New urbanism is an interesting thing in many regards. Some enjoy the idea, while others continue to remain skeptical about the development strategy. Last Harvest takes a look at a new urbanist development called New Daleville, located in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The idea of taking existing agricultural farmland and turning it into such a development is uncharted territory for this part of southeastern Pennsylvania, and we get a front row seat to see how it all went down. Not long after the reader gets into the book, they can not help but to wonder: “will this actually work?” Of course, we keep reading in order to find out.
The author, Witold Rybczynski, takes us on a journey through all stages of development. We see all the successes and challenges that are encountered along the way, including insights into the development, local politics, planning obstacles, back stories of the key players in the process, and how to deal with members of the public. Rybczynski gives a very clear picture of what the process is like. While narrated from his viewpoint, it is done without a detectable personal bias or political slant to speak of.
The book itself is non-fiction; this is the real story of a real development. Rybczynski wrote the book from 2002-2006 (Rybczynski, 2007, 284) during the duration of the New Daleville project, even before it was known as New Daleville. It was published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster out of New York on hardcover, and later on paperback.
While any journalist who was along for the ride could have told the mere facts of how the development progressed to us, it is Rybczynski professional insight that makes the book a worthwhile read. This is Rybczynski’s 14th book in a career that includes titles such as “City Life”, “Home”, and “The Look of Architecture”. In addition to his books, he has written countless articles and contributes to numerous periodicals on the subjects of urbanism and architecture. Rybczynski was appointed by president Bush in 2005 to the Commission of Fine Arts to oversee buildings, parks, and memorials in Washington DC in 2005 and teaches Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design (NBM, 2007). This background in urban study takes the book from a factual account of events to a living story about what the real world of land development is all about.
Rybczynski’s one clear bias is that he favors the idea of the new urbanist walkable, friendly community. Much of the prologue is a detailed description of a place called Chestnut Hill, a community inside of Philadelphia where Rybczynski and his wife reside. Setting us up with how they decided to go on walks together 20 years ago, he takes us for a walk around his neighborhood. We hear about the local culture and how different people behave, such as how people new to the neighborhood will work on long-needed repairs or pay special attention to their gardens for a certain period of time before completely settling into Chestnut Hill life (Rybczynski, 2007, 4).
While there is no explicit stating of this is what the book is about, the author’s well speaking Chestnut Hill tells us in so many words that communities like this are a good. Places were people walk safely and experience “old American” kind of charm make for good places to live. In order to achieve this goal, you need well-planned communities. The reason for this book seems to be, in essence, the point that pastoral Chestnut Hill is no happy accident. it was designed to look the way it does, and Last Harvest tells us the story of how places like this come to be (Rybczynski, 2007, 4). As the reader, you see what Rybczynski is getting at, and you start the book with the idea that new urbanist communities are, at the very least, interesting and worth learning more about. The walk around town gets the reader thinking “this sounds like a place I might want to live”, and proceeds to set the stage for how it is accomplished.
The place that Rybczynski sets us up to see is not his fabled Chestnut Hill, but a new development: a residential development in a rural area. Aside from the agriculture side of rural life, most people will move to the countryside to avoid more development. Rybczynski quickly introduces us to long time friend of his, Joe Duckworth, who has been asked by township planning consultant Tom Comitta to put together a plan for what to do with the land that is to be developed, called by Comitta the “Wrigley tract”. Londonderry Township had been looking for something new to do with the 90 acres of land they have to work with, and this was Comitta’s approach to making it work.
Comitta had introduced the township to neotraditional development, getting them on board with a trip to a planned community. Luckily for him, people were interested in seeing what the alternatives were to the tired layout plans that they had seen. Rybczynski tells us that Comitta had gotten such people on board as three township supervisors, the township engineer, as well as members of the planning commission (Rybczynski, 2007, 14). The way Rybczynski created the positive feel of the new urbanist setting for us as readers, Comitta brought it to life for Londonderry Township. By creating a positive impression and winning over the Londonderry officials, the initial steps are laid in creating a neotraditional development.
The resort community of Seaside, Florida is credited with it’s own chapter in Last Harvest, stressing the importance of being able to combine the modern town with the old fashioned features people enjoy in small towns. The Seaside example is important for a number of reasons. It shows how the new urbanist model can come to life: walkable neighborhoods, close-knit communities, well designed streets, aesthetically pleasing architecture, and small lots combined with open public space. They were new towns and developments that could keep the values of small rural towns. Rybczynski claims that the old towns carry the ideal of “neighborly democracy, self sufficiency, and independence” (Rybczynski, 2007, 20), and it is easy to see where you could agree with that. With supporting arguments from others and data suggesting that people prefer to live in small towns, it is a point that the reader would struggle to argue with. While at this stage in my life I very much prefer living right outside of a downtown area as I do now, I gained perspective on why people liked living in smaller towns, and it made me curious enough to put a note under my hat that would remind me to checkout Seaside, if I was ever in the neighborhood.
