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Pod-Living vs. the White Picket Fence: A False Dichotomy
The debate over urban planning models is now as polarized as any other culture war issue with a strong partisan divide in support for denser walkable development with democrats being much more sympathetic to the idea. Some on the right view denser urban living as part of a leftist or elite sponsored agenda for us to accept a lower quality of life: “living in pods and eating soylent,” as the memes hold. In contrast to this the single family home symbolizes freedom and prosperity to Conservatives: the ideal of the American Dream.
A major theme in urbanist circles is the racist history of single family zoning which is tied in with a wider range of issues including liberalizing immigration, school integration, and the use of up-zoning as a way to diversify the suburbs and redistribute wealth equity in real estate. Thus NIMBY policies to restrict housing are viewed as a racist tool to exclude lower income people of color from opportunities in desirable areas such as access to education and high paying jobs. Long a NIMBY stronghold, Berkeley California recently passed a resolution to abolish single family zoning on racial justice grounds.
With group competition over land and resources there are parallels between anti-gentrification progressives concerned about the displacement of communities of color and White conservative concerns about systematic diversification of the suburbs. Ironically there is a concept of a birthright from left wing anti-gentrification activists who come close to wanting a system of internal passports. Many woke anti-gentrification activists of color have made common cause with older White NIMBY activists to resist changes in California’s zoning laws. Despite their woke leanings, the YIMBY movement is primarily concerned about something more concrete: the massive housing shortage in major urban areas which impacts Millennials the most. The YIMBY movement is correct that the limited supply in housing is what leads to displacement.
In a society that prides itself on liberal values there is still an implicit mentality to view certain demographics as “undesirable” that must be kept out with high costs. Certainly when White ethnocentrism is taboo economic elitism serves as a substitute but in dissident right/HBD circles there is a concept of a Diversity Tax, that the demographic presence of outgroups places an added economic and quality of life burden on Whites, further increasing their cost of living.
There probably is a degree of White ethnocentrism in support for restricting new housing, especially among conservative NIMBYs, but the California liberal boomer mentality is reactionary in the sense of wanting to preserve Late 20th Century California liberalism. For instance trying to relive the 60s by having a “We Believe in Black Lives Matter etc.” Sign on one’s million dollar home and virtue signaling about a nice well-off family of color moving in next door but panicking about a proposed mix use development nearby that allocates affordable housing.
There is the meme of diverse youthful YIMBY activists vs. crusty old White NIMBYs who want to maintain a status quo emanating from such events as YIMBYs posting images from a zoom meeting of the NIMBY group Livable California. Certainly there are many well off NIMBYs of color but with the debate framed in terms of age and race where do White Millennials and Zoomers fit in?
For both younger Whites who can’t afford to buy into the nice areas they grew up in and lower income people of color dealing with gentrification there is a problem of constantly having to compete to stay in one’s community. Under neoliberalism there is no Birthright to one’s community even if one’s family has lived there for generations.
With the landed gerontocracy in real estate, especially in California, opposition to new housing has become inter-generational warfare with one Silicon Valley NIMBY posting on Nextdoor, flat out wanting to keep out younger families to preserve their community for Senior Citizens. Woke YIMBYs will often say that NIMBYs are eugenicists but the outcome of restrictionist housing policies actually has a dysgenic outcome.
In my article Who Breeds in California the data shows that NIMBY policies have caused White flight and dramatically reduced White middle and upper class fertility. Urban areas are already fertility sinks and data shows that high housing costs further reduces fertility.
All demographic groups are impacted but Whites and the middle class have a more engrained mentality that one needs an adequate amount of living space in order to raise a family. Conservatives will blame the demand for up-zoning on mass immigration but if these demographic changes are inevitable then by not up-zoning NIMBYs are only screwing over their own progeny. Immigrants and minorities are generally much better adapted to density and well off immigrants are buying up single family homes in the suburbs, creating ethnoburbs.
Joel Kotkin who is a critic of the push for density in California has a strong belief that single family homes are a crucial part of the American Dream for middle class families. Kotkin predicts that up-zoning for density “could lead to significant house value losses by families” but in California those of ages 25 to 34 have rates approximately 40% below the national average. Kotkin acknowledges the plight of millennials but insists that only the late 20th century suburban model can offer them a path to prosperity.
While Kotkin’s views on housing are narrow minded, it is true in California based on the data from Who Breeds in California, that middle class and White family formation is primarily strong in suburban areas, especially master planned communities. Kotkin advocates for more suburban sprawl development which comes with its own set of problems.
With post pandemic trends in remote work, business closure, and rise in crime, many urban centers have become even more inhospitable to family formation and a thriving middle class. Regardless of whether the location is urban or suburban the attributes that matter are good schools, safe public spaces, and adequate living space. Denser living is not inherently bad for Whites, the middle class, and families but there is a fragility in that when the wrong urban policies are implemented or there is a crisis, urban life will falter.
Woke policies such as forced school integration and the push to diversify the suburbs further exacerbate these negative social trends but the status quo isn’t working either. If the housing crisis is not addressed locally there will be a power vacuum for woke policies in housing to take hold imposed by the State.
