Political issues of the 2020s
By Scott Sumner
Politics is always in a state of flux, with old coalitions dissolving and new coalitions forming. Urban planning is likely to be one of the hot issues of the next decade, which will help to shape this realignment.
Consider the case of Plano, a large affluent suburb of 288,000, north of Dallas. The city government put together a plan to add high density housing near transit corridors, which is an increasingly popular trend in urban planning. Texas is known as a pro-development state, and has much lower housing prices than many other major population centers, due to lenient zoning rules. Texas is also a politically conservative state. Nonetheless, the plan to add to Plano’s housing stock attracted intense opposition. This 2018 article provides some background analysis:
Looking at the history of accusations, rumors, and disinformation surrounding this fight, the conflict seems more closely connected to clashing visions of American life. Beginning with the Levittown developments after World War II, the American suburb was sold as an ideal of success built on prosperity and homogeneity. But the sense of permanence and security suggested by that ideal was also something of an illusion. The suburban development model, in fact, promoted a cycle of growth that transformed communities into a kind of disposable commodity. Today’s attractive suburb becomes tomorrow’s eroding, challenged community. North Texas’ inner-ring suburbs were once treasured, only to be abandoned for the greener pastures of Plano. Now, just as Carruth once moved from Farmers Branch to Plano, younger families are moving farther out, to towns like Anna and Melissa.
For the communities left behind, the only way to survive is to adapt, which is exactly what the Plano Tomorrow plan attempts to do. As demographics have shifted, the inner-ring suburbs have seen their tax bases shrink, infrastructure crumble, and schools suffer. By strategically introducing pockets of density that complement existing suburban neighborhoods, the Plano Tomorrow plan offers a road map to shoring up long-term prosperity. Even Carruth admits she enjoys the shops and restaurants at the mixed-use Legacy West development.
The article also suggests that there might have been racial overtones to opposition to the construction of apartment complexes:
There is, of course, an ugly subtext to all this talk about density and development. During a recent election, the Plano mayor says, he was accused of “trying to turn Plano into another Harlem.” An opponent’s campaign slogan was “Keep Plano Suburban.” “It is not only the elephant in the room, it is the hippopotamus and the bear in the room,” LaRosiliere says.
A more recent article from a month ago suggests that the mayor will be unable to enact the plan, due to strong opposition:
Saturday’s defeat of council member Ron Kelley by Shelby Williams and Lily Bao’s victory over Ann Bacchus for an open seat means Mayor Harry LaRosiliere’s long-held majority support has evaporated. Now municipal decision-making must move forward with a council divided, 4-to-4, between LaRosiliere and his bloc versus those elected leaders who are likely to oppose him on key contentious issues.
The campaign was unusually nasty, on both sides:
Many of the voters I talked with said this election was a referendum on the development-friendly faction of the council, which they believe has arrogantly rammed growth down residents’ throats. And Gov. Greg Abbott’s endorsement of Williams and Bao sealed the deal for many voters.
What passed for campaigning was a smutty mess: Homophobic and Islamophobic comments on social media. Whispers that developers would walk away from important projects. Statements such as “evil people who claim to be Christians” and candidate signs and literature defaced with “liar” and the 666 “sign of the beast.” Accusations of law-breaking and political conspiracies involving conservative Empower Texans and liberal out-of-state donors. In the final days, Bacchus’ opponents captured video of her appearing to spit in the direction of opponents at a polling place. Bacchus denied she did so.
Amid the false accusations, name-calling and shameless behavior, I was most struck by the absolute absence of middle ground. Supporters of each candidate were certain theirs was the champion and the opponent was the devil incarnate.
It’s a bit odd to see a conservative Texas governor weigh in on a city council race in a suburb, even more unusual to see him favor the candidates opposed to new development. Within Texas, liberal Austin has traditionally been more cautious about development than more conservative areas such as Dallas and Houston.
In my view, the debate over urban planning will jumble up ideological allegiances, just as issues such as trade, technology, school choice and foreign policy are increasingly crossing party lines. Eventually, each party will coalesce around a new matrix of views. But with America’s two party system that won’t be easy. Look for the 2020s to be a politically confusing decade, before a new partisan split comes into existence. Things were so much clearer during the 1980s.
PS. If Will Wilkinson is correct, then arguments about urban density are actually arguments about fundamental issues such as cultural and political identity.