Last Harvest

Canadian architect and professor Witold Rybczynski took the trouble to meet all principals of a residential development in a rural area in Pennsylvania and to attend many of the numerous meetings that were necessary to complete the project. The long and somewhat satirical subtitle of Last Harvest suggests the various elements contained at least summarily therein. The result is a brief historical survey of American real estate development interwoven into an account of the many complications involved in one project. He withholds his own judgments but strives to portray the viewpoints of the various people involved in the process.

The author begins with a prologue describing Chestnut Hill, the distinguished neighborhood in Philadelphia in which Rybczynski and his wife live. New Daleville is very different, but it resembles Chestnut Hill in two ways. New Daleville is home for commuters, although as a twenty-first century development it is an hour and a half by car from Philadelphia, whereas Chestnut Hill has long since been absorbed by the city. Also, it is much more modest; it is “a real estate development designed to look the way it does.”

In New Daleville, the emanation of a cornfield in Londonderry, Pennsylvania, the forces of real estate, land development, and residential architecture combine to design a traditional neighborhood development (TND). What makes it an unusual TND is that it is a relatively small and modest development of 125 houses on small lots intended to radiate much neighborhood appeal, although in a rural location an hour and a half from Philadelphia, the work area for many of the eventual residents. It also will be relatively isolated from the rest of Londonderry. Characteristically, people who live in such locations desire lots much larger than those in New Daleville’s one-eighth of an acre. The roads in this development will be twenty-four feet wide, designed to emphasize closeness and encourage walkability. Where will residents walk? The town will have a center, but no one supposes that a community of perhaps four hundred people will generate very many commercial establishments. There will, however, be ample natural and recreational spaces. The plan guarantees that half of the land will remain unbuilt.

The question of lot size has in recent years tended to make allies of environmentalists and developers. The former object to huge housing lots depleting natural resources, and the latter desire higher, and thus more profitable, population densities. “Smart growth,” as it is called, challenges typical suburban families’ fondness for large lots and raises other contentious issues such as subsidized mass transit and regional governments. Smart growth may not work in all areas, but the developers hope that it will in New Daleville.

Readers who have been wondering why new developments take so long to emerge will receive some answers from this book. Residential development once consisted of an engineer to devise a subdivision plan, local approval that often was not difficult to acquire, and the building of houses. The same company would be responsible for both development and building. In most states, land development regulations have evolved in recent years. In a populous state like Pennsylvania, ascertaining suitable land for development and receiving permission to use it can be an arduous process. Development concentrates on obtaining land, getting permits, and establishing roads and infrastructure; builders work on the construction of houses.

Joe Duckworth, a former pupil of the author, is the Realtor who has instigated the New Daleville project. Among the men who will deal with various details of the project is Tom Comitta, a town planner whose specialty is convincing town committees. The first meeting with Londonderry’s board of supervisors produces no action because the country planning commission has yet to discuss a newly proposed “neotraditional ordinance.” Comitta attempts to explain the ordinance, which suggests the possibility of limiting dependence on cars. In the process, he learns that the residents want to use cars, although they do not want to see the addition of many more of them.

The proponents of New Daleville must...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)