Book Review: Rybczynski’s Last Harvest

Posted: January 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, History, Housing, New Urbanism, Urban Development, Urbanism and Planning | 3 Comments »

022.jpg (JPEG Image, 702x527 pixels)Witold Rybczynski’s 2007 book Last Harvest: From Cornfield to New Town is truly a unique book: an accessible, detailed narrative of the process of real estate development. The book describes the construction of a subdivision named New Daleville in southern Chester County in suburban Philadelphia. Or exurban, rather, since the development is over 45 miles from downtown Philadelphia. (More on that in a bit) The subtitle, “Real Estate Development from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway,” suggests the second major component to the book. Interspersed with the story of New Daleville is variety of asides describing the history of residential real estate development and drawing upon Rybczynski’s extensive expertise on the topic. (He is also the author of a history of homes and biography of Frederick Law Olmsted.)

The book features an account of the wrangling with local officials over the subdivision’s site plan, trade-offs on architectural design, technical challenge of providing utilities in a rural area, and the ever-present developer’s bottom line. This rich detail makes it a particularly good introduction to the topic of land development, and it’s little wonder the author is one of the keynote speakers at the American Planning Association conference in Minneapolis this spring. I’ll leave further description of the book to the many reviews that have already been published, whether by the Where Blog, Business Week, or The New York Times.

NewDalevilleSitePlan

Despite the good things about it, I have three main concerns about the conclusions it draws about American urbanism in the 21st Century.

First, the book falls victim to selection bias, presenting a distorted view of the American city and traditional neighborhood design. Although Rybczynski describes New Daleville as “neotraditional” and takes great pains to draw links with well known New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or the Kentlands, Maryland, his subdivision shares little with these famous places. Miles from retail amenities, jobs, water and sewer infrastructure, and any of the myriad of other practical ingredients to actual traditional communities, New Daleville is nothing more than a glorified rural subdivision. It’s much-ballyhooed density (the plan was more dense that other area subdivisions) isn’t very impressive either — 125 homes on 90 acres. Although the developer has proven traditional neighborhood development credentials, this is not the project that embodies them. Furthermore, while I appreciate Rybczynski’s impulse to move beyond the over-studied urban core, he’s far overshot his mark. Located in a rural area far from any city, New Daleville is not characteristic of most residential development.


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Second, Rybczynski omits the powerful role of public policy in shaping the form of American cities. He claims the preponderance of single family homes in America reveal a cultural preference, citing neighborhoods with single-family homes around the world and a cultural tradition traced back to Britain and the low countries in Europe. While I agree that culture has played a role, our policies have shaped urban development in powerful ways. The Interstate Highway System (which at one time meant the federal government funded 90% of state’s cost of new interstate highways) made low-density suburbs an option for urban workers. The federal government single-handedly created the “plain vanilla” 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Before FHA subsidies enforced the type, commercial home mortgages required substantial down payments and short payback periods. The federal government also created the secondary market for mortgages, adding a further incentive for home ownership to the substantial tax benefits. An anecdote in Rybczynski’s chapter on Levittown illustrates this precise issue:

“… at the urging of local government officials, the Levitts offered a two-bedroom rental unit for sixty-five dollars a month. Since the monthly mortgage payment on a Levittowner was sixty dollars, there were few takers, and the so-called Budgeteer was soon discontinued.” (165)

He omits the reason the mortgage was cheaper: FHA insurance. I don’t intend to resolve the culture/policy chicken and egg problem, but a quick international comparison can show how policy can influence the form of housing. The U.S., Britain, and Australia are all relatively wealthy countries sharing historical and cultural ties. As we would expect, they share similar homeownership rates (around 66-69%). However, the profile of their housing stock is quite different: a whopping 31% of housing units in Britain are row homes or semi-detached units, compared to just 5.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Australia outstrips the home-loving U.S. in its popularity of single-family homes. And the percentage of Americans living in multifamily buildings is a healthy 26.3%, so clearly single-family homes aren’t the full story. Here’s the full table:

USA (2000) Britain (2002) Australia (2006)
Home ownership rate: 66.2% 69% 69.8%
Percentage homes single-family, detached: 60.3% 21% 74.4%
Percentage homes semi-detached: 5.6% 31% 9.3%
Percentage homes in multifamily buildings: 26.3% 44% 14.7%
Sources: U.S. Census 2000, SF3 tables British General Household Survey, (2) Australian 2006 Census

These differences are the result of a range of forces: approaches to public housing, transportation policy, geography, environmental protection, and yes, culture.

