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Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

by Witold Rybczynski
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 17, 2007 0743235967 978-0743235969
When Witold Rybczynski first heard about New Daleville, it was only a developer's idea, attached to ninety acres of cornfield an hour and a half west of Philadelphia. Over the course of five years, Rybczynski met and talked to everyone involved in the building of this residential subdivision -- from the developers to the township leaders, whose approval they needed, to the home builders and engineers and, ultimately, the first families who moved in.

Always eloquent and illuminating, the award-winning author of Home and A Clearing in the Distance looks at this "neotraditional" project, with its houses built close together to encourage a sense of intimacy and community, and explains the trends in American domestic architecture -- from where we place our kitchens and fences to why our bathroomsget larger every year.

Last Harvest was voted one of the ten best books of 2008 by the editors of Planetizen, and as Publishers Weekly said, "Rybczynski provides historical and cultural perspectives in a style reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, debunking the myth of urban sprawl and explaining American homeowners' preference for single-family dwellings."

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Architecture critic Rybczynski spent four and a half years observing the progress of New Daleville, a residential subdivision designed by one of his former students in a "neotraditional" style that builds houses close together on smaller-than-usual lots in order to foster a stronger sense of community. He is there to witness every stage of development, from the purchase of a large tract of land in rural Pennsylvania through meetings with local community leaders to get planning approval, to the moment when a family moves into one of the first completed units. The account is forthright about the difficulties New Daleville's creators face in making the project work, but Rybczynski (A Clearing in the Distance, etc.) remains optimistic that "the small lots [and] narrow streets... will all make sense" in the future. Occasionally, he provides historical and cultural perspective in a style reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, debunking the myth of urban sprawl and explaining American homeowners' preference for single-family dwellings. But Rybczynski also excels at the "close-up," John McPhee's method of reporting, where every interview reads like an intimate conversation, and a simple walk down neighborhood sidewalks can reveal a wealth of history. This charming mixture of reportage and social criticism fits comfortably on the shelf next to David Brooks's On Paradise Drive. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Residential real estate development seems like an unlikely topic for a gripping read, and certainly Rybczynski can't be said to have produced a page-turner. But the author of The Perfect House (2002), among other books, and an architecture critic, most recently for Slate, brings considerable stores of knowledge, curiosity, and writing skill to this readable and at times even suspenseful book about a developer's process of building an exurban subdivision in rural Pennsylvania. In a style that is both digressive (he reviews land development patterns as far back as George Washington's day) and leisurely (including long quotes from sources in the manner of Tracy Kidder), Rybczynski follows the project through its conceptual stages, the politically tricky zoning permits process, and community approvals, to, finally, its finished state as a neotraditional "village" community. Along the way, we learn how land gets developed in the era of the new urbanism and pro- and anti-growth debates, and why so many Americans choose to live in suburbs (as opposed to denser city centers) despite often lengthy commutes. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743235967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743235969
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #250,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically-acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance. His latest book is The Biography of a Building. The recipient of the National Building Museum's 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Read his blog at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
"The last harvest" refers to farmers who sell, and jealously covet their right to sell, portions of their farms to developers for housing developments. In his book Rybczynski, as the book's long subtitle makes clear, gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at how one such tract of land became a neo-traditional rural development, New Daleville, Pennsylvania. Rybczynski writes in a level-headed style without any sense of alarm. There is no good guys/bad guys polarity here, just a lot of people trying to make a living (or find a decent and affordable place to live) in unpredictable economic situations without sacrificing the things they value most in community. If Rybczynski has a point of view other than that of an intelligent, informed social observer who has been writing about architecture and urban development for decades, he keeps it well in check. For readers looking for ammunition, this may be a disappointing read.

Many players are introduced--local farmers looking to sell their land, land developers, zoning boards, building contractors, banking and public officials, sanitation specialists, nearby residents, and potential buyers--but no personal profile dominates the story. They merely come in and out of view like passers-by on the much coveted sidewalks of the "village core" in one of the neotraditional garden exurbs Rybczynski describes. This superficiality made the book a little less interesting to me than his earlier books, like CITY LIFE and WAITING FOR THE WEEKEND, in which extensive historical background were provided, and left me craving more data. This kind of information is in the book (like a four page digression into the post-WWII Levittown phenomenon), it's just not as plentiful as this reader wanted.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive piece of work September 14, 2008
An impressive piece of work, which I read at two sittings. The review you want to read is Penelope Green's, at the New York Times -- I'll put the link in a comment, as Amazon won't allow outside links in their reviews.

