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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The dirt on suburbs, exurbs, zoning, and land development
"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...
Published on June 7, 2007 by Charles S. Houser

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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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. The project is misleadingly presented to the reader as neo-traditional. In fact, minimum lot size is 5000 square feet, the overall number of homes won't be greater than 120 and of course there will never be any...
Published on June 19, 2010 by Pierre Gauthier


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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The dirt on suburbs, exurbs, zoning, and land development, June 7, 2007
"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. What the book did do for me, however, was to make me a little less judgmental about new subdivisions I see popping up along the interstates in what seem like strange locations and more compassionate towards the vast range of people who have to come to consensus before even the first spadeful of dirt can be turned. That anything ever gets built and that some of it is even decent looking is indeed a testament to human will and the long-standing American love affair with the single family house.
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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
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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.

On the other hand, the book's attempts to describe broader social trends outside Chester County are occasionally simplistic. For example, the book repeats the common chestnut that the East and West Coasts are more anti-development than the rest of the country - but doesn't supply any real evidence for this assertion.

Similarly, the book's general discussion of sprawl is a bit confused. On the one hand, it claims that there is "no significant relationship betweeen sprawl and urban decline" - but on the other, it correctly points out that "there is no widely agreed-upon definition of sprawl". But if we don't know what sprawl is, how can we know what its results are?
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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
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G. A. Dean (Nashville, TN USA) - See all my reviews
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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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, June 30, 2007
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DZNJ "DZNJ" (Southwick, MA USA) - See all my reviews
Was an interesting read. I am on a local Planning Board, and this book gave the developers perspective on a real estate development. Clustered development is still a hot topic, and many local boards are not fully aware of the benefits and pitfalls.

The book is thorough, although it doesn't always portay local governments in their best light. Most local boards are elected volunteers that are trying to help their local communities.

Overall, a good read, and well worth the time invested.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A 10-star book every housing consumer will relish, August 22, 2007
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. In other hands, this could have been a tedious tract on housing economics and construction techniques, but the author is a masterful storyteller who thoroughly entranced me with an account of the birth of one modest housing development in the Philadelphia exurbs. Rybczynski clearly grasps that the essence of great drama is constant conflict, and, from nearly the first page to the last, he portrays the endless conflicts that pervade the homebuilding business: there's land developer versus the anti-development townspeople; the developer's vision of designing a pioneering new community versus the practical concern that consumers feel safer buying traditional homes; buyer versus builder in striking the deal; buyer's emotions versus buyer's practicality in concluding a home-buying decision; and so many more mini-dramas involving the dozens of other participants in the development process. As a long-time real estate professional, I learned a great deal from this book and would recommend it to everyone in the industry and to anyone who ever intends to buy a home, suburban, exurban, or even urban. It's a treasure chest of lore about the history of housing, mostly American, but also housing abroad.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Man A Plan- Daleville, September 11, 2008
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"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 responsibility of community."- Rober A.M. Stern

Andres Duany is harshly critical of conventional suburban planning, "The classic suburb is less a community than an agglomeration of houses, shops, and offices connected to one another by cars, not by the fabric of life."

But the developers of New Daleville have a dream: shared public spaces,walking paths, parks, all reminding people they are not only living in private homes but they are also members of a community. Instead of building ugly landscaped berms around ugly developments, people friendly communities should be well planned attractive and useful. They demonstrate how Rothenburg and other old European towns which are incredibly quaint, have the delicate relationship that exists between the large and small spaces.

If you have any interest in suburban development, this is a well written, easy to understand book. Rybczynski tells of New Daleville a plan of developers in Pennsylvania who hope to turn a cornfield into a neotraditional neighborhood.

The problem is that everyone hate developers; "Conservationists decry the loss of agricultural land; proponents of mass transit don't like spending more money on highway construction; environmentalists oppose continued dependence on fossil fuel, sociologist contend that low density suburbs undermine community..."

Getting New Daleville built takes a lot of expertise, compromise, patience, money. ambition, and optimism about the future.

Rybczynski has done a lot of research and has crunched a lot of numbers to tell the whole story with all the facts and makes it interesting.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Overview, October 18, 2007
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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. A good primer for both the aspiring residential developer and the township board member.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, June 27, 2007
Easy read that combines a little history and theory to help explain a personal story about designing and developing better neighborhoods. Rybczynski describes the rigorous process of developing communities that are not just streets and houses, but rather members of a complete community. I have recommended this book to many of my colleagues. It is a pleasure to read.
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Last Harvest: From Cornfield to New Town
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