Lastly, the location of his project means the only form of transportation is the automobile. Although it is true the car is king for most American transportation, the absence of any choice whatsoever is artificial. The American Public Transit Administration estimates only 20% of the country are without some form of public transit service. New Daleville’s residents fall into this minority.

IMG_1426.JPG (JPEG Image, 700x525 pixels)The irony is that I think Rybczynski knows all this, describing in chapter nine in detail why many wouldn’t consider New Daleville “smart growth,” concluding “for hardcore, transit-first, rebuild-the-center-city, regional planning advocates of smart growth, New Daleville is merely more of the same, what they don’t want.” (89) He immediately follows this with a description of how the form of the neighborhood will encourage socialization, reduce stormwater runoff, encourage walking, protect open space, and include shared play areas and public space. These attributes, he writes, “will be small reminders to the people living there that they are not only private homeowners but also members of a community. That will be smarter growth indeed.”

In his 1987 book, historian Robert Fishman described suburbia as “bourgeois utopias,” arguing their cultural origins lay with evangelical Christian men in 19th century London who sought to combine proximity to the city’s jobs with an idyllic, urban residential life free of urban vice. Fishman argues the modern movement of jobs and industry to the periphery has meant the end of true suburbs under his definition. Perhaps Last Harvest is part of the suburban tradition: holding up an idealized, rural, economically unsustainable lifestyle as the best way to live, even if the reality of American cities tells a more complex story.

Fishman observes, “the bourgeois utopia rested on a frighteningly unstable economic base. The bourgeois utopia depended for its survival on market forces that even the bourgeoisie could not control.” It is on this note that emeritus urban planning professor David R. Godschalk closes his generally positive review of Last Harvest in last October’s Urban Land:

It is ironic that Rybczynski, with his magisterial grasp of American development history, did not anticipate fully the impact of the current development downturn. Perhaps the five years that he devoted to studying the project blinded him to the cruel force of the boom-and-bust cycle, especially on vulnerable rural subdivisions remote from an urban real estate market. Today, according to Web and news reports, Ryan Homes is offering a cash-back bonus and up to 60 percent off chosen options, and New Daleville is only about half built out with prices halved to get homes off the market.

In the end, these criticisms aside, Last Harvest opens up the largely mysterious process of land development to a popular audience, laying bare the complex factors that produce urban space. By provoking a dialogue and explaining the contrasting viewpoints of the story’s different actors, Rybczynski does urbanists a service and elevates the conversation around residential development. If it provokes an urban planner to build on the work started by Christopher Leinberger in The Option of Urbanism and pen an equally complex and compelling accessible book in reply, so much the better. That at least is the view of this, “transit-first, rebuild-the-center-city, regional planning advocate of smart growth.”

> Amazon.com: Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville

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3 Comments on “Book Review: Rybczynski’s Last Harvest

  1. 1 Steve Davis said at 10:44 am on January 29th, 2009:

    Hear hear, Rob. A book like that is looking really out of date with all that has happened in the housing market since he started writing it. And having just read Leinberger’s book, it sounds like it’s a backwards-looking head-in-the-mud look at a trend that will all but stop pretty soon. And why in the world he thinks he needs to go into the hinterlands to prove his point is beyond me. And his false dichotomy of “the center city” vs. the “way out there” is laughable. Most of the growth will be metropolitan, whether core city or inner/outer suburbs. Plain and simple.

  2. 2 Daniel Nairn said at 7:36 am on February 2nd, 2009:

    Great review all around. I especially like the comparison between U.S., Australia, and Britain – as a way to control for the historic thread of culture.

    My only quibble is that (unfortunately) there may not be much selection bias going on. For the period he studied, the location of New Daleville is right where I would expect Philadelphia’s exurban frontier to be. I’ve been through the area around Kennett Square a number of times, and it’s been “built-out” with very low-density residential for about a decade or so. New Daleville would seem to be the location of the next wave.

    Of course, as you and Steve, both mention that’s all blown out of the water now wit the housing crisis. Maybe Last Harvest will prove to be even more true to its title than Rybczynki intended. The final gasp of exurban expansion.

  3. 3 Chester County’s new cash crop. « The Hieroglyphic Streets said at 12:22 am on December 31st, 2010:

    [...] the way they do. Crain interviewed Rynczynski as well. Rob Goodspeed sees omissions, but calls it complex, compelling and accessible. Patrick D. Hazard (Broad Street Review) appreciated the explanation of the tasks of preparing land [...]