Rybczynski writes a very nice portrait of the contemporary subdivision planning and building process, with the focus on a particular exurb near his home in Philadelphia. In the process, you'll learn a lot about the history of suburban living in America -- and perhaps unlearn some persistent misinformation from urban intellectuals who don't like the suburbs. Highly recommended.

Happy reading--
Peter D. Tillman
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we live in houses, anyway? May 27, 2007
This book is good summer reading. Not junk, but not too taxing for the beach. Far more interesting than it sounds, it is a peek behind the scenes of the usually opaque world of land deals and zoning variances, with some American history and acrhitectural appreciation through in for good measure. It explains a lot about suburban why subdivisions are usually so grim and lifeless, and provides some hope that the future doesn't have to be just more of the same.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good journalism, so-so social science February 5, 2008
When this book focuses on the story of one development in Chester County (a suburb of Philadelphia), it is quite good. It is a breezy, easy-to-read story of how one developer views the zoning process.

Some of the things I got from this book:

*Chester County's suburbanites want to limit development as much as possible. As the author notes, "New houses mean extra cars, extra traffic at rush hour, more kids in the schools, and in the long run, higher taxes."

*As a result, Chester County's zoning board tends to favor low density development; the size of an average lot in Chester County increased from half an acre in the 1960s to an acre and a half in the 1990s.

*One reason housing prices are so high is that developers have to bribe local residents to get new development approved. For example, the developer profiled in this book had to buy neighbors' support by giving away 12,500 square feet of open space.

*In Chester County, the price of land has become a greater percentage than ever of housing prices, due to (according to the developer profiled in this book) zoning-induced scarcity. In 1976, the cost of a lot represented only 15% of a Chester County house's selling price- today, the cost of land represents 30% of the sale price.

*Contrary to conventional wisdom among property rights types, homeowners' associations and the restrictive covenants they enforce are not a result of free choice among consumers. According to the developer of New Daleville, "all our projects include community associations. The local municipal governments insist on it" so that the associations (rather than municipalities) will be responsible for the costs of street maintenance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Behind the scenes in real estate development November 14, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you work in a field related to real estate development, this is a great book to read. The author tracks the development of a small subdivision from initial planning to government permitting to final sales. All the while, he provides insight into the evolution of residential real estate sales in the US, and the varying perspectives of the main characters in the process. This is a great read for urban (and not-so-urban) planners. I highly recommend the book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars No.
I was forced to read this book while at Columbia University. I was to be graded upon my understanding and retention. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Clement Hovey
5.0 out of 5 stars Very fitting book for our times
This book brings life to a subject that many folks might find to be dry reading. Filled with lots anecdotal evidence on the history of residential development and a fascinating... Read more
Published on November 1, 2010 by Jordan Braunstein
1.0 out of 5 stars Very, very light reading!
This book sets out to chronicle the development of an exurban cornfield from the moment the land is bought by a developer to when homes are delivered to buyers. Read more
Published on June 19, 2010 by Pierre Gauthier
4.0 out of 5 stars Case study of a semi-rural development project
This is about the development of a small residential development in the countryside of Pennsylvania, using the "traditional neighborhood development" approach--sort of like... Read more
Published on February 12, 2010 by Ronald Starr
5.0 out of 5 stars Arrived quickly and in the condition promised!
The item, arrived quickly and in the condition promised, just in time for my class!
Published on July 9, 2009 by A. Artiga
5.0 out of 5 stars A Man A Plan- Daleville
"The modest single-family house is the glory of the suburban tradition."
"It offers its inhabitants a comprehensible image of independence and privacy while also accepting the... Read more
Published on September 11, 2008 by Terri J. Rice
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book
This is a great book on how suburban development works. It is very well researched and all the ideas are based on deep reasoning. Read more
Published on March 20, 2008 by ileana
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Overview
A great book for anyone who has driven through the ex-urbs lately and wondered why and how suburban development is the way it is. Read more
Published on October 18, 2007 by C. Beaudoin
4.0 out of 5 stars Planning
A design profession relief from the more informative norm that planning, landscape architecture, urban design, and architecture are represented by. Read more
Published on August 26, 2007 by Garry Meus
5.0 out of 5 stars A 10-star book every housing consumer will relish
This is a really really important book that unlocks dozens of mysteries of why we end up in the homes that we come to occupy and how communities are created from cornfields. Read more
Published on August 22, 2007 by BuzS
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