One of the shibboleths of contemporary American politics is that cities and conservatives don’t mix. Decades of widening cultural and electoral divides between cities and their suburban and rural counterparts have contributed to an increasingly widespread belief that cities are intrinsically inhospitable to conventional morality, individual responsibility, and a thriving civil society. But as the history of the past four decades bears out, the injection of ideas and policies from the right—such as proactive policing, fiscal responsibility, and work over welfare—can revitalize cities.
The opportunities unlocked by density, moreover, can foster robust civic engagement and resilient, multigenerational communities, providing an antidote to record-high levels of reported loneliness and isolation. Conservative urbanism therefore holds promise, both to resist idealistic progressivism and the entrenched political forces that impede accountability and efficiency, and as a disposition within urban communities that appreciates the need for both preservation and change, in the continuous and communitarian spirit of Edmund Burke.
Conservatives since Burke have appreciated the uniqueness, complexity, and fragility of society. The immense coordination and cooperation necessary for any metropolis to thrive imply vulnerability to the consequences that result from any one thing going wrong. An outage on a single subway line, say, can disrupt life across the city. Combatting this law of urban entropy requires continuous effort, calling for a know-how that can quickly respond to challenges as they arise.
Tradition provides the default answers to such predicaments, and conservatives need no reminding of the value of received wisdom. Past solutions to similar and often recurring problems serve as guideposts for today’s decision-making. Of course, a conservative recognizes that yesterday’s answers cannot solve all of today’s problems. But far from stifling the adaptability needed to thrive in an ever-evolving city, a healthy deference to tradition fosters stability, allowing individuals and communities to feel secure enough to embrace gradual renewal without the fear of overwhelming disarray.
A desire to conserve can only take root, though, if the institutions and objects worth conserving are enduring enough to instill attachments and affections in the hearts of the citizenry. Walking the same streets as one’s urban (and sometimes biological) forebears, lined with many of the same buildings that those ancestors knew, turns everyday life into a Burkean enterprise in continuity. Local mediating institutions like churches and civic associations define the culture of each urban neighborhood, remaining relevant as newer generations take the place of older ones in a spirit of civic pride and stewardship.
Managing density’s challenges and consequences necessarily implies a more powerful and expansive government, something seemingly at odds with conservatism. But urban conservatives need not treat government as bad per se; government is bad only insofar as it encroaches upon the prerogatives of individuals and civil society. One man’s fun is his neighbor’s nuisance; leaving it to private individuals to resolve such disputes risks violence and disorder—so a robust police presence is needed. Without adequate public safety, individuals and communities fail to cooperate, leading to social and economic breakdown.
But strong urban communities can counteract the tendency for government growth by taking responsibility for resolving issues they believe are better solved locally. Indeed, George L. Kelling, one of the originators of Broken Windows policing, took pains in these pages to explain that to maintain order most effectively, police should learn from and adapt to communities and the private sector through continuous interaction.
It is also true that, at its worst, a community’s desire to preserve the status quo can work to a city’s detriment. Not-in-my-backyard sentiments stymie needed development, particularly for housing, barring others from enjoying the goods and opportunities that these opponents rightly cherish. Though NIMBYs claim to be engaged in community preservation, to appreciate and preserve the city necessarily involves embracing its energy and ability to unlock human potential.
After all, the city’s most important function is to agglomerate vast and varied pools of talent. Out of this critical mass of human ingenuity and excellence rush forth innovation and competition that drive economic growth and cultural advancement. Athens, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, London, and Vienna—to name only some of the West’s great metropolises—are synonymous with towering civilizational achievements. For four centuries, New York City has given witness to this form of humanity-boosting urbanism, creating boundless economic opportunity for millions of ambitious strivers while providing fertile ground for new communities to take root—including conservative ones.
Urbanites today can therefore learn from Burke that an appreciation for their home necessarily involves embracing its tradition of dynamic renewal. Gradual growth is the natural order of things, and tolerating its unpleasant side-effects is sometimes necessary for the common good. With it comes the consolation that their city’s future, though ever uncertain, is only as foreign as its past.
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