Jane Jacobs, Edmund Burke, and the New Urbanism

Jason Epstein’s Introduction to the recently-published 50th Anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities makes this powerful intellectual connection:

Death and Life … [is] about the dynamics of civilization, how vital economies and their societies are formed, elaborated, and sustained, and the forces that thwart and ruin them…Her sympathies are with the slow accretion of custom and skills, of social norms and ingenious solutions to practical problems…

To use a much abused term, Jane was a conservative, indeed a radical conservative, mistrustful of abstraction, suspicious of large ideas and concentrations of political and economic power: a genius of common sense, as far from an ideologue as it is possible to be. Toward the end of her life Jane was fascinated by urban traffic tangles as evidence of bureaucratic idiocy resulting in perverse, even deadly, outcomes: the man-made difficulty of getting safely where one wanted to go when one wanted to go there. Jane herself used a bicycle. She thought of these tangles as fractal versions of Soviet five-year plans. But she preferred to expose such faults in her own country than indulge in anti-Soviet bombast. I never asked Jane if she admired Edmund Burke but I believe that Burke, were he alive, would admire her. Predictably Jane’s book was praised by the libertarian right and denounced by the social engineers of the left. Jane took little note of either group.

I’ve never heard Jacobs compared to Burke, but Epstein’s argument makes sense.  And it points to an opportunity for constructive conservative environmental thought — an opportunity that the American Right has decided to abandon in deference to plutocratic thinking.

Edmund Burke: An Old New Urbanist

Jacobs’ work can be seen as the urtext of New Urbanist land use planning.  Her emphasis on the functions of streets, on mixed uses, on building communities for people, on walkability, etc. essentially was taken up by organizations such as the Congress for the New Urbanism.

These themes dovetail with much conservative thinking about land use.  CNU filed an amicus brief on behalf of Susette Kelo.  If you are looking for the most overregulated sector of the American economy, local land use is pretty much the winner hands down.

So you would think that conservatives would embrace new urbanism.  Not so; at least not on the state and federal levels.  Although some libertarians such as Jeff Riggenbach, and people at the Mises Institute and the Reason Foundation honor Jacobs herself, when conservatives and Republicans see attempts at actually implementing the new urbanism, they reject it.  At the federal level, EPA has been a leader in showing how new urbanist planning can reduce environmental impacts, but that has not stopped conservatives from relentlessly attempting to zero out the agency.  And when California enacted SB 375, perhaps the best example of attempting to enable new urbanism, conservatives hysterically attacked it as Soviet-style planning.

It’s not quite clear why the American Right would hate something in keeping with what its theoretical ideals are.  As Jonathan Levine has powerfully demonstrated, new urbanism (and its close colleague, smart growth) are deregulatory strategies.  The cynic in me suspects that while conservatives and Republicans say that they believe in the free market, their prime social policy goal is economic inequality, which they believe to be the natural state of things.  Anything that could lead to more affordable housing or mixed-income neighborhoods is therefore suspect.  Perhaps a weaker form of the theory is just about signalling: if you are convinced that your political adversaries are secular socialists equivalent to Nazis or Stalinists (while somehow simultaneously being Muslim radicals), then anything they want is necessarily bad no matter what they are saying.

In any event, if we are serious about real conservatism, then it is those who support new urbanism and smart growth who qualify.  Shortly before Death and Life was published, Russell Kirk, who had an environmentalist streak, insisted that “Edmund Burke was a liberal because he was a conservative.”  Kirk was more correct than he knew.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

18 thoughts on “Jane Jacobs, Edmund Burke, and the New Urbanism”

  1. It seems to me that there’s a rather significant difference between allowing people to use their land as they wish (including dense development) and requiring only dense development.

    1. Very true, but not really apposite here. New Urbanists and smart growth activists do not want to “requir[e] only dense development.” Usually, the people who want greater density are the developer/property owners, because it will give them a greater return on their investment. And giving the property owner greater freedom to build what the market will bear is rarely considered the thin edge of Marxist wedge.

      1. Okay, but in what sense then is local development – for example, here in LA — “over” regulated? You aren’t, I hope, trying to say that planning here reflects the desires of residents? That would be absurd.

        The only people I see getting over regulated are the ordinary people, who get nailed for having a fence that’s a little too high. (Not that I am often pro-fence. I’m just saying.)

        Whereas, developers may b**** constantly about CEQA, but they still get to do whatever the bleep they want, more or less. It takes longer but they still get to do it. That isn’t regulation, it’s just being milked. A regulation, in my mind, out to flat-out stop bad things from happening, not slow them down.

  2. I’d posit that another reason conservatives are generally opposed to new urbanism is since conservatives tend to be older and more rigid in their ways, they’re far more likely to embrace the NIMBY mindset. As conservatives typically pine for the old days, the 50’s and 60’s represented the era of the ‘flight for the suburbs’ where the quiet, single-family home, white picket fence, spacious yard ideal was the quintessential American dream. It’s only natural that people who pine for this era would be opposed to new urbanism. They see increased density, walkability, and mixed-use as a threat to their sense of culture and right to be free from those perceived to be ‘others.’ Cities tend to attract younger, more heterogeneous populations – while the vast majority of conservatives are older and white.

  3. Your penultimate paragraph is all too accurate. The best predictor of “conservative” positions today is what will help the very rich get even richer. The second is that whatever they think liberals are for, they are against. A search for a higher level “conservative philosophy” represented in actual political positions is a fool’s errand.

  4. An incredibly well written article. Very knowledgeable on the subjects covered. Thank you, so much, for writing for a blog.

  5. America doesn’t have more than a few conservatives, they’re mostly just reactionaries on the right.

  6. Toasters is right. Barack Obama is an heir of Edmund Burke. The movement conservatives are heirs of the feudal lords. And the four nut jobs on the Supreme Court are heirs of Joseph de Maistre.

  7. It’s all social engineering. Cities and suburbs exist in their current forms as a result of government actions at various levels. But social engineering that benefits the rich — or that maintains the current precarious position of the 90% — is “natural” for self-styled conservatives. But no, I think the movement conservatives aren’t heirs of the feudal lords. The feudal lords had some responsibilities and osme skin in the game. They’re the heirs of the ancien regime and the later enclosure-happy british nobility.

  8. Ms. Jacobs was against gigantism in every possible form — institutional, financial, governmental, physical, social — and as such was a conservative in the original sense and opposed diametrically to Business Progressivism that harnessed governmental forces for grandiose master-planning ends using all of the items in that list.

    It’s easy to see the conservative-libertarian strain there, and the common objection to using the powers of the government and the public purse to benefit the already powerful.

  9. PS If you really want to have your mind blown, though, you gotta try her work “Systems of Survival,” which goes far to reconcile the perplexities and internal contradictions in both conservatism and liberalism — and establishes the common thread between TeaP’ers and OWS’ers, for example.

    She was a genius, a careful observer, a seer — more than a skilled theoretician. Twenty years in the field, seeing the economics of place in action, has taught me to hang on her every word.

  10. Most conservatives and most libertarians are NOT interested in preserving neighborhoods, dickering with city officials, getting signatures on petitions, “new urbanism”, or anything related. Environmentalists (“Greens”) might well be, but lib/cons operate in a rather abstract intellectual zone devoid of nuts-and-bolts politics. Jane Jacob’s books are of value for sustaining (good!) the Great Truths enunciated by Ayn Rand or Adam Smith, or for contravening (bad!) those Great Truths; they are not of interest on any other grounds.

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