Why Urbanism Is Considered to be ‘Liberal’

Andrew Keatts | @Andy_Keatts | November 16, 2015

Image via flickr/Paul Sableman.

Image via flickr/Paul Sableman.

Smart growth has positioned itself as a centrist solution to population growth: it pleases the left by providing social equity and environmental sustainability and the right with the promise of increased development potential for private developers.

Yet studies have repeatedly shown the type of compact, urban development characteristic of smart growth is favored primarily by liberals, not conservatives.

Those studies, however, don’t offer a particularly good explanation for why that’s the case.

In his paper “Moral Intuitions and Smart Growth: Why do Liberals and Conservatives View Compact Development so Differently,” Arizona State University professor Paul G. Lewis draws on social psychology to propose another explanation: it’s all about gut-based, emotional responses.

It’s a Liberal Thing

If you follow each data point in the fight for urbanism – each dust-up at a neighborhood group over a new mixed-use project—it might not seem like liberals or conservatives are any more likely than the other to support smart growth.

But multiple studies confirm that liberals are more likely to support smart growth than conservatives.

In one of Lewis’ previous studies, survey respondents in Western states were asked for their preference in four potential trade-offs between urban and suburban development patterns. They answered questions like “would you rather have a small yard and a short commute, or a big yard and a long commute?” or “do you support policies that promote development in existing neighborhoods while preserving undeveloped land, or development on the fringes of urban areas to avoid density?”

Simply being conservative made people 10 percent less likely to supporting urban development. That’s true after controlling for other factors like race and income.


Urbanism Liberal

Other studies have shown the same patterns.

Studies have also shown that government policies like strict development regulations, government-backed mortgages and subsidized highways made the suburbs possible. Yet the suburbs are exactly what self-described opponents of government intervention say they prefer.

Similarly, liberals are more likely to say they support basic environmental protections. But Lewis’ previous study found caring about the environment doesn’t particularly correlate with supporting smart growth.

Instead of being explained by internally consistent ideology, the left-right split over smart growth is instead explained by deep-seated, subconscious emotions, Lewis’s paper argues.

It Comes from the Gut

Lewis explains the inability to attribute the left-right divide over smart growth to typical left-right values to an emerging field of social psychology called “social intuitionism.”

People don’t evaluate their preferences based on a coherent set of political beliefs, or from a core set of values, or by following cues from allies within the political fray.

Rather, decisions come from gut impressions.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt coined an approach within this view called “moral intuitionism,” suggesting that liberals and conservatives prioritize basic moral foundations differently. Liberals, he showed, were more likely to prioritize things like fairness and preventing harm to others; conservatives cared more about upholding traditional patterns or protecting themselves and their family.

Essentially, liberals and conservatives are predisposed to certain flash judgments that they don’t recognize, then they rationalize explanations for their views.

The moral intuitionism explanation suggests liberals prioritize an openness to experience, a need for stimulating environments and don’t care as much about preserving existing social structures.

Conservatives’ views are explained by vigilance against outside threats, identification with existing social norms and a concern with “purity.”

Lewis hypothesizes that you could use the moral intuitions that are typical of liberals and conservatives, respectively, to explain their feelings towards dense urban development.

Looking for Evidence

There hasn’t been a large-scale study to demonstrate a connection between moral intuitionism and views on urban development.

In its place, Lewis uses results from a survey of residents living in four southwestern states as a proxy for who is liberal and conservative, based on the tendencies moral intuitionism says are typical of liberals and conservatives, and the feelings of those individuals towards urbanism.

The survey asked respondents three questions on how they viewed trade-offs related to dense development.

It also asked a few questions that he used as a proxy for the foundations of moral intuitionism. For instance, it asked whether respondents felt a strong sense of “national belonging,” which he used as a stand-in for how much they identified with feelings of in-group loyalty, which moral intuitionism identifies with conservatism. He used questions on religious identification and anti-immigrant sentiment similarly.

Lewis found that individuals who said they don’t really feel a sense of national pride were much more likely to say they’d like living in a small house with a small yard if it meant having a shorter commute. They likewise preferred mixed-use neighborhoods where they can walk to stores.

People who weren’t particularly religious, meanwhile, were more likely to favor small houses and yards, mixed-use neighborhoods, and “high-density” living.

And people who say they’d happily pay more for groceries if it meant keeping immigrants out of the country were significantly more likely to want to have big yards and houses, and they weren’t as interested as others in living in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.

