Adjusting the color on your urban design monitor: less blue, more red

When I asked the manager at a Barnes & Noble in Fargo, N.D., last Saturday if she had James Kloppenberg’s new book about President Obama she came back with a reply that startled me. “Is it for or against?” she asked. My mind raced to whether the store had separate pro/con sections on the president, a notion that struck me as odd until I realized that it would perfectly fit the nation’s tribal mood. For the rest of the afternoon, as I sat signing my own book (not about politics), I couldn’t help but speculate who in the crowded store was in the red tribe and who was in the blue.

Results of the midterm elections are still sinking in to those of us who write about so-called metropolitan ideas — impressions and policies on community design, lifestyle, transportation, local culture and economic competitiveness. Our agenda tends to promote investment now (infrastructure, for example) in order to make the future less costly, and to favor parity for urban-style solutions (transit and compactness, for example) because of their efficiency and environmental advantage. But any way you slice it, the election outcome is a huge loss for the urban side of things and a big win for the rural.

Just look at the map. Even when you correct for the denser populations in smaller, bluer congressional districts, the preponderance of red is overwhelming. Obama and his party, fairly or not, has come to represent an urban, multicultural, younger elite that is deeply resented by older, whiter, more tradition-bound Americans who, even if they live in busy suburbs, tend to identify with rural values.

Of the 62 House seats lost by Democrats earlier this month, 26 were in suburban/exurban districts and another 34 were in rural/small town districts — 60 in all. Losses were particularly acute in the Northeast and Midwest, where voters in the countryside moved even farther away from their urban cousins. Democrats lost seven House seats in Upstate New York and 10 seats in rural/suburban districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio, key swing states.

Meanwhile, the party all but disappeared from the map in the South and the Great Plains, where “blue” has become an alien concept. Indeed, the rural website Daily Yonder calculates that the losses left Democrats with only 22 of 125 rural districts.

A game of who’s who
Attempting to characterize the geo-cultural split, National Public Radio contributor Brian Mann called it Glenn Beck vs. Jon Stewart. That’s not a bad shorthand, although the differences are a bit more nuanced. As I glanced around the bookstore last Saturday there were blues I thought I could identify (hipster glasses) and reds that were dead giveaways (camouflage outfits). But people’s politics were, thankfully, hard to guess.

In any case, the upshot for urban design in a redder world is that progress will be harder, not just because budgets will be tighter but because ideological opposition will be stronger. Ideas that make perfect sense to urbanites (carbon taxes, transit options and walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, for example) make no sense to most of the country. Rules that force companies to build nice looking buildings or require homebuilders to offer affordable units seem sensible in cities but oppressive in small towns. Tax credits for historic structures? Incentives for transit-oriented development? They pass for good investment tools in cities, but they’re government giveaways in most of America, where historic buildings are scarce and the only lifestyle imaginable depends on cars and big-box retail.

So what to do?

The first thing, perhaps, is to understand that the rural-urban rivalry dates back to the founding of the nation and has never been fully resolved. Jefferson’s ideas about agrarian superiority led to strong movements for states’ rights, limited government and suspicions about social and technological change and foreign involvement. Hamilton’s focus on urban commerce, central banking and strong federal government has offered a counterpoint. We fought a Civil War over those differences and the turmoil has ebbed and flowed ever since.

Going through a period of denial
Another point to consider: You could conclude from reading history that we are fundamentally a conservative nation that takes a progressive leap now and then. We take two steps forward, then one back. What doesn’t change, however, are the basic global challenges. Our dependence on fossil fuels cannot be sustained fiscally, environmentally or geo-politically, no matter the election results. Urban-style solutions (less driving, more compact living) are inevitable. It’s just that market demand and demographic shifts have not yet caught up with the reality. First we must go through a period of denial and reaction.

(Some activists on the right, for example, are claiming that planners are plotting to take away cars and single-family homes, arguments that apparently helped to defeat a sales tax increase for roads and light rail in Tampa.)

