Left thrives in compact communities, dies in suburban sprawl

Suburban sprawl is an enemy of the Left and progressives should support efforts to discourage it, including tolls.

In opposing tolls on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a number of leftists cite political strategy. They argue the tolls will elicit a rightist populist backlash and alienate potential supporters.

On Facebook John Bell complained, “to all the ‘progressives’ who support road tolls, and then wonder why a Ford or a Trump gets elected give your head a shake.” Slightly more restrained, Nora Loreto wrote, “if progressives want to have a hope in hell in reaching the average Mississauga commuter” they should oppose tolls.

The Toronto tolls are no doubt highly unpopular among suburbanites who currently use the two highways without paying either through fees or municipal taxes. But, Bell and Loreto’s statements are short sighted. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Rob Ford and Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected if not for the vast sums in public funds (mainly roadway and mortgage subsidies) spent partly in the hopes of atomizing communities.

Since at least the European revolutions of 1848 elites have repeatedly sought to undermine progressive organizing by dispersing communities. In Toronto Sprawls Lawrence Solomon traces the ways in which the city’s dispersal was a reaction to the breakdown of social control that accompanied growing migration from farms. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s elite became concerned about the growing number of single women and immigrants living in the city, as well as the success unions were having in organizing urban workers. Government officials responded by razing buildings in high-density areas, banning apartment buildings and promoting single-family dwellings more conducive to the traditional family.

Conducive to consumerism, disconnected and depoliticized, the suburbs are bastions of conservatism and infertile grounds for social movements to back the scale between rich and poor. Surveys indicate that suburbanites are less inclined to support government programs, unless considered directly beneficial — highways and education, for instance. Compared to their counterparts in small towns and urban areas, suburbanites reports Urban Sprawl and Public Health, “place little emphasis on such social goals as eliminating discrimination and reducing poverty, and tend to reject initiatives such as park acquisition and mass transit.”

Right-wing politics reign supreme, intensifying as suburbs sprawl further outwards. Conversely, according to Robert E. Lang, Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, “at each greater increment of urban density, democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote [in the 2004 Presidential election].” Put differently, as the dominance of the car increased, so did votes for George W. Bush.

Canadian voting patterns are similar. In the 2011 election Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won almost every suburban riding in Canada’s major cities (outside of Montréal) and lost most central districts. Similarly, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford received stronger support in the outer rings of the city.

In a Globe and Mail piece headlined “The real reason Donald Trump got elected? We have a white extremism problem” Doug Saunders correctly cites “higher population density” and mass transit oriented neighbourhoods as a way to reverse white support for Trump. “White people who live in areas where they’re immersed in longstanding populations of immigrants and minorities – that is, in big cities – don’t generally tend to vote for the politics of racial intolerance. That’s called the ‘contact effect’ – you don’t get anxious about immigration if you live around immigrants. But people who live in mainly white areas that adjoin cities with greater diversity often show very high levels of support for people like Mr. Trump.”

Diffuse suburban landscapes discourage political gatherings. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that “cars have encouraged the diffusion and privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently.”

How many demonstrations take place in low-density suburbs? A diffuse geography and population denies a pedestrian scale. As a result, suburbanites’ interaction with protests — and progressive political culture more generally — is limited or mediated through the dominant media.

During the 2012 student-led uprising in Québec the vast majority of demonstrations and neighbourhood “casseroles” (pots and pans) marches took place within the core of Montréal. Yet, those living on the outskirts of the city were significantly more likely to tell pollsters that the protests were disruptive than those in neighbourhoods closer to the centre. In effect, people expressed annoyance with the political disruption in an inverse relation to which they were impacted. Or to put it differently, the more Montréalers interacted with the activism through the dominant media, rather than in person, the more it seemed troublesome.

A pedestrian scale is required for political posters to be read. Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car-oriented billboards, street posters are ideal for volunteer-run movements. Putting up posters is labour intensive, but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication.

And there are other obstacles to community organizing. Where does one leaflet in a suburb with no centre or subway? The highway?

British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s description of “the ideal city for riot and insurrection,” stands in stark contrast to the modern day suburb. In an insurrectionary city, the poor majority would live in close proximity to government authorities and the wealthy. The ideal city would also “be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse on foot.”

In her history of walking, Solnit highlights the vital connection between Paris as a great city for walkers and revolution. She also contrasts walkable San Francisco, with its rich history of progressive political activism, to car-dependent Los Angeles, which has seen less political upheaval. Solnit explains:

Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.

Instead of fearing a populist backlash for challenging automotive hegemony, all progressives need to recognize their strategic interest in promoting pedestrian, bike and mass transit scale urban spaces.

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