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.

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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

    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).

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