A third point to consider: patience. Try to imagine how small-town residents feel when told that their non-metropolitan lives are irrelevant to the nation’s future.

“One of the frequent complaints I’ve heard from progressives is wondering why various areas ‘vote against their own interests,’ ” says a writer on Blue Wave News. “There two reasons why this happens. First, they might be voting for their own interests, and, second, they might be voting against you — the urban areas. I live in New York State, and in many ways, it’s a microcosm of what’s happening,” the writer continued, recounting the growing resentment against New York City’s success and dominance.


Bandstand in Island Park, Fargo, N.D.
Fargo Park District
Bandstand in Island Park, Fargo, N.D.

A fourth point: Work harder to advance sustainable projects in smaller cities. Fargo, for example, for all its miles and miles of big-box sprawl, has rediscovered its historic downtown, built condos over shops and lovingly maintained one of the most gorgeous downtown parks (Island Park) in America. When projects like these can be seen up close in red states, then the aspirations of big cities seem less alien.

Concentrate on economic growth
A final point: Watch your language. Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told me that in anticipation of the election outcome, he and his colleagues have shifted their approach to urban design question, emphasizing public-private partnerships and bottom-up solutions. It’s part of a new red-blue language that policymakers are trying out.

When I asked him how the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro should deal with the consequences of a redder political map, he said to concentrate on economic development and job growth, because it’s a project that reds and blues can work on together. It’s fine, he said, to hammer home the advantages of transit-oriented development and livable communities. But you can’t forget that you need to draw economic activity to make those places hum.

“You must understand who you are in the global marketplace,” he said, making the point that all the transit lines and walkable neighborhoods will stay on the drawing boards if you don’t attract new business and new jobs. Here are samples of his latest offerings: “Delivering the Next Economy” and “Investing in Metropolitan Areas.”

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by David Peterson on 11/24/2010 - 09:36 am.

    These takes have been interesting regarding the national perspective. I am wondering your thoughts on how this election will directly affect the Twin Cities.

    In previous articles you had outlined that Oberstar’s pet projects (Northern Lights) and other future LRT futures looked bleak, but is this necessarily true? Many of the funding application for these type of projects had been in progress since the Bush era.

    Regarding the rivalries, I would say it is less of an Urban/Rural rivalry now, as it is Urban/Suburban + Ex-Urban. The reason Oberstar lost District 8 was Ex-Urban (Chisago County, and my home town, Chisago City), constituents voted him out. The sprawl has spread into rural districts, and enabled conservative voters to take those seats.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/24/2010 - 10:07 am.

    I’d consider it to be more of an “urban vs. suburban” model than an “urban vs. rural” one. If you have – and this is pretty rare these days, but maybe you could create it – a self-sustaining small town with real jobs, this can be pretty efficient. What kills us is the suburban sprawl model where people commute an hour each way.

  3. Submitted by Richard Parker on 11/24/2010 - 11:24 am.

    My heart goes out to the constituents of Rep. Tom Hackbarth.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 11/24/2010 - 03:05 pm.

    Berg’s fourth point deserves more attention. To some extent, the original ‘walkable communities’ were small towns, with business districts clustered around the town square. The big-box blandification of the outer suburbs and ex-urbs has also decimated small-town america, forcing innumerable family-owned shops out of business. Across the country, as urban centers have deteriorated, so have small town business districts.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/24/2010 - 04:15 pm.

    This is an excellent, thought-provoking series, Steve. Nice work.

    The red/blue divide is real, but I wonder for how long? Less than 2 % of the population are farmers, and in a generation, people like me and Tom Emmer are likely to be in the minority. THAT will make for some interesting politics, no matter the locale, and I’m sorry I won’t have another lifetime to see how it all plays out.

