To my mind, one of the most fascinating elements of contemporary conservatism is the antipathy towards urbanism. Social conservatism’s central pillars are, after all, economic self-sufficiency and “small town” values — knowing your neighbors, family-orientedness, etc. (This is a generous reading of conservatism, but one that conservatives themselves often claim.) Similarly, much of the urbanist movement since the 1990s has been rooted in the philosophy of famed urban thinker Jane Jacobs, who abhorred central planning and celebrated cities not at their monumental cores or by their large-scale public works, but rather as a gradual accretion of diverse, eclectic, and independent neighborhoods. Jacobs’s was a front-stoop urbanism, reliant upon the interconnections amongst households, neighbors, and local small businesses to create the vibrant fabric of a genuinely great city; it is community-oriented, inclusive, bottom-up, humanist and beautiful.
Jacobs’s great nemesis, as she wrote in midcentury New York, was the planner Robert Moses, who worked primarily under Democrats but whose attitude towards urban planning we can recognize now as presciently conservative — not in the classical libertarian sense, but in his kowtowing to wealth and power and his particular brand of what might be called “trickle-down urbanism”, where removing thousands of lower-income people from their homes in order to build a new expressway to connect middle- and upper-class neighborhoods and suburbs to the downtown core was simply the price of doing business. Moses rejected any notion that his work had a steep human cost, that re-engineering the city to be more efficiently accessible by car might leave it less valuable, that power in a democracy demanded any kind of equal apportionment, equal regard for all citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic station.
Moses’s power was at its peak when America’s love affair with suburbia was gaining its greatest traction, and although he worked in the nation’s densest city his impact upon suburbia was great. Moses believed in cars; he believed in ruling by fiat, deal-making, opacity in awarding contracts and the construction process. He believed, more than anything else, in development, and was openly dismissive of Jacobs’s defense of tradition and self-determination. And in nearly every contest of power, he won.
This is an absolutely phenomenal essay about Moses. This is an absolutely phenomenal essay about experiencing the current floods in Queensland, Australia, written by an architect and planner who happened to be in Brisbane for the occasion. The article on Moses offers a portrait of ruthless power in which the lower-income had no place; the piece on Australia offers a portrait in which centralized planning has been devastated by the whims of nature. The powerful, as ever, will rebuild, for they have the means to do so. The powerless — like those in Haiti, like those in New Orleans, like those displaced by Robert Moses’s expressways — are likely to be worse off than before, the fragile infrastructure of their communities shattered. And this is where you can find Jane Jacobs’s classic text, and create some participatory urbanism wherever you may be.