The Witold Rybczynski Interview

Last week, I posted a review of Witold Rybczynski's new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville. After talking to a rep at Scribner (who had sent me the book back in June) I got in touch with the author, who agreed to do a Q&A about the book. The following took place over a series of emails this past weekend.


Where: Thanks again for agreeing to do this Q&A for Where. So to start out, in my review of Last Harvest I took issue with your statement that "For the first time in history urbanization does not mean concentration" on the grounds that it undermines the difference between urban and suburban environments. What's your take on that terminological disagreement?

Witold Rybczynski: Urbanization traditionally brought with it a whole set of particular advantages. By living together in dense concentrations, city dwelllers had access to a set of services, amenities, institutions, and goods that were distinct from what was available to those living in non-urbanized areas, i.e. the countryside. It seems to me that today technology has, for the first time, vastly diminished the advantages of concentration. Of course, mid-town Manhattan still offers unparalleled advantages, but the way of life in an average American city is no longer as vastly different from the way of life in suburban and rural areas as it once was. People may still choose to live in one place or another, but unlike in the past, concentration no longer offers decisive advantages in education, communications, employment opportunities, availability of goods, culture, and so on. It is not I who have undermined the difference, but society.

W: But does the decentralization of most cities really diminish the difference between urban and suburban neighborhoods? I would argue that it makes the contrast between the two stronger, more readily apparent. Decentralization has not cheapened urban environments...as the recent "revitalization" of many cities has shown, suburbanization has led to an increased appreciation of the distinct advantages that urban places offer. I guess, at this point, it would be good to have you explain what "urban" signifies to you.

WR: Think of the difference between "town" and "country" one hundred years ago. It was absolute and affected what you ate, how you lived, the amenities to which you had access, and much more. I would argue that today the differences between amenities, resources, etc. available to someone living in an exurb outside Denver or Pittsburgh, and living in downtown Denver or Pittsburgh, while they have not disappeared, are slight. The fact that information, medical care, education, entertainment, and so on have dispersed is significant. I am not aruing that there are no differences at all, but rather that they have, for most people, diminished to the point of being trivial. Nor is the balance weighted to the city, as it once was. Suburban Philadelphians, for example, have more choice in department stores or food stores, than those living in Center City. On the other hand, we all have equal access to Netflix and Amazon.

At this point in our history, urban means all of us who live in metropolitan areas, downtown, city neighborhoods, suburbs, and fringe areas.

I think that the "urban" that you describe, and which is what is described in the so-called "renaissance" refers to those who live in downtowns, who are generally either young professionals or retired people, and a small number of empty nesters. This is probably not more than 5 percent of the total city population.

Center City Philly has about 70,000 residents (very large for a US downtown), while the city has 1.5 million, so 5% is conservative, for most cities.

W: In a recent interview with Business Week, you were asked whether New Urbanism and Neotraditional Developments like New Daleville were in the vein of Jane Jacobs' brand of urbanism and you confirmed that you did, indeed, believe them to be very similar. I agree to an extent -- they do aim to achieve many of the same things Jacobs championed. But Jane focused heavily on density as a critical aspect of successful urbanism (and, from what I remember, did not think much of New Urbanist development), so how do you reconcile the extremely low (by compairison to her professed ideal) densities of these developments with the fact that they claim to aim for a rather Jacobsian ideal?

WR: Jacobs definitely espoused density + a mixture of uses. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she wrote almost exclusively about Greenwich Vilage, which is an extreme example of both. I don’t think you have to interpret Jacobs literally to be influenced by her, and like almost all town planners post-DLGAC, the New Urbