadly streets that no one wants to walk on).

Change in the case of transportation starts with putting roads on diets. At CNU, the self-professed “recovering engineers” like Ian Lockwood started doing that with other engineers like Dan Burden 20 years ago. They coined the phrase road diet and it stuck. It is a challenge to their profession. In a way it revealed what Lockwood calls the “black box” -- the traffic engineer’s trade secrets for what it is -- a human construct that was fine at producing more and wider roads and the “happy motorist” mythology.

Lockwood calls the alternative “Path as Place.” He said the language we use is powerful. He should know. West Palm Beach, where he was Planning Director in the 1990s, was able to “outlaw” phrases that engineers use like “Level of Service” in their groundbreaking work to reimagine a ghost town into a thriving place. It led to a whole generation of “recovering engineers.” Like Chuck Marohn, an engineer who founded the organization Strong Towns and blogs there while contributing as well to The American Conservative. His goal is to “not fight over who fails,” he said during a session at CNU called “Bipartisan Placemaking: Reaching Conservatives.”

I liked Marohn’s message, and admire how he seems to embody a time and attitude of bipartisanship that I assumed was dead. He made me challenge my own assumptions, starting with, maybe new urbanism isn’t the Left or Liberal agenda I always assumed it was.

Bear with this, it’s a little long, but here’s what Marohn had to say on reaching conservatives:

“For many years, I denied my inner new urbanist. I was in The Army and an engineer. I would say ‘I want to live like this’ but I’m not a Lefty. So, I got a planning degree. But, I kept thinking, ‘gosh, this isn’t who I am; I don’t identify this way.’ Finally, I went to a CNU and thought, ‘these are my people. I think I found my tribe.’”

"I started my blog in 2008. It’s talking in almost the agnostic language of dollars. I wanted to understand why towns are broke and local governments are incapable of keeping a road from breaking. It’s not because government is lazy or stupid. It’s because we have a broken economic model. Our model is ‘build it and they will come.’ At the end of the day, we see a city spend $800 million on a new road, but $25,000 to maintain it.

"We found that traditional, walkable neighborhoods provide not only tax base, but opportunities for families, and the further we go out from the center, the less fiscally sound it gets. You’re in a place that doesn’t pay for itself. We have to find a way to switch to an economic model that doesn’t leave people behind."

Or, as American Conservative Editor Benjamin Schwarz added, new urbanism is a conservative value because, “this is the way your grandparents used to build things.”

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