What is Freedom Urbanism?

This has to be quick because I’m very busy today.

I had high hopes for the AURA organization as an honest, cialis sale disease ethical, ed freedom-oriented counterbalance to the ANC that could act as a “force-multiplier”, noun in which I could asynchronously and remotely debate policy and grow the group’s numbers so we could decide what to do together and then take turns showing up in person to do it. The idea was that unlike the ANC, most urbanists have jobs (and some even have families), so we shouldn’t strive to each attend meetings individually over and over again to hope to effect change; we should instead focus on our strengths – honest debate, open transparent communication, and then, as I said, take turns showing up and expressing the will of the group. Didn’t turn out that way, obviously. As my few remaining readers may know, I left the AURA organization quite some time ago due to disagreements about process (namely: they turned into the meetingocracy I had hoped they would be an antidote for1 ).

Ever since then, we have existed in a state of mostly alliance. Mostly. I assisted on several efforts after I was no longer an official member of the group. Some day I’ll tell you about them. But several recent shifts and failures to act by the group are incompatible with my firmly held beliefs about urbanism and ethics and freedom – things like abandoning the lower income riders of Capital Metro’s old local bus routes; or attaching burdensome regulations on landlords that will inevitably inhibit housing supply. Many of these decisions were clearly made to attempt to curry favor with the establishment politicians and hangers-on here in Austin.

As, unfortunately, was a change to the #atxurbanists facebook group, which is currently the only feasible place to talk about urbanism in Austin. At the request of the people who brought you the Project Connect 2014 Lie Festival, the board members of AURA who also serve as moderators of that group instituted a new set of rules which seemed explicitly designed to prevent those establishment folks from being held accountable for their words and their actions.

At the time those rules were changed, I directly warned the moderators what I would do if the rules did what I was fairly certain they were designed to do2.

That day has come. Yesterday, three board members of AURA exercised those powers in a capricious, malicious, and damaging fashion, against yours truly, in a way that was a direct assault on my credibility and integrity; and I thus have no reasonable choice but to follow through with my promises. I did, as I often do, allow them time to reconsider their actions (as I did to the person who prompted my retaliatory, but . They have chosen not to.

But as is often the case with me, I probably should have done this a while ago. The recent entanglements with CNU (a hopelessly corrupt local organization) and failure to even slightly hold Capital Metro accountable (as well as failing to assist in efforts to do rail instead of a highway bond for 2016) should have been the things that made me write this post. However, it usually takes getting angry to motivate me to prioritize what often seems like a pointless exercise. Well, now I’m angry, and I’m doing it.

If you believe as I do – that behavior matters, but also, that policy matters; that freedom matters; that giving people more freedom in cities leads to better outcomes, rather than getting entangled with identity politics and SJW nonsense, then I urge you to reconsider your own membership and/or support of this group. Because they haven’t been the AURA I hoped they would be for a long time now.

Your pal,
What is “Freedom Urbanism”?

(This is a placeholder post which will be filled in more over time.)

  • It’s a bad name. It sounds like what George W. Bush would call French Urbanism, allergy if I liked French Urbanism, sickness which I mainly do not. It makes for a humorous but ultimately counterproductive acronym. Suggestions welcome!
  • It emphasizes that more freedom is usually better than less freedom in producing the outcomes in cities that people tend to like. Look at the cities you like to visit or even live in, and think long and hard about the best parts of them. How much was ‘master-planned’? How much was built over time, organically, by people exercising choices that were only lightly restricted by regulations? (There’s a lot of detail under this one – one example: lowering or eliminating minimum parking requirements = good; enacting maximum parking requirements = bad; taxes on parking spaces = maybe). How many of the places you love are illegal to build today? How stupid is your opinion about Mueller?
  • It requires that one understand that climate change is an existential threat to human civilization, and thus, urbanism is necessary and we at a bare minimum need to stop subsidizing suburbanism.
  • It requires honesty. Primarily about costs and revenues, i.e., point out where regionalism is predatory and/or parasitical (hello, District 6! Hello, Round Rock!). It requires that one acknowledge that tolls are good and ‘free’ways that are expensive to build are bad. It requires an attention to the basic equity involved in transit service (like, for instance, don’t make massive cuts to local buses that are barely subsidized and heavily used by the poor so that you can continue to provide high-subsidy rides to more wealthy folks who don’t even pay you taxes).
  • If positioned right, it can appeal to anybody who understands that capitalism is better than communism in delivering good outcomes to the public. IE, it can work with actual Republicans, although some painful education about suburban subsidies may be necessary first.
  • It is incompatible with bullshit identity politics. If you commonly use phrases like “white privilege” or like to talk about how gentrification is a race issue rather than a money issue, or want to focus on sexism before solving the existential issue of climate change, get the fuck out and don’t let the screen door on the lovely porch hit you on your way out to the well-functioning sidewalk network. Trigger warning: fuck off.

