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What Urbanists’ Doug Burgum Lovefest Reveals About the ‘Why’ Behind Our Advocacy

I am far less interested in talking about Gov. Doug Burgum's politics than talking about his values, and how those values shape his urbanism, and thus the actual lives of the people he governs.

Photo: Gage Skidmore|

The governor said some good things, but context matters.

The other day, I woke up to a social media timeline full of urbanists singing the praises of North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

I understood why, to a point. In a now-viral clip (below), Burgum delivered the kind of impassioned, articulate refusal of exclusionary zoning that advocates like me have been dying to hear our politicians give for years, arguing that the controversial policy "was great for people who built roads, and it was great for the car companies — and then we built cities all over America that were designed for automobiles and not designed for people."

Later, Burgum connected the need for zoning reform to some of the issues that I and other sustainable transportation advocates care about most, bemoaning our national lack of "investment into building the infrastructure for multimodal transportation" and highlighting the role of car dependency in swelling housing costs.

That these urbanist talking points were coming out of the mouth of the governor of a mostly rural, blood-red state seemed to amaze a lot of the people I follow.

It did not amaze me.

I've been familiar with Doug Burgum since he took office in 2016, when the former software CEO turned billionaire politico quickly became known in bipartisan urbanist circles as one of the most prominent Republicans to engage in our issues. At the time, I admired this; it was refreshing to hear a nationally known fiscal conservative point out the utter incoherence of blanketing the country in auto-centric infrastructure that we can't afford to maintain, and to recognize that the individual freedoms much of his party otherwise espouses are far from identical with the "freedom" to drive — especially as we increasingly lose our freedom to walk, bike, roll, and ride transit.

But that was before Burgum signed onto a bill that would ban abortion after six weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest, essentially ensuring that a pregnant person in Bismarck would be forced to travel at least 200 miles to access the procedure at the nearest clinic across state lines — a trip, by the way, that takes nearly twice as long on an intercity bus as it does in car.

That was before he signed bills criminalizing doctors for providing gender-affirming healthcare to minors — again, functionally requiring families to travel hundreds of miles to access what are often life-saving treatments — along with bills banning trans people themselves from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, among a raft of other discriminatory legislation that makes even the most "walkable" cities actively hostile to gender non-conforming people.

That was before I learned of Burgum's support for extractive domestic oil projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would only be partially offset by his admirable support for other policies that could help take the country to net zero, like transportation reform — especially when you consider the impacts of these projects beyond the climate alone.

That was before he banned North Dakota schools from teaching children "that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality" — which, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows, is fundamental to understanding things like exclusionary zoning and why we have the road network we have.

So when I saw Doug Burgum was going viral, I posted something that was, admittedly, a little spicy.

The response was .... divided, to say the least.

Within the space of a day, I was flooded with messages both from people who thanked me for putting Burgum's comments in a larger context, and those who reviled me for refusing to praise a much-needed ally to the urbanist cause.

I was accused of throwing Burgum's visionary urbanist baby out with the draconian social policy bathwater — even though I have spent literally my entire professional career advocating for urbanist policies.

I was accused of "tribalism" and egging on a "culture war" and told I was deepening an already unsurmountable partisan divide — even though I at no point mentioned Burgum's political party, or my own.

I was accused of never having been to the Midwest (I have lived in Missouri for 13 years and grew up in Michigan and Ohio), of never having been to North Dakota (I have), of being a liberal, a Democrat, a socialist, a leftist, and a communist (Streetsblog is a 501(c)3, but suffice it to say: it's complicated.)

Perhaps most disturbingly, I was told that abortion, and trans health care, and critical race theory have nothing to do with urbanism, so I should leave them out of the conversation.

Let's get one thing clear that I assumed would be blazingly obvious: I do not need a lecture about the importance of reaching across the political aisle, and this tweet was not about shoving Gov. Burgum back into his pew.

If Burgum's comments had been delivered in the context of a stump speech for an actual zoning reform bill, rather than a super-cut from a random conference panel, I probably would have given it my full-throated support, regardless of who wrote that legislation — and fought for him to bring the rest of his platform in line with this important policy.

