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.)
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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
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