Could suburbs foster right-wing populism? One paper says ‘maybe’.

Suburbs.

Image via Pixabay.

Decades’ worth of city-planning decisions may be promoting populism and unsustainable lifestyles, especially in the US, a new paper reports.

Not in my driveway

“As planners kept building suburbs they created scores of new electoral ridings and suburban voters who predictably voted for politicians and policies catering to their lifestyles,” said Pierre Filion, the study’s sole author.

“This translated into increasing automobile dependence, less land devoted to public space, and the continued cycle of building more suburbs”.

Filion analyzed urban planning trends from the end of World War Two up to 2010 outside Toronto, Canada. He also looked at voting patterns in the area over the same timeframe. All in all, he says, it seems that the rise of the car-centric suburb is — at least in part — to blame for the particular political environment we find ourselves mired in right now. In particular, the rise of right-wing populism.

The data suggested to Filion that suburbians’ increasing reliance on automobiles heavily influenced land-use and lifestyle choices among the group. The combination of this dependency on cars and a continued urban sprawl normalized economic and cultural behaviors that promote unsustainable living.

People whose livelihoods and recreation opportunities rely directly on cars will (understandably) be less willing to accept changes to the status quo — i.e. changes that would disproportionately impact them relative to the rest of society. It’s not only about comfort and convenience, Filion explains: these people rely on their cars to go to work. This also makes them less likely to vote for tighter regulations on cars or be willing to phase them out.

“This contributes to a sense of having their values attacked, and could explain some of the waves of right-wing populism in North America,” he adds. “A careful look at the results of the recent mid-term elections in the United States shows the clear ideological division between urban and suburban areas.”

In effect, this nudges suburbanites to resist calls for change which — even if they’d be beneficial for the planet/economy/society at large — would impact them personally.

“It’s something we saw in 2016 as well as the most recent election in Ontario, Canada,” Filion notes.

Illustration of a self-sustaining satellite city outside the Chinese city of Chengdu. Credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Illustration of a self-sustaining satellite city outside the Chinese city of Chengdu. Credit: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Suburbs are far from a necessity. A few years ago, Chicago-based architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill showed that even huge cities can get away without building suburbs as we know them — city planning is key. The duo designed a self-sustainable satellite city, the Chengdu Tianfu District Great City, to focus on pedestrians and do away with cars. The distance between any two points in the city is no longer than a 15-minute walk, so there’s no real reason to use cars, and all that free space is dedicated to green areas, instead. The project itself looks quite pretty, and I’d definitely go visit if I ever get the chance.

So what do you think? Are suburbs the bee’s knees, or just overall pretty bad? Let us know in the comments below.

The paper “Enduring Features of the North American Suburb: Built Form, Automobile Orientation, Suburban Culture and Political Mobilization” has been published in the journal Urban Planning.

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