I rarely read Andrew Sullivan but his Latest Post sums things up scarily and I fear accurately. It's nothing dramatically new -- just the Red/Blue divide of the USA -- but he states it well. I am observing these divisions harden and it is not a pretty picture.
I've also observed some signs that "cultural conservatives" are trying to take over new urbanism and somehow contort it into part of the conservative agenda. It won't work. The good news/bad news is that practically-speaking many of them are not yet up to speed enough about NU to put up a convincing front. They confuse NU with Doric columns and some vague and undefined notion of "traditionalism." Thus their arguments -- ungrounded in any basic understanding of it -- will be unpersuasive. But that's too bad in one sense because we need as much knowledgeble discussion of cities as possible. The sidewalk has no ideology.
The danger is that conservatives' efforts may politicize an endeavor which hitherto has been largely & thankfully outside the left/right split --- thus providing some literal common-ground on which liberals and conservatives can agree.
(You may laugh but I think it is a healthy thing that an extreme conservative, a left-winger and a balanced & sensible moderate such as I (!) can all agree that the design of a Wal-Mart store is not a good thing for America. Let's put aside the labor and jobs issues from urban design -- they are not all one issue at all; I can easily design a Wal-Mart which was designed as a very urban, "Main Street" building -- and was in fact part of a main street -- but which hewed to the same labor and purchasing policies it has today, whatever one thinks of those policies. And, btw, that's a perfect example of the limits of new urbanism. For better or worse, a Wal-Mart built according to new urbanist principles would still be very much a Wal-Mart.)
I hope that cultural conservatives will forebear and desist from trying to make NU a conservative manifestation of "traditional" society. Intellectually, there is simply no basis for such a claim. For example, columns (even the most traditional columns) are only an optional, incidental and totally trivial choice in an new urbanist design. "Learning from the past" is a truism, a cliche, something so obviously human that it cannot be claimed by one party or another. (The fact, for example, that the new Koolhaas-design for the Seattle Public Library largely ignores the streetfront -- and more on this building later -- is not a sign of anyone's radical ideology but simply that a group of well-meaning people got cowed by a an architect with more skill as a self-promoter than as an urban designer. If anything, it is simply a sign that environmental education -- awareness of the environment -- has not gone very far among educated Americans.)
Now I don't really care what cultural conservatives do about other parts of our common social lives so long as they stay out of my life and go do their thing without bugging people who do not agree with them on matters of personal conscience. The danger I am talking about, (and it's a danger to things which conservatives value as well), is to the slowly-growing intellectual and political movement toward re-shaping our cities. My concern is that if they continue in the intellectually untenable position that new urbanism is somehow "conservative," they will diminish NU as a useful social force by politicizing it.
Likewise for liberals, btw. They too can be prone to politicize NU and make it into a transformative movement -- but with their own spin. I have only been to one formal NU event -- the Congress for the New Urbanism conference in San Francisco almost ten years ago. It was a good conference with interesting speakers and great informal conversation. But I was puzzled that the organizers were trying to present new urbanism as some sort of "revolutionary" force which would change society at every level and in every aspect. The roster of speakers aimed to create a broad-based "socially-progressive" coalition. I just didn't get it; NU just ain't that powerful. (I also thought that it was a political mistake. Why weren't the people who build those huge churches in the suburbs on the dais? Or the home-builders? I gather things have changed at CNU.) New urbanism is completely consistent with liberalism -- but it also comopletely consistent with conservatism (whatever those stupid code words mean these days.) New urbanism is great but it will not cure anyone's warts. (Actually that's a bad example as warts may very well be related to physical activity! and one of the benefits of NU is to create places where people feel comfortable walking. But you get my intent.)
I love to see people of all viewpoints support the principles of new urbanism and city comforts, (which btw are not exactly the same but there is an awful lot of overlap and no conflict worth noting.) I urge ideologues of any stripe to join in and see it, talk about it, build it, buy it etc...but to leave their ideology at home in a bushel basket. Libertarians, especially, are invited so long as they recognzie the necessity for community involvement.
Now I know this takes away some of the frisson of the hunt and to see NU as non-ideological may lower the emotional level (and thus interest) around new urbanism. I'll take that risk.