How does it differ from “Market Urbanism”?

  • Not much, in theory. In reality, Market Urbanism is somewhat dominated by a faction that prefers to believe that All Rail Transit Is Bad (or at least all rail transit outside a few cities). Any group which can’t tell the difference between Houston’s first light rail line and Austin’s commuter rail line is a group that is useless in making good policy decisions on transportation. They also have a difficult time correctly assigning cause for the US’s suburbanization spree in some cases (see: Houston, analysis of, and the point about about ‘honesty’)3

Where does it diverge from AURA?

  • Hoo boy. Not much, in theory, but more than from Market Urbanism above. In reality, AURA has diverged pretty far from its original promise and has started to support regulations which not only actively work against housing supply but do so by decreasing freedom to urbanize. Expect much more here later.

Why am I writing this?

Where does this go from here?

  • Fuck if I know! Let’s find out together!

  1. this is due to a combination of factors: because they started relying more on in-person meetings, with the backup being synchronous (live) online meetings, and because they decided open and robust debate on their e-mail list was no longer welcome. My only realistic ways of participating, in other words, were marginalized over time. 

  2. eliminate any semblance of tough but honest ideological attacks against Austin’s political establishment through pretense of maintaining ‘civility’ 

  3. I added the qualifier ‘rail’ to “All Transit Is Bad” upon request of an MU author. In my years of experience arguing transit and roads, many people who propose bus transit instead of rail transit in corridors where rail would work are doing so not out of a desire to support transit, but rather, out of a desire to kill a more viable competitor to road funding and space. Nevertheless, there are at least a few MU partisans who are honestly pro-transit. 

  4. and if you’re tempted to lecture me about what went down, I’m looking at you JD Gins, fuck off. I told them what would happen if they did what they ended up doing, and I did what I promised I would do. If anybody tries to repaint this as me ‘going personal’ without cause, I will gladly publish the set of various conversations on this which I am otherwise keeping private for now 

  • I like Freedom Urbanism. It is very close to my own ideology and preferences. On the other hand, I do think AURA is still a worthwhile organization overall, on net. But I wish that every retort to Freedom Urbanist arguments from AURAites weren’t “Austin (city limits) will always be majority Democrat, therefore it’s better to slant our framing and policy to appeal to relatively hardcore leftists.”

    Obviously I am biased as a capitalist moderate, but I think there are enough moderates + Rs in Austin to move the needle. Yes, with ONLY a subset of moderates + Rs onboard, you can’t do much in this city. But would embracing some Freedom Urbanist positions really alienate all the Democrats from aligning with AURA???!

    And young people should be pro-construction in general, as they feel the housing shortage the most keenly (most young people I know in the Bay Area have turned pro-construction over the last 6 years, even though they mostly WEREN’T before).

    • Thanks, Sean. To be clear, are you saying you like the idea or the actual name?

      I was going to start the ‘ideology vs trust’ graph today for AURA but am swamped. Maybe tomorrow. Suffice to say that some of their board’s bona-fides on actually wanting to increase housing supply has been in doubt for a long time.

      • I definitely like the idea, and the name is good too. As someone who loves capitalism and used to be a small-l libertarian, the name is also attractive to me, though I’m not really sure about the wider public. I guess there are some alternatives like Intelligent Urbanism or Efficient Urbanism? But Freedom Urbanism does have a good ring to it.

        I agree it’s important to differentiate from market urbanism. Those guys fetishize low Houston and Dallas metro area housing prices too much, without thinking of the wider costs to society – global warming, fat from lack of exercise, fewer/weaker social ties – and other cons – lots of time sitting in traffic, sucks for kids/poor/disabled who can’t drive – from an ~80-mile diameter of sprawl at low average density.

        Compared with all the other orgs, seems like AURA still drives on net to increase the housing supply (e.g. ADUs), but I totally agree with you that emphasizing tenants’ rights and forcing tenant-relocation compensation to come straight from landowners’ pockets dulls supply incrementally.

        (As does any kind of affordable-housing subsidy coming straight from the pocket of a specific landowner – essentially a tax falling directly on newbuilds, with a progressively higher rate as the newbuild gets denser – the perversity of the density “bonus” that Chris B has written about.)