Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is urban form the root of politics?

Last week's post on the realignment of America, as well as this post and graphic from Richard Florida's blog on a divided America, got me thinking about urban form and political leanings.

Much of the world seems to lean towards communal - or somewhat left-leaning - politics: Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the big coastal cities in the US. These places are often characterized by large, relatively dense cities. When you live in density, what your neighbor does very directly affects you, and so you're more likely to support a more active government that puts a lot of controls and planning in place. And not just land-use regulation and transportation choices, but income redistribution, because the poor and homeless are much more "in your face" in a dense city, and you naturally want somebody to do something about it.

The rural, southern, and western U.S. (except for the coast), plus maybe parts of Australia and western Canada, are a little odd relative to much of the rest of the world because they have lower density - mostly car-based suburban - and lots of space. This seems to foster a more libertarian viewpoint. When all those people aren't on top of you, it's easier to be more strongly for property rights, and think, "sure, let them do what they want, and let me do what I want - no harm, no foul; live and let live." That space creates a higher tolerance for freedom (side note: we're talking economic freedom here, not social freedoms, civil rights and tolerance, which has a completely different set of dynamics where religion and ethnic identities get mixed in, among other factors). It's really no surprise, when you think about it, that 18th-century America was the first place where a nation-state based strongly on liberty was able to to take root: we had truly tremendous amounts of land relative to the population. Why not let everybody do their own thing? It's not going to impact me.

But clearly this is a rare outlier in the world. Libertarianism really lacks much of a base outside of these limited geographic areas. The global population keeps growing and urbanising, creating ever more pressure towards communal politics. Even in the southern and western U.S., larger central cities seem to be moving this direction, including Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta (some faster than others). Most of these greater metros are still dominantly suburban, but the central cores are feeling the communal pressures which in turn affects the local politics.

What's the future? Really hard to say. There is definitely a renewed movement towards the central cities and density. But suburban sprawl is not stopping. Most of the largest American cities are not growing much, and the domestic migration is definitely towards more mid-sized, suburban, low-density cities like Phoenix, Vegas, Orlando, Charlotte, Austin, San Antonio, and Raleigh-Durham (as the article pointed out). The internet is also enabling people to work from anywhere: some choose the inner city coffee shop, others choose an exurban estate. As I've said before on this blog, rising affluence tends to seek more private space, reducing density. But rising affluence also gets more concerned with aesthetics, and that requires more communal controls. Quite the mix of forces in play.

And of course, we can see these trends playing out in Houston, as a city with a tradition of strong liberty confronts the communal pressures of a densifying core and rising aesthetic concerns. I'm hoping we find some innovative ways of maintaining our libertarian tradition (and the strengths that gives us) while addressing the new communitarian needs with creative free-market approaches, rather than just marching down the same old statist political paths of the older European and coastal cities.

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At 9:51 PM, May 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society"

-Henry David Thoreau

Really brilliant post, Tory. One of the saddest things about modern life is that it's getting harder and harder to find a place where you can do what you want, and not be swayed by everyone around you.

An interesting concept that comes into play here is Tocqueville's idea of the "taste for freedom," which he said the Americans had so much of and the French so little. Some people have that, and others have more of a collective spirit, and enjoy the feeling of being nestled inside something larger than themselves. From this feeling comes that excitement you get when you're in one of those cities that has a "grand scheme" to it, like Paris or Chicago.

It seems like Houstonians have traditionally exhibited the "taste for freedom" to a large degree (T.R. Fehrenbach talks about this in his history of Texas), but today many of us have given it up, and are increasingly eager to sacrifice personal freedoms for the sake of a more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing whole. The trend in master-planned communities is good evidence of that.

At 10:44 PM, May 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


These ideas have been of some interest for me for a while now and I do agree with much of what you write here. I subscribe to the idea that not only do people gravitate towards cities because of economic opportunities, but - I shall turn off the politcal correctness dial here - some like living in cities because cities provide political opportunities that rural areas do not. In other words, there are lots of tax dollars to be sought after, lots of government jobs and payments to be had, lots of rents to be sought, favorite pet programs to push, plenty of power and influence to be fought for, and so forth.

