Political conservatism is all but extinct in cities, but the conservative impulse is alive and well. That is, a desire to prevent change in the name of preserving something that people find of value is still a powerful motivating force.
Historic preservation is an example of the conservative impulse.
NIMBYism is an example of the conservative impulse.
Anti-gentrification advocacy is an example of the conservative impulse.
In fact, it strikes me that cities are more conservative now than they were in the past. Previous generations were much more willing to engage in massive, radical projects of change than today’s residents and leaders. Not all of those previous projects were good to be sure, but many of them are what created the very cities as they exist today.
Think about, for example, New York City alone:
- The street grid of a largely uninhabited Manhattan was laid out in 1811
- The Erie Canal, a state project but one that tremendously benefitted the city, was finished in 1825
- The Croton Aqueduct was opened in 1842, and subsequently New York build a massive system of upstate reservoirs and tunnels to bring a huge supply of the world’s best water into the city.
- The city of New York as we know it today was created in 1898 by not just a single city-county merger, but by the merger of five counties (now the boroughs of New York).
- The first New York City subway line opened in 1904. This was the first of a vast network of subway lines, still among the world’s largest and most patronized.
- Then of course there are the vast Robert Moses construction projects
All of these were game changers for the city. When’s the last time New York conceived of anything comparable? True, new, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.
Yet today NYC does face serious problems related to housing supply, its transportation network, etc. But unlike in previous generations, no real solutions are forthcoming. Pretty much every proposal to address them is a small ball idea, apart from those originating with largely uninfluential bloggers, etc.. The era of daring to dream big and creating something audacious is over.
It may very well be that incrementalist solutions are in fact better. But that doesn’t change the underlying reality that New York and other American cities today are seemingly unable to pull off the types of transformative plans and initiatives that they did in the past.
Update: Alon Levy wrote some interesting thoughts in response to this post: Infrastructure for mature cities.