Rybczynski also points out places like Disney’s own Celebration, Florida and the Chester County development Weatherstone as other neotraditional places. Celebration is hailed for the well-planned neotraditional development that it is, and Weatherstone is criticized for not having enough variation in the development. As Rybczynski states, “the development, design, and construction are done by the same company, so even the attempts at variety have a sense of sameness” (Rybczynski, 2007, 147).
We are provided with interesting insight into the way that houses are built, and why they are built to the design standards that they are. I’ve been a creative person for as long as I can remember, so for much of my life I have wondered why houses are built in a certain way. In most cases, we do not see strikingly different or unusual architectural styles, layouts, or even walls painted a color other than something vaguely resembling white (especially in newer developments). There is a certain allure to the common denominator of housing design, and that is the resale value. Despite my fondness of creative and unusual design, Rybczynski notes that people want homes they can resell, which the reader can safely assume is a reason as to why there aren’t many custom built or designed homes. Even in New Daleville, new homeowners were only given options on the homes being built, nothing that would be built from the ground up as a custom development.
New construction ideas are risky, so builders tend to stick with what works. Rybczynski talks about how split-level homes were popular with the public in the 1950s, but once Americans fell out of love with the idea the houses stopped selling. As such, “no one builds ranch houses or split-levels anymore” (Rybczynski, 2007, 210). If you drive around any new development, you can see that he is exactly correct. Rybczynski points out that (large) builders will build houses that are designed to work best with the production system developed by the builder. This allows for a standard “design” of the homes as well as ease of adding extras if the new homeowner desires it.
If we examine this point of view, we are able to learn something about not just the home-buying process, but about people in general. They want a safe bet, something that will work. This is one instance where both the builders and the homeowners are on the same page: give the world something that will sell. I personally found it interesting the risks that they were willing to take as opposed to the ones that they were not. After all, this village-style new urbanist development in itself is quite a risk. A developer does not want to build something nobody wants to buy, and the new homeowner does not want to be one of only 5 people living in the entire development due to bad sales. Nonetheless, the issue of people wanting the safe bet is larger than the book makes it out to be, as it touches on every single part of the development. From the location, to the architecture, to the layout of the house and everything that will be a part of it.
The builders know what people want in their homes, and as such there are sacrifices in design, architecture and other aspects of the house. While Rybczynski tells us that the builders have a lot of lead-way in their designs, as the land company “doesn’t know how to specify good design” and “builders…understand what sells houses, and we don’t want to tell them what to do (Rybczynski, 2007, 124-125). Rybczynski makes note of how the development is going to use a lot of vinyl siding, which is not uncommon for any new development. At this point in the book, you begin to wonder how much of a factor is aesthetics and how much is cost.
Ryan Homes’ Mike Linthicum addresses that later, saying that brick adds about fifteen thousand dollars into the cost, and that people usually opt for interior upgrades over exterior upgrades. He also mentions that they will in all likelihood price brick lower just to bait some customers into adding more variety to the development (Rybczynski, 2007, 216). No other kinds of siding are mentioned, nor do we see much variety of this in new developments that are going up all over the country.
While interior developments add more to the creature comforts of a home, it is exterior architecture that initially draws me to a building personally. I would reason that this is why we see more external architectural liberties taken with commercial buildings than with residential homes. In the residential world, people want to feel at home, in the commercial world, the business has a certain image to project to the world.
When dealing with a radically new development can bring a lot of resistance from the public. After all, they moved out to Chester County to get away from things like small lot sizes. So in trying to get a development such as New Daleville off the ground, the land company and the developers have to make a very strong selling point. The reader is introduced into a world of politics and people, both on the levels of township and (mostly overlooked in the real world) county government as well as how to deal with people individually. These inclusions make the book a lot more versatile than it would be otherwise. In addition to being a good introduction to the planning process, we are also given insight into the building process and political process as well. Rybczynski paints a full spectrum picture from the commercial side of the development. But how does a land company win over people to take on a new development such as this?
The first step in this process is getting land zoning changed from industrial to residential. Depending on how married the town is to their master plan, this could vary from a cakewalk to an uphill battle depending on the community. To get the public on board, Joe Duckworth and the Arcadia Land Company decide to show the town what this idea of “neotraditional design” is all about and sets up a bus trip to a similar development. Pictures and video are all well and good, but Duckworth has certainly done the right thing in going the extra mile. When you know you are facing a struggle, you have to get creative. The addition of the movie on the bus for sincerity is also a nice touch, so that the Londonderry residents can hear first hand what people love about these new developments. The trip turns out well, and going the extra mile is proven to work for the developers.