It is true that the older U.S. cities like New York, Chicago, and others lean Democrat. However parts of Los Angeles have long been hot beds of conservativism, having given rise to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

I have long felt that Houston has had a Yellow Dog, conservative Democrat type of politics prevailing over the city. I think about Mayors like Louie Welch, Oscar Holcombe, and Bob Lanier as being political figures who epitomize this brand of politics.

Of course the suburban areas of Houston are more complicated. I have had several friends and co-workers tell me over the years that they ran off to the far flung suburban areas of town partly because they were sick of sports stadiums, publicly funded hotels, higher property taxes, massive poorly performing school districts, and all the other rules and projects that various interest groups want to visit on the city populace. Quite frankly, they just wanted to be left alone. Some of those people went up towards the Woodlands and other outlying areas. They are dreading the prospect of - you guessed it - the big bad City of Houston annexing them all over again.

I know that in Britain, the Conservative Party does well in the countryside and in Southern England, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats do better up North (particularly in Scotland) and in the cities.

It may be that various parts of Asia offer a challenge to this analysis. In Thailand, a very popular prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed from power a while back by a military junta which had the tacit approval of the Monarch. Mr. Shinawatra's popularity largely was based on rural support, where he implemented a cheap version of health care, offered support for village and small town businesses, and so forth. No national figure had really paid attention to the rural population before (largely because Thailand had only recently become a democracy), but this raised the ire of residents in Bangkok and other urban areas. So at least at the beginning, the coup leaders had the support of city dwellers, though I would doubt that this is still the case.
And so it goes...

At 7:36 AM, May 14, 2007, Blogger John said...

I think you're right about the general tendency of denser areas to be more communal in their politics. But it's a bit of an oversimplification to lump the politics of New York and LA in with Europe's. And, as Britain has been demonstrating, there are other balances between community interest and self-interest that can produce economic vitality.

What I think is interesting, though, is that the sense of "let them do what they want, it doesn't affect me" is somewhat of an illusion. Even in sprawling cities where your neighbors aren't on top of you, your neighbors do indeed affect you. Consider the local fight about regulating emissions here - what Houston's neighbors do affects the air that Houstonians breathe. If you have poverty up the road, you'll get property crime down the road. And so on.

There's also a reality seen throughout human history - people, including Americans, are social creatures, and the people who want a Thoreau-like indepedent and totally free existence are a small minority, even here.

It's not really an either/or situation - the challenge is finding the right balance between personal liberty and community interest. People demonstrate time and again that community interests DO matter to them, including in the US; and while our coastal cities may be at one end of the American spectrum of views, they're still pretty far from Europe.

It's also worth noting that anti-communalism in the US has a certain price, such as our embarrassingly bad public health stats.

This is one of those questions better addressed as a practical matter than an ideological battle, I think.

At 9:23 AM, May 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It always seems hilarious to refer to the City of Houston as a place "with a tradition of strong liberty" when it was made illegal to build in the urban form back in the 70s and remains illegal today (except, miraculously, in the Central Business District). It's a place where enormous numbers of people want to live in an urban lifestyle and the sub-urban "libertarians" insist on keeping it illegal. Even the ridiculously named "urban zone" makes urbanity illegal. Amazing.

At 9:28 AM, May 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's one aspect. Cities will always exist because they concentrate social, economic, and political capital, which fosters intimate human networks. As such, they provide the most opportunity for skilled people, in particular, intellectual capital. In some ways they are in fact the libertarian ideal, a place where one can succeed on his own merits in free competition.

But anyway, I think a major factor in Red/Blue county divide you need to take into account is cultural. As above, cities draws intellectually skilled people from all over the country. There is simply more opportunity in a city for an intellectual worker than in the countryside. These people tend to be less concerned with traditional order, maintenance of ethnic traditions, religious control of morals, etc., and are often aligned with more progressive political ideas. These people are also often in positions of social and political influence. Their migration to cities for opportunity helps to maintain the political shift you're observing.

The city does need a certain amount of hierarchy and organization to succeed. You do sacrifice some amount of rights to live there. But obviously people are willing to make the trade -- as mentioned, if you don't like it, you're free to move back to Kansas or whatever. But conversely the city provides many other kinds of freedoms -- in trade -- that simply aren't available in Small Town, USA. The economic freedom to choose from jobs in a competitive market. The intellectual freedom to express yourself and associate freely with large groups of similarly minded people. The freedom to succeed on your merits alone, not locked into some kind of nearly-feudal society. . etc.