In all, he ran nine regressions on the relationship between individual preferences on development and the proxies for moral intuitions, and seven of them supported his hypothesis that people with conservative moral impulses are more likely to dislike the idea of urban living.

Ultimately, his study suggests some preliminary support for his idea that residents’ views on land use and development patterns aren’t ideological, they’re emotional.

And it could help explain why, despite the seemingly centrist appeal of smart growth – for liberals, social equity and environmental sustainability, for conservatives, economic opportunity and a less intrusive government – the urbanist movement has been disproportionately embraced by liberals.

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4 Responses

  1. Nathanael says:

    Why is Urbanism considered “liberal”?

    Because “Conservative” has become a political code word for “reality-denying fanatic”.

    All the old conservatives are now considered liberal. It’s really that simple. Only crazy people qualify as “conservative” these days.

  2. Nathanael says:

    I have to point out that modern “conservatives” support a massively intrusive, giant expanded government (NSA! Gitmo! Homeland Security!) and oppose economic opportunity (if you didn’t inherit, sucks to be you!). What “conservatives” say they support is not what they actually support.

    “Conservatives’ views are explained by vigilance against outside threats, identification with existing social norms and a concern with “purity.””

    This is absolutely correct, except that modern “conservatives” also have to be very stupid, because they’re unable to (a) accurately identify outside threats, (b) accurately identify existing social norms, and (c) actually live in the “pure” manner which they claim to support.

    Liberals often actually live conservative values. Conservatives do not. High divorce rates in conservative states, low rates in liberal states.

    The common element is that modern “conservatives” are defective. I blame lead poisoning from leaded gasoline — there are fewer of these idiot “conservatives” in each succeeding generation, so if we keep cleaning up the lead, maybe they’ll eventually go away.

  3. David Crossley says:

    “conservatives cared more about upholding traditional patterns or protecting themselves and their family.” This seems wrong. If conservatives favor sprawl, they are favoring a social experiment that is very new in human history and goes against all tradition. They are also favoring something is government-designed and promoted. Further, they are subjecting their families to more danger from car crashes and from the small and large disease and animal presences at the edge. Doesn’t make sense. Something else is going on in the gut, so to speak.

  4. Tom Lane says:

    I consider myself a liberal and do not like smart growth. Smart growth involves clearcutting native vegetation and building high density “smart growth towers” that are built by Republican construction companies out of Texas, Missouri, California, and Washington state. Their only interest is making huge amounts of money by charging $2000+ for tiny 500 square foot studios. So called liberal special interest groups, that advocate smart growth principles by way of their web sites and publications, are undoubtedly bought and paid for by these developers. A true liberal would never live in a smart growth tower. Instead, they would have a home with a private yard, organic vegetable garden, free range chickens, and bird feeders. These liberals live in older homes in the suburbs within a few miles of downtown areas of liberal cities, such as L.A. and Seattle. They (we) are also opposed to increased density, and we will fight changes to land use codes that allow increased density, within peaceful urban neighborhoods, with homes and trees that may be over 100 years old. True liberals also live on the urban fringe, in art colonies and college towns such as Ashland, Oregon, Truckee, California, Durango, Colorado, and Ojai, California. Bernie Sanders’ very own Vermont is the classic example of a very liberal place with liberals who live on large parcels of land.

    Look at Boulder, Colorado. The entire city is paved over with very little open space and not that many trees. Traffic and air pollution are horrible. True liberals don’t like Boulder because they love nature and outdoor activities. They’re out in the foothill towns around Boulder, or, on the western slope of Colorado such as Durango, or, in remote locations such as Crestone, Colorado in the San Luis Valley. Unfortunately, the Republican smart growth tower developers are ruining Durango. As of two years ago, towers were going up everywhere. Bend and Eugene, Oregon, and also Chico, California, have already been destroyed by the Republican tower developers, with horrible traffic and tall towers.

    First and foremost, it is the Smart Growth tower developers who love smart growth more than anyone else, since they’re raking in billions of dollars in rent payments. They’ve also destroyed ASU Professor Dr. Lewis’ very own Tempe, Arizona, with their towers, and also nearby Scottsdale. See John Washington’s blog on Scottsdale at http://scottsdaletrails.com and John Fox’s blog on Seattle at http://www.zipcon.net/~jvf4119/

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