Lewis McCrary covered the state of New Urbanism, traditional architecture, suburbia, and more with City Journal assistant editor Charles F. McElwee. McCrary, executive editor of The American Conservative, began his career in journalism as an editorial assistant and later senior editor at the magazine. Before returning to TAC, he was managing editor of The National Interest and Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, RealClearPolitics, The Atlantic, and Next City. He now resides in central Indiana with his wife and two young sons.
How is New Urbanism—the idea of traditional design practices that promote walkable, viable communities—faring in America’s suburbs?
Americans are still building unsustainable sprawl, but there are signs that people want to live in more traditional pre-World War II neighborhoods. Rather than simply ban sprawl, the New Urbanism movement has always been about creating more choices for developers—making it possible to build the kinds of places that were previously either illegal or discouraged by some planning commissions. Narrower streets, for example, which promote a sense of enclosure and community, are often blocked by fire chiefs or traffic engineers. Now that the New Urbanist movement is quite mature, and its own architects and planners have numerous resources, it can fight NIMBYism and promote policies that allow for more vibrant development, such as mixed-use zoning or permitting accessory dwelling units (garage or alley cottages in backyards). Settled baby boomers have the upper hand, but later generations are often priced out of the more expensive metro areas—and want more options and more affordability.
What are America’s best contemporary examples—city, town, or neighborhood—of architecturally rich, human-scale communities?
Suburban towns built in the railroad age are still faring well, architecturally and fiscally. The Main Line of Philadelphia, for example, is still a great example of how to do suburban development that will last for generations. More contemporary New Urbanist developments tend to lack things like rail infrastructure that enable high quality of life. That’s not the fault of the New Urbanists, but of the federal government, with its decision to build primarily one type of transportation—-highways—since World War II. Blame Eisenhower for that one!
What role can traditional architecture play in our polarized society?
If we care for places and buildings worth loving, as opposed to the landscape of strip malls made to decay in one generation, it might slow the fracture—literally and figuratively. The historic-preservation movement has come a long way from the quaint house museums and teas of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Now real estate developers see pre-1940 buildings as assets in traditional main streets that are hard to recreate. Construction of new traditional architecture is often expensive, but perhaps some developers and consumers will see the value of building for beauty and community.
In a recent essay for The American Conservative, “The Big-Box Mirage,” you wrote about how large retail stores have failed to strengthen communities. In Indiana, where you live, are communities repeating the mistakes of the past?
In my own small town, we are already on our second Walmart site, and the accompanying creation of more public infrastructure, with little population growth. Who will cover the bills in 20 years, when the superstore will be looking pretty tired? As with many areas, our 1960s shopping mall closed its indoor section years ago and is hanging on as a large strip mall with a supermarket. In some parts of the Rust Belt, we might be getting by, but there is little growth and wealth creation. Are my local CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart helping build community wealth, or are they making a lot of money selling yet more opioids?
What is an overlooked trend occurring in the U.S.?
The Acela-corridor cities and its gentrified neighborhoods have lots of amenities such as bicycle-sharing, Uber, and insta-everything delivery. I appreciate all that innovation, but I wonder if the new wealth of San Francisco and New York will trickle down to the wider country.
One hopeful sign is that many neighborhoods and smaller cities are beginning to take local responsibility for building lasting and prosperous places. After the post-World War II central planning disasters of “urban renewal,” this is really a return to the older American tradition—not so much the magic of the free market, but rather to the associational life that was celebrated by Tocqueville. For example, we should be heartened when citizens are creative about how to save a derelict Main Street building, rather than waiting for a big corporate chain to come and save it. One related trend is the Strong Towns movement, which largely emerged from New Urbanism, and has also fostered a lot of grassroots concern about the fiscal unsustainability of the old suburban arrangements.
More than trendy “smart cities,” ordinary citizens must work to strengthen and sustain the particular places they care about. These movements are not calling for a grand theory or solution, but incremental improvements that stand the test of time. Reading municipal balance sheets might help.
What are you reading?
I’ve been reading Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns book. I’ve also been digesting the new Library of America compilation of Joan Didion’s essays and novels from the 1960s and 1970s. Didion is primarily known for her first-person “New Journalism” documenting the sexual revolution and other societal upheavals, but she was also something of an urbanist. She wrote about such postwar phenomena as shopping malls, the massive L.A. freeway system, and the California aqueducts that made that state’s population growth explode in a couple of generations.
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