The Prime Minister’s focus on urbanism isn’t entirely out of character for the Coalition but it’s usually had to be carried dragging and kicking into this area of policy. It doesn’t seem to be in the Liberal/National DNA; it’s as if they’re congenitally incapable of “getting it”.
That’s a bit surprising because some of the central ideas around urbanism are inherently conservative; for example the romantic idea of urban villages with its emphasis on spatially bound (neighbourhood) social capital.
The doyenne of urbanists, Jane Jacobs, embraced properly functioning markets and was suspicious of government. Some of the key ideas promoted by urbanism – like walking and cycling – are private and individualistic forms of transport that should appeal to conservative and libertarian sensibilities. (1)
Yet conservatives have shown little interest in urban policy and, at times, much suspicion and even hostility. So it’s a good thing Malcolm Turnbull is enthusiastic about urbanism.
Perhaps his zeal will help reduce the partisan and destructive way the debate around cities developed under Tony Abbott’s leadership, especially over the last two years. Perhaps more conservatives will recognise their affinity with urbanism and embrace it in a positive way, albeit presumably somewhat differently from the progressive perspective.
It could bring a greater diversity of viewpoints – different political values – into the discussion. Diversity is generally a good thing but urbanism, at least at the policy end, is largely a liberal/leftish dominated field.
It examines the low levels of political diversity in social psychology. The authors, Duarte et al, say that up until 25 years ago, academic social sciences only leaned left (see exhibit):
Liberals and Democrats outnumbered Conservatives and Republican by 4 to 1 or less. But as the “greatest generation” retired in the 1990s and was replaced by baby boomers, the ratio skyrocketed to something more like 12 to 1. In just 20 years. Few psychologists realize just how quickly or completely the field has become a political monoculture.
The irony is that psychologists had a leading role in demonstrating the value of diversity in enhancing problem solving in many other fields. The authors make three further claims:
The lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike.
Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking.
The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination (2).
There are some important differences between urban policy and academic social psychology. One is that urban policy-making is ultimately shaped by feedback from practitioners and there are plenty of engineers and developers who don’t see themselves as progressives. Another difference is that it’s also embedded much more deeply in the practicalities of political life than academic social psychology.
Yet there are plenty of shortcomings in urban policy-making that betray a culture of blinkered thinking.
In too many cases it seems to be enough that a project simply presses the right buttons rather than achieves a real progressive outcome. Melbourne Bicycle Share is a classic example of blatant greenwashing.
But it’s not the only one. Other very doubtful but popular projects I’ve discussed before include East Coast High Speed rail line and proposed rail lines to the Melbourne suburbs of Doncaster and Rowville.
These are projects that not only wouldn’t deliver effectively on important outcomes like equity, sustainability and productivity; they come with an exorbitant opportunity cost. They would consume scarce funds that could give a much better outcome if applied in more rigorous ways.
These are mostly projects that in their current form should be opposed by progressives, not endorsed!
It doesn’t necessarily follow that Mr Turnbull’s interest in urbanism will lead to better outcomes. He’s a politician after all. And nor does it follow that stronger conservative voices will automatically raise the standard of debate. Indeed, they could do even more damage if they were to maintain the destructive culture of the last five years.
The optimistic view, though, is that the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for urbanism might open the way for those with different perspectives and values to involve themselves in a positive way with the major policy questions around cities; not just progressives and conservatives but anyone who’s prepared to think deeply about issues and solutions. I expect greater diversity of viewpoints would on balance be a very good thing.