Same American Dream, Different Zip Code
Religion & Liberty Online

Same American Dream, Different Zip Code

If Baby Boomers are said to have fled to the suburbs in the pursuit of the “American Dream,” using zoning laws as a tool, today’s young adults could be charged with the exact same mission in light of the promises of New Urbanism.

The American Dream has been defined as, “the notion that the American social, economic, and political system makes success possible for every individual.” Baby Boomers moved out to the suburbs in pursuit of the conditions that were believed to lead to social success for themselves and their children–which included, many argue, race and/or class homogenization. Why? Because this is what makes the American Dream a dream. It is not where you pursue social success but the Dream lies in the fact that one expects planned success to be tangibly achieved. In this regard, elites who planned the suburbs for social success, through public/private arrangements, and elites in the cities are both driven by the same cause: a lust for planned social success. It is the same dream in a different zip code.

Like the suburban planning of a few decades ago, New Urbanism promises to set up the conditions for everyone’s social success. For example, the Congress of New Urbanism on the 2012-2017 strategic plan commit to the following:

We envision the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real and inclusive neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, the preservation of our built legacy, and the stewardship of land, water, air, food, shelter, and energy.

What’s wrong with the spirit of this vision? Nothing. It’s admirable. Who doesn’t want to live in areas where good stewardship of creation is promoted and practiced? The $64,000 question, however, is this: How is this plan going to be achieved and who shall have the authority to ensure this vision is achieved? The CNU supplies this answer:

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) passionately promotes sustainable communities and healthy living conditions through walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development. We are a member-driven advocacy organization that collaborates with other enterprises seeking to vitalize and energize communities through sound planning and design.

What is “sound planning”? Sound planning occurs when bureaucrats make surrogate decisions about how the rest of us should live. They are city planners–the ones anointed with superior intellect and cosmic visions to direct the rest of us. Planners simply know better. Therefore, through public policy reforms, the CNU seeks to achieve this vision:

The restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

It will be the planners sitting in offices that override the preferences and decisions of those who are the most effected on the ground and are rendered voiceless. This is American surrogate decision-making at its best. Whether urban or suburban, according to Thomas Sowell in Economic Facts and Fallacies, what government planning means in practice is “the suppression of individual plans and the imposition of a politically or bureaucratically determined collective plan instead.” Additionally, more often than not, the ones who lose the most are those who lack political and social power to stop the surrogacy, like those of lower economic classes and minorities as we have already seen in cities such as San Francisco and others all over America. It would be far more just for communities to be guided freely, as Sowell concludes, “by the desires of people at large, in order to earn their money, whether or not those desires are understood or approved by third party observers.”

In the end, it will be through the planning of elites, not the preferences, choices, and decisions of “regular” people who will determine what communities should look like and how people will live in their own neighborhoods. This is how we achieve social success in America in the modern era. We use the force of government to create whatever version of it exists in the utopian imaginations of those in power. The next step is for those in power to force their vision on the rest of us while our grandchildren are left to deal with the unintended consequences. We should not, then, be surprised to see that the American Dream of social success is simply making its way back into cities and taking public transportation to its surrogate decision-making throne.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.