The township meeting described in chapter eight is a fantastic example of any and everything that someone might encounter at a board meeting. Numerous questions are addressed; almost all are about the quality of life and the cost. More people means more traffic, more need for police, fire, etc. The development may potentially change the value of existing homes in the community, and it may in fact increase school taxes if more school children move into the area. While the citizens are obviously very concerned about their community, Joe Duckworth takes everything in stride. He even sports casual dress for the meeting. Although Rybczynski does not outright say it, the message here is clear: “business attire” is not an across the board solution for how to present yourself. You have to tailor your message, and yourself, to the audience.
Rybczynski gives us an example of the type of person who would be at such a meeting. It would appear from the examples that they are people in the community or surrounding areas with either personal pet issues or a genuine interest in the overall progress of their town, yet they are not experts in the field. It shows that you must know every facet of the development in order to have answers for any question that comes your way. We are given the example of a resident who has “obviously taken the time to read the document (ordinance)” and has concerns about the open land use, but does not know what kind of building would be able to occupy that space and is worried about something like a Wal-Mart setting up shop there (Rybczynski, 2007, 75). Duckworth, swift on his notion, is able to immediately put the concerns at ease. Even if he fails to completely win over his audience, we as readers get to see how the whole process is done.
Upon finishing Last Harvest, I immediately had my impression of development and planning changed from what I had previously envisioned (which in all reality was based on pre-conceived notions without much factual basis). I began thinking long and hard about what it was I was getting into with my enrollment in a planning program, and while it was a lot to take in, I found personally that I enjoy challenges and the book shows that challenges are something you will find at every facet of this process.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and was pleasantly surprised that something so new to me would be so interesting (although I suspect that my own curiosity may have had a strong role in that). What has stuck with me the most after reading and re-reading the book was not the development itself but the process that you go through to get something built. To be in this business, you have to know what you want and how to get it. That means being able to foresee every possible obstacle and have a plan in place for when you arrive at that point.
From Rybczynski’s viewpoint, he created a good view of why people enjoy these kinds of developments and how they come about. Much of the book, while it is about New Daleville in particular, is just as much about selling the reader on the idea of new urbanism. As such, it is anything but an objective viewpoint. The only real opposing arguments that we get are from the local residents or the occasional remark from a developer about how something does not always work, or that there is no solution for a problem just yet, so they keep on trying new things.
While I agree with Rybczynski on many areas, I felt that the pushing of the new urbanist ideas go too far. The planning and design communities still have the jury out on this, and it is yet to be seen if this is the way to go, and if we are doing it right. The people who speak out against the new urbanism in Last Harvest are locals with their own interests in mind, who fail to present a well-educated view. Or if they do, it only applies to the New Daleville development in particular. Rybczynski presents us with entire chapters on the successes of these kinds of developments in other parts of the world. In doing so, he shows obvious bias by not even giving rebuttal to the ideas. I see no reason why could not have devoted a small section to the reasons that people do not care for developments such as New Daleville.
Where the book truly shines is how it ties the entire process together. We are introduced to large planning issues, such as drainage and septic problems, dealing with neighboring communities, etc and how they are dealt with in order to make the process work. The residual message seems to implicitly be that in order to make developments like this come to life, you have to be more crafty and creative than your obstacles.
Overall, the book was a pleasure to read. It not only kept me interested in what was going on, but there was an interesting element of suspense whenever a new issue was brought up. I found myself asking questions such as “how are they going to pull that off”, and was usually surprised by the answer as I searched for alternatives myself. By writing the book in a casual and conversational tone, Rybczynski makes the story easy to read and follow, and your mind can focus on your own personal questions and get your mind working instead of trying to decipher a particular writing style. With the exception of not including an opposite view of New Urbanism, I found that most material was covered very well and the contents of the text were well covered.
The book has great value in planning and policy. With the overall coverage from numerous angles of the process, there is a great lot that anyone interested in planning, development, building, construction, or local government would be able to get from it. Rybczynski did a fine job of accomplishing his goals of introducing us to both new urbanism and the building process in general, as well as the smaller residual messages about how to get things done that are touched on throughout the book.
Being a college professor, Rybczynski shows that he is good at stimulating the mind of his students by getting the readers of Last Harvest thinking from the moment they pick up the book. You wonder what would have happened during different phases of the development had one thing gone a different way, or if the first ideas tried did not work as well as planned. This is not a book that you stop thinking about once you have finished it. I even found myself driving by new developments and wondering how the local township was sold on this particular idea. So not only was the book provocative during the process, but it has proven to raise questions on development and challenge my thinking long after I have finished it. It was a great pleasure to read and I’m sure will be sitting on my bookshelf for years to come.
Rybczynski, W. (2007). Last Harvest: How a cornfield became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in American from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-first Century and Why We Live in Houses Anyway.
National Building Museum NBM (January 17, 2007)
Witold Rybczynski. Retrieved from http://www.nbm.org/support-us/awards__honors/scully-prize/witold-rybczynski.html