I am a self-professed critic of sprawl development which unfortunately isn’t saying much because any urban planner especially in this new age of planning is exactly that. Yet we see sprawling sub-divisions crop up everywhere around us and chances are that we will end up living in one of these cookie-cutter homes that we so love to hate. Call it trying to do the best thing for your children or just finding a good deal on your investment dollars, we see that in spite of the growing criticism of sub-division development, it continues to flourish. So are we just trapped in our ivory tower while the common people go about making the perfectly rational choice?
Witold Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and the acclaimed author of Home and A Clearing in a Distance tackles this paradox in a subtle narrative of his experiences of a new development in his latest book, Last Harvest – How a Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-first Century, and why we live in Houses Anyway. If the title and the subtitle hasn’t tired you, I’m sure it certainly has piqued your interest. Simon and Schuster was kind enough to send me a review copy because the conflict of promoting new urbanism in the face of persistent popular choice for regular homes has always been a subject of interest for me. Rybczynski takes us along on the slow path of a real-life development of a residential sub-division in rural Pennsylvania called New Daleville. Located on a former cornfield, New Daleville was conceptualized by its developers as a neotraditional development, complete with homes built close to each other to encourage a sense of intimacy and community.
Rybczynski assumes the role of a bystander as he witnesses the often slow-moving process of real estate development that is often fraught with bureaucratic redtape and technical limitations. However, at no point do we sense a feeling of hopelessness or exasperation with the process but instead reveal in the everyday process of getting things done in the real world. At one point in the book, Rybczynski shares an incident regarding disposal of treated waste water and how an unexpected change in plans requires working around a sub-optimal solution that would inordinately delay the project. As students in architecture or land development school, we often tend to overlook such petty details but in the real world, they often tend to be the biggest obstacles in getting the work done.
The underlying theme of the book is utilizing and remaining true to the form of neotraditional development. We read plenty of background literature on the development of New Urbanism and Celebration and Seaside, Florida make repeated appearances in the narrative. While arguing for a different perspective in our living, Rybczynski does not shy away from emphasizing the decisions of owning a home and even having larger bathrooms as perfectly in line with our real-world needs. Rybczynski underlines the fact that new residential development although encroaching on natural agricultural land need not resort to unoriginal cookie-cutter homes that we have come to hate. Customized home building that emphasizes on architectural treatment of facades gives as much importance to the exterior as it lends a subtle yet strong complementary effect on the neighborhood. This effect on the community is not lost on the developers who are not only selling a house but are also looking to create a community that blends in with the rest of the town.
Overall, I quite liked the book. It was an easy and refreshing read quite different from overbearing polemics that often chastise us for giving in to our selfish need and indulging in sprawl-encouraging homes. Rybczynski’s book gives us an insight into how the developers understand this growing need for neotraditional development and highlights their efforts through this engaging anecdotal read.