For starters Zoning Reform Is Not Leftism and the right is foolish to allow the left to have a monopoly on walkable communities and increasing the housing supply. Both woke urbanist and NIMBYs embrace a framework that emerged out of the second half of the 20th Century. The policies that emerged out of that era such as forced integration, as documented by E. Michael Jones in The Slaughter of Cities, decimated close knit urban White ethnic communities that were pushed out to the suburbs to assimilate into the deracinated American identity that we know today.
The acceptable political framework is either individualism or racial equity without regard for what constitutes a community beyond housing costs and supply. Neither free-markets nor woke minded policies can tackle these issues because they both fall into a one size fits all approach. Thus a new paradigm must take into account factors including aesthetics, levels of social capital, culture, and demographics that are often neglected in the debate.
With rapid demographic change, Whites who think in terms of individual based rather than group ownership of a community are as naïve as displaced nomadic peoples of the past. Demanding freedom of association is a must because strict zoning was largely enacted to keep out outsiders which has led to older generations failing to build up for their progeny to have a future. Zoning reform and the trend of Retrofitting Suburbia must coincide with enclavism, building up close knit communities that are high in social capital.
We will likely see White communities functioning as ethnoburbs in the near future with the added benefits of enclavism of having higher quality public amenities, the pooling of resources, an ease to the cutthroat competition of having to succeed economically in order to live in a community that serves one’s or one’s group’s needs, and the preservation of inter-generational wealth so future generations can have a birthright to their communities.
For enclavism to work there needs to be a legal and political frame-work to challenge the worst of woke policies that challenge freedom of association, and pose a barrier to the building up of high-trust communities. For starters, the education system needs to be restructured to enable enclavism. Policy change is needed to make it easier to break up large failed urban school districts and funding must be allocated for home schooling and private education.
The death of social capital is a national crisis documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and when a Venture Capitalist funded a commune to cure LA’s loneliness, many of the reactions automatically reverted to the pod meme. There is the trope of the atomized city dweller but low density suburbs and even small towns are also impacted by the demise of social capital whose residents spend much of their spare time indoors online or watching TV.
The midcentury single family home model was built for the nuclear family but has failed to adapt to demographic change and the rootlessness of people constantly having to move. Also the inward focused suburban layout with private backyards reduces social capital and incentives to create high quality communal spaces. Urban planning models, regardless of density, must take social cohesion into account.
With the current mass exodus to the suburbs, it is important to learn from the mistakes of the past. We don’t need to abolish single family zoning but must explore a wider variety of models outside the norm. There is an opportunity with zoning reform to allow for more available space to build up utopian micro-societies on a compact scale with one such example being the archology or self-contained city.
It is a grandiose concept, that could bring to urban areas, the insular village structure “that mimics natural habitats peoples have lived in for thousands of years.” For example: one large structure or a series of inter-connected structures that contain residential units, shopping, and shared public amenities such as schools and gyms. This model already exists in many Asian Cities.
The only thing that comes close to this model in the West is in theme parks and resorts, even though master planned communities succeed in offering communal amenities but in a low density suburban model. These Self-contained models have the potential to offer greater social capital and more economic resilience. Having access to safe recreational and educational amenities creates less demand for constant parental supervision and the pooling of resources also would help address the issue of declining family formation. In a high density development there needs to be a requirement for units with adequate amount of living space for families.
More practical planning models include the New Urbanist movement to retrofit suburbia into compact villages and the push for more flexible zoning regulations. Zoning is a barrier to social capital when it does not allow for a single family home or collection of homes to be transformed into a larger collective unit. For example: for an extended family or to build some kind of tribal compound. Residential communities need to allow for more communal spaces and could also be retrofitted to encircle a communal park or garden and interconnected with green belts, rather than sidewalks and asphalt.
With more urbanites moving out to the suburbs and small towns there is an increased demand for more walkable and aesthetically pleasing development. There are potential downsides to a more liberal cosmopolitan individualistic culture but remote work creates opportunities for family formation and building up high trust communities from scratch.
As far as the concept of an ownership society and personal and economic freedom the case is weak that up zoning will lead to the end to private property. More people and families should own their own unit and the current high costs make that practically impossible for many. Besides expanding economic opportunities, greater social capital leads to greater freedom, prosperity, opportunities to organize politically and cultural innovation.
True freedom is not simply low taxes and being left alone but being able to live in the kind of society one would want to live in, taking into account the urban planning model, architecture, and the people one lives among. There needs to be an urbanist outlook, either an urbanist right or dissident center that offers a counter-balance to woke liberalism.
This new political and social paradigm must take into account future trends and seek out of the box solutions that are beyond left vs. right. These solutions must take into account a realistic view of group dynamics. They must accept that the status quo is not worth defending, and put forth an optimistic vision rather than a reactionary vision. We must reassess the American Dream, and think beyond the fatalistic dichotomy of either going back to the late 20th century or living in a pod and eating soylent.