(why is it always so hard to post comments on sites... grrr.)

At 1:03 PM, May 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I would group that law regarding urban form that was passed in the 70's as one of the compromises we've made over the years that have diminished our liberty. Originally we could build whatever way we wanted, but then when more people started wanting to drive and there were parking problems, the city addressed the problem by passing the (arguably clumsy) setback law. It fits into Tory's scenario of the loss of freedom that comes from living amidst others. But despite that curtailment, Houston still allows more freedom in how people can build than just about any other city, and hence I don't think it's "hilarious" to call this a place "with a tradition of strong liberty."

At 10:13 PM, May 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it comical that Tory, and some of the commenters think that they can generalize so neatly and compactly. It is even more stunning to find that suburbanites signing away their property rights by way of deed restricted master planned communities are somehow more libertarian. Need I remind anyone that it is HOUSTONIANS that have resisted zoning for all of these years?

I don't have the time nor the inclination to parse this subject, but a co-worker who rushes to a 55 foot wide lot in The Woodlands with 4% tax rates, and who must get permission to change the color of his home, hardly sounds more libertarian in his thinking.

At 7:59 AM, May 15, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Redscare: MPC's are purely voluntary, which is the foundation of libertarian - you know the *exact* contract when you buy. And I did mention that rising affluence demands better aesthetics, and certainly many upscale MPC's have been developed to meet that requirement.

At 9:36 AM, May 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why can't a city be compared to a master planned community? In other words, when you become a citizen, you "sign in" - make a contract that you will accept the laws that the city makes. I don't see how a master planned community is any more libertarian than a city with a very strong set of laws.

I personally find master planned communities to be scary evidence that Americans are going down the road that Friedrich Hayek warned about - that we are signing away our freedoms for the sake of comfort and security. At least in a city people still make the laws and participate in the governing process.

At 11:05 AM, May 15, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Two answers. One is that cities frequently shift their laws. There's more unpredictability in your rights. MPCs are pretty firmly set and stable.

The other is that cities are usually too big in granularity for good planning, IMHO. Neighborhoods - or MPCs - are really the ideal size. See this post:

At 4:17 PM, May 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought we were talking about libertarianism and wanting to live independently. I don't see what's so independent about living in a master planned community, where so many of your needs are taken care of for you. At least in a city, you have some control over the governing process - as much as anyone else. In a master planned community, the company that owns it has control. Can't see that being too inviting to a real libertarian.

At 10:12 PM, May 15, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, MPCs often have elected boards or associations. Of course, then it's really similar to elected officials and a city. It gets back to the granularity, and the specificity and predictability of the deed restrictions in the contract.

Obviously, there are plenty of buyers that are not strong libertarians. But even then, libertarians most prefer the MPC model: let private owners compete to attract you into a voluntary agreement.

At 11:35 AM, May 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think from an outside view the MPC's probably appeal more to a libertarian mindset, but from the inside, they probably appeal less.

At 11:53 AM, May 17, 2007, Blogger TransitPlanner said...

As a regular city dweller I completely agree with your analysis, but find myself more drawn to the communal definition of rights. The way I look at it: in the less dense environment the individual's rights expand outward to your property line, or until they bump up against someone else's sphere of personal rights. However in the dense environment that would leave with you such a small sphere of rights that you would have to develop the concept of communal rights.

I was raised in Houston and about 5 years ago my parents moved back to the home I grew up in, in Spring, and it was a great thing for my political education. I am pretty far left, but it gave me the perspective to think that I don't want to change the world to be like San Francisco. If you want to trade all the bad that I see in Houston (sprawl, ugly design, traffic) for all the good (neighborliness, liberty, cheap housing) that I know is there then that is your choice.

I find it interesting in California because of the tension between the liberals and the conservatives here. I live in Orange County temporarily and it is a pretty conservative area, but its in California so it has to deal with some liberal state mandates. Right now it is struggling with intensification of density but a natural resistance to public transit. So many want to build there way out of freeway congestion, but there simply isn't the land for that approach. So the balancing act comes into play.

Anyways good post from my old home town.


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