    I’d qualify your statement that “…Ideas that make perfect sense to urbanites (carbon taxes, transit options and walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, for example) make no sense to most of the country…” to somehow suggest that “…most of the country…” refers to area, not population. Most of the country’s people live in urban areas right now. It’s that interesting, rarely-acknowledged faith in Jefferson’s Agrarian Myth that’s responsible for at least some measure of the current divide, and I agree that it’s an intellectual dispute that’s still not entirely resolved, Civil War or no. Some of what follows plagiarizes from or paraphrases comments I made on a previous piece, but they seem relevant to this one, as well.

    It seems to me that, over the coming decades, some of the Twin Cities suburbs will themselves – perhaps of necessity – find themselves beginning to act like “big” cities. That is, they may find they have to put their own constraints on new development, institute new or different zoning policies that increase density, and otherwise deal with the increasing costs of infrastructure and other city services being supplied to people living on the fringe, not of the Twin Cities, necessarily, but the fringe of whatever suburb it happens to be. When that happens – and it was already happening to some degree in Colorado when I left 18 months ago – it will put an interesting twist on the whole red/blue or urban/suburban paradigm of argument. Many suburban dwellers have migrated to the fringe because both land costs and taxes are lower there, and eventually, both of those will catch up, especially as further “fringe” development strains the ability and/or the willingness of suburban residents to subsidize their OWN suburbs.

    If stretching taxpayer dollars is a goal, and taxpayers often say rather loudly that it should be, then regional cooperation, based on geographic and economic proximity, seems to me, if not the only way to accomplish that fiscal efficiency, at least the most logical way to do so. Some will protest, using the same tired line about the unsuitability of “one-size-fits-all” as a policy paradigm, but those protests typically offer no alternative except the same individual taxing and spending ideas that are the reason why taxpayers often feel their contributions to community welfare are being wasted through inefficiency.

    Individualization is labor-intensive and expensive, and if you don’t want to cooperate with others in terms of planning for the future, you have to be prepared to pay the full freight yourself. There may be Twin Cities suburbs willing and able to do that, and if there are, they will eventually become “urban” in the same way the Twin Cities are “urban,” with higher housing and population densities and a list of services that their residents expect to be performed. Smaller communities will be better off fiscally if they pool resources and planning efforts for a coordinated approach, whether based on counties or geographic regions, which could easily serve residents as well or better than going it alone.

    Meanwhile, it’s hard to argue with Mr. Katz. If you want rooftops and commerce, there have to be jobs, and large suburbs may become employment centers as well as residential centers. At that point, even the suburbanites most resistant to it may see some advantage to regional cooperation in things like transit, utilities, housing policies, etc. There’s some truth to the notion that “red” sometimes votes against “blue” just because it IS “blue,” and – lest this seem too one-sided – the reverse also takes place.

    I can see denial on both sides – urban dwellers discounting as unimportant the struggles that rural dwellers go through to adapt to changes they’d prefer weren’t happening, and rural dwellers hoping/pretending that urban life is somehow a temporary phase, despite several thousand years of history suggesting otherwise.

  6. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 11/24/2010 - 05:11 pm.

    Thanks to Steve Berg for making sense on urban issues, not just this piece. This gives us good suggestions for our University District Alliance where we are trying to sustain and improve our four inner-city neighborhoods surrounding the University while keeping environmental concerns in the forefront. He gives us good political advice so thanks both to MinnPost and Steve Berg. We’ll put his suggestions to good use.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/26/2010 - 06:07 pm.

    You guys have it all wrong. The Cities are hotbeds of godless liberalism because all of the concrete high-rises make it impossible for the guiding light of AM-band talk radio to illuminate them.

    In America we are of two worlds. Rural and urban Americans listen to different music, eat different foods, and aspire to different lifestyles. We think and worship differently. We have different values and different world views. We do not mix with, understand, trust, or like each other. Our differences transcend race, economics, and even logic itself. Observe how a rural government-hating republican can consider government supplied roads and farm subsidies to be his god-given right.

    So our government hinges on the vicissitudes of the suburbs, which oscillate between the two tribes. It isn’t a pretty picture, but that’s what we’ve got.

Leave a Reply