Tom Stringham: Canadian conservatives should embrace urban design

When it comes to ideological wars of words, conservatives often find themselves on the defense. Constantly shoring up the status quo, we fall into a pattern of only reacting to change, neglecting to anticipate and shape it. If we intend to win our battles, we should press our advantage when an opportunity for forward-thinking conservative activism presents itself. Here’s one policy drum for conservatives to beat, at least at the local level: urban design.

The bright minds at The American Conservative magazine have given space to a new conversation about urban design by way of a year-long feature called “New Urbs”. The idea is that America’s cities, and especially its sprawling suburbs, have become lifeless, ugly and isolating. Cultural redemption for a community comes, according to the philosophy of New Urbanism, through a renewal of its physical architecture.

New Urban communities feature businesses and shops in the midst of houses, abundant parks and wide sidewalks, so as to encourage residents to come into contact with each other frequently and develop a sense of community absent in many suburbs. Buildings themselves are designed in a neo-traditional, non-utilitarian style, where cupolas, weather vanes, gables and arched windows are not out of place.

The concept of neo-traditional urban planning is a few decades old, but the practice has not caught on except in isolated patches across North America. In Canada, there are no more than a handful of such neighbourhoods. Where New Urban design has been implemented, it has been local developers that have led out, and often they have faced challenges from municipal governments. In McKenzie Towne, a New Urbanism-inspired neighbourhood in Calgary, developers have been forced to leave apartments above stores empty, because of zoning laws that require commercial and residential properties to be physically separated.

Advocacy for sophisticated, family-oriented urban design at the municipal level is something conservatives will be able to do best, because we believe that economic and cultural activity is best organized at the family and community level. In our heavily suburbanized nation, it’s critical that conservatives do not simply defend their vision of the world in workplaces and college classrooms, but that they also construct it in their own families and neighbourhoods.

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