If I were a North Dakotan whose vote he was trying to win, I would have considered his support for urbanism alongside his larger track record and run the same calculus I have run in every voting booth I've entered. By now, I have spent most of my life in politically diverse states; I have never voted for a perfect candidate, and I have voted in every election. And more to the point, I have spent most of my professional and personal life in community with people across the political spectrum, probably to a greater degree than most people who read my work even realize.

My problem with this moment of mass urbanist adulation for Doug Burgum has nothing to do with the fact that he is a Republican, or even a conservative. For the purposes of this specific post, at least, I was far less interested in talking about Gov. Burgum's politics than talking about his values, and how those values shape his urbanism, and thus the actual lives of the people he governs.

Here's the thing: when I talk about urbanism — a poorly defined Rorschach test of a word that I'll use, here, to refer to policies that support housing-rich, multi-modal, human-scaled places — I am not actually talking about how we design our cities. I am talking about how we use the design of our cities to make our values real.

Some of us come to urbanism because we value non-violence, and so road diets and sidewalks become tools to minimize bloodshed on our streets. For others, it's about restoring individual freedoms, and restoring the right to put "the coffee shop, the barbershop, [and] the law firms back into residential neighborhoods" becomes a manifestation of that principle, to quote Gov. Burgum. Sometimes it's about racial equity, and repairing communities torn apart by highways becomes a powerful lever to restore what BIPOC communities have had stolen from them.

There is always a "why" behind our urbanism, if not several working at once. And those "why's," whether we have named them or not, have powerful implications for how we actually do the work of re-imagining our places — and who will be around to enjoy them once they're built.

When we talk about the values behind someone's support for urbanist policies, it can help explain how politicians like Burgum can talk brilliantly about reducing car dependency while simultaneously enacting policies that would require people who want to end a pregnancy to take a 200 mile road trip they may not be able to afford — if not longer if the clinic on the border can't grant them an appointment in time.

It helps explain why he can speak eloquently about the power of zoning reform to bring housing costs down, but not the many other barriers to affordable shelter even when supply is abundant, like housing discrimination, which is rampant in North Dakota, and the racial wealth gap itself, which is wider in that state than any other besides the District of Columbia.

It helps explains why a democratic US DOT awards billions of dollars for projects intended to "reconnect" marginalized "communities" by putting caps over highways that they are simultaneously paying to widen, bulldozing hundreds of homes and pouring pollution over those who remain in the process.

Here's the thing: the "whys" behind my urbanism — to the extent that I consider myself an urbanist at all, which is a term I sometimes I struggle to claim — have everything to do with the socially regressive policies I called out in my post about Doug Burgum.

I advocate for things like bike lanes and zoning reform only insofar as they are essential tools to decarbonize our planet, to make our cities less horrifically violent, and to provide struggling people with access to lives that allow them to survive and thrive. That includes access to abortion care and gender-confirming care, which are matters of life and death for a lot of people I love. That includes access to opportunity and reparation for BIPOC communities, which starts with basic education about the structural reasons how transportation and all our other systems continue to curtail that access. All these values may be coded blue in the minds of users of a certain social media platform, but for the record, I share them with more than a few conservative urbanists I admire.

And while this might surprise some folks who would put me in a box, I also share a pretty important "why" with Doug Burgum: I think it is critically important that we reduce the "linear feet of sewer, water, sidewalks, and roads," because that can reduce the cost of living for American families, and the costs of providing those families basic services for American governments. I believe it is critically important that we reduce the amount of public money we burn on our transportation network for the benefit of automakers and their associated industries, especially when those dollars are so badly needed in other sectors.

But I also believe this: when we make financial solvency our only "why" — or even our primary "why" — we run the risk of throwing vulnerable communities under the bus just so we can have more buses, or housing density, or whatever other "urbanist" feature we mistake for our actual objective. That is not to say we should not fight alongside those who do for critical changes to our built environment and legal landscape; it is to say that once we win, should not be surprised when our divergent principles yield radically different visions of what that change actually looks like, and who it actually serves.

Urbanism can, and should, and certainly does, bring Americans of diverse political backgrounds under the same tent. But there is a difference between making strategic compromises to work with "strange bedfellows," and sacrificing the core values that drove us to build the tent in the first place. If urbanists are to be more than theme park designers, we always need to remember our "why" — and we need to recognize when we've lost the plot.

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