Thursday, June 14, 2007
Are suburban-living urbanists hypocritical?
Is it hypocritical for an advocate of pro-urbanist land use laws to live in a big house in the suburbs? The L.A. Weekly recently ran a David Zahinser story entitled, "Do as We Say, Not as We Do," pointing out that many advocates of housing density and opponents of sprawl live in low-density neighborhoods far from the city center. This criticism is similar to the carping against Al Gore for his energy-gulping mansion in Tennessee. Are they being hypocritical?
The answer depends on what kind of "urbanism" is being advocated. If a commentator asserts that suburbs are in effect "immoral" (as many academicians do) because they damage the environment and discourage social integration, it does seem rather hypocritical to follow a lifestyle that one chastises -- like a prohibitionist who's caught driving drunk.
But there are other types of urbanist advocacy that doesn't rise to the level of asserting the immorality of suburbs. Some urbanists contend simply that our laws shouldn't make city-living difficult and shouldn't subsidize suburban development, as of course our laws have done for years, through low-density zoning, mortgage interest deductions, and other policies. Other urbanists might defend their suburban lifestyle with an argument like that of the basketball coach who opposes the three-point shot but nonetheless encourages her players to take the long shots: One takes advantage of the "rules" until they change. A urban advocate can justify a home in the suburbs by saying that he'll move to the city as soon as our policies make downtown Los Angeles as appealing as downtown San Francisco. Another variant of this defense is the "Versailles" justification -- one can support policies that encourage American metro areas to be as dense as Paris, but allow (as they must) the very rich to enjoy life in a large suburban chateau, without being hypocritical (wealth always allows some people to do things that the majority can't afford).
But one lesson is clear from the suburbanite urbanist phenomenon: It is obtuse is best, and disingenuous at worst, to deny the appeal to many, many families of a house in the suburbs. It's not just policy that encourages sprawl; it's the desire for a lifestyle that's been appealing since Louis XIV.