In this book, Witold Rybczynski, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and a prolific author on architecture and urbanism, follows the conversion of a cornfield into a neo-traditional neighbourhood in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania. For a planner, or anyone interested in urbanism or real estate development, this is a fascinating read. Rybczynski not only provides the reader with an introduction to urban planning’s key movements and history; he also discusses the history of the housing manufacturing industry and untangles the complexity of the municipal development approvals process, including the oft conflicting interests and expectations of municipalities, citizens and developers.
What makes the Last Harvest appealing is Rybczynski’s detailed account of a planned community from inception to completion; including public meetings, the design of homes, as well as the construction, project financing and eventual marketing of houses. Two things become apparent to the reader: the number of players involved in real-estate development and the intangibles and risks associated with real-estate development, including economic cycles and political and citizen concerns – real and perceived.
Despite the complexities of real-estate development, there was never a feeling of despair with the process. Rybczynski describes it as what occurs daily in most North American communities. This too was a refreshing element of the book: its firm grounding in the real-world and no pompous polemics on suburbia and sprawl.
The Last Harvest is a clean, approachable read that offers insight into why suburban developments look the way they do and how much work is required before the shovel meets the ground. It is also a story with many compelling anecdotes and characters. I enjoyed the read and highly recommend it to planners, real-estate developers and urban historians with a particular interest in suburban development.
Andrzej Schreyer , R.P.P. is a senior land use and environmental planner with Hardy Stevenson and Associates and a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. His experience includes developing and implementing public participation and communications plans, managing social impact assessments and land use studies in support of infrastructure projects and preparing community-based strategic plans.