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

by Witold Rybczynski

Hardcover, 2007




New York : Scribner, 2007.


Traces the creation of a Pennsylvania residential subdivision from its planning stage to the residence of its first owners, in an account that offers insight into the long process of development and how it is related to sprawl and ex-urban growth.

User reviews

LibraryThing member teaperson
A book that helped me understand why so many suburban developments look the same, and are so unsatisfying. It's the economics (and to a certain extent, the politics). Rybczynski profiles a development in the Philadelphia exurbs, from the first planning until the first families move in. All along, the developers have great intentions about making a 'new traditional development': but in the end, the economics (cost of the land and building process, and the need to appeal to mass taste) make the development a lot more similar to everything else.

Not as good as fascinating as some of Rybczynski's other insightful books on buildings and spaces, but still interesting.
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LibraryThing member bezoar44
Rybczynski tracks the construction of a neotraditional development -- New Daleville -- on a former corn field in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania. The author drops in broader discussions at opportune points in the story; topics include the history of subdivisions in America, neotraditionalism (or new urbanism, though the term seems wholly inappropriate for this rural location) as an planning and architectural movement, and the stylistic preferences of American homebuyers. As someone with no practical experience of the development process, I found this book a valuable introduction to the different players -- the developer, the architects, the builders, the marketers, the local officials -- and their contrasting agendas. Rybczynski presents the various perspectives even-handedly, giving the various characters the chance (through candid quotations) to speak for themselves.

Two aspects of the work frustrated me. First, at several points, Rybczynski equates environmentalism with reflexive opposition to development. As an environmentalist who supports sustainable development, I found the casual stereotyping inept and annoying. Second, Rybczynski underplays a striking lesson of his story: that the big national builders' economic model, based on rigorous standardization, is fundamentally incompatible with the neotraditionalist goal of distinct local character. It's clear that the layout of the finished development will be neighborhood-focused, but it's also clear that stylistically, the houses will all look like houses everywhere else. Rybzcynski's postscript is a cop out: "Developers tread a delicate path. They are agents of change, operating between the regulations -- and desires -- of local jurisdictions and the demands of the marketplace, and they must satisfy both. That isn't always easy, and it's rarely popular." A more pointed conclusion is that until national builders jettison a one-slate-of-options-fits-all approach and accept narrower profit margins, we won't see true neotraditional development for other than the most expensive neighborhoods. Still, the story is told with enough detail that a reader can draw his or her own lessons, and the ride is illuminating.

Out of curiosity, I've gone searching for updates on the history of New Daleville since this book was published in April 2007. As of late December 2008, I've found only an NPR Morning Edition report from August 22, 2008, noting that home sales in the neighborhood have slowed, with half the lots still unbuilt. I hope Rybczynski someday returns to the topic, perhaps in a magazine article, to trace the fate of New Daleville through the financial meltdown and recession of 2008-2009.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
Honestly, I never would have expected to have been particularly interested in a book about the process by which a housing development came to be. But in the hands of Witold Rybczynski, this is a compelling, dramatic, very nearly unputdownable read. Interspersing details of septic systems and vinyl siding with a capsule history of zoning ordinances and suburban planning, Last Harvest is a remarkably good book.… (more)



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