Does Moving to the Suburbs Make You a Conservative?

Is moving to the suburbs a political statement?  The reason I ask is that I’ve become increasingly aware of this raging battle between the forces of sprawl and the advocates of density, one that actually polarizes along familiar political lines: suburbs = conservative, and cities = liberal.

Now, it’s not just about how the cities tend to be more politically liberal and the suburbs more politically conservative. Yes, that’s absolutely and obviously true — you don’t get a lot of tea parties on the Upper West Side, and you don’t see too many “Free Mumia” banners hanging from the windows of high ranches in New City.

But it’s more about how the suburbs versus the cities arguments tend to reflect conservative and liberal values:
  • Suburbs:  Big houses, big lots, big cars, big highways, assimilation, personal freedom, ownership society.
  • City: Dense spaces, walkable neighborhoods, community involvement, concern for the environment, diversity, public transportation, renters over owners.
For example, check out this almost comical “suburban manifesto” put out by L. Brooks Patterson, the supervisor for Michigan’s Oakland County, titled “Sprawl, Schmall…Give Me More Development”, and tell me it doesn’t read like something being shouted by a guy in a colonial hat in front of a picture of President Obama morphing into Hitler:

Sprawl is not evil. In fact, it is good. It is the inevitable result of a free people exercising their cherished, constitutionally protected rights as individuals to pursue their dreams when choosing where to live, where to work, where to educate, and where to recreate.

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The anti-American Dreamers would have you believe that suburban growth is at the root of all problems that beset our cities, both in Michigan and across our country.  They seem to believe that citizens left thriving cities, and that it was their departure that caused high crime, high taxes, invisible public services, and failing public school systems. Anybody who believes that line of thinking is taking denial to a whole new level. Sprawl did not cause the decline of the cities. Cities declined because they squandered their assets. High crime rates, high taxes, failing schools, foul air and a lack of open green spaces forced people to move.

It will probably not shock you that Mr. Patterson is a Republican.  But my point is that the pro-suburban argument properly articulated is inherently conservative: the individual over the community, assimilation over diversity, highways over public transportation, personal freedoms over environmental protection.
Conversely, the urbanist perspective is almost inescapably liberal, stressing how dense walkable neighborhoods foster a sense of community, reduce environmental impact, promote diversity, provide for affordable housing, and reduce transportation costs.  From the urbanist view,suburbs are ridiculously wasteful and hideously (and often subtly) subsidized.
All of this puts me in a difficult position, as a liberal who actually lives in the suburbs.  Does just living here make a political statement that I don’t value diversity, or the environment, or public transportation?  Am I betraying my own sensibilities to drive an SUV?  Do I need to get fitted for my tri-corner hat?
Maybe not.  As Allison Arieff points out in a response to Patterson in the New York Times, there’s a middle way between the glorification and vilification of sprawl, a movement to bring a more community-minded sensibility to suburban environments not as an act of governmental or political will, but simply a response to basic market demand:  developers who realize that many of their clients want those smaller, walkable neighborhoods, and people living in the suburbs who are finding ways to connect and foster a real community.  As she says, living “better and smarter shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
That makes sense to me. Like a lot of people who moved to the suburbs, I wasn’t making a political statement. I wasn’t taking sides in this battle, or foregoing my liberal sensibilities to adopt Mr. Patterson’s vision of the American Dream.
I just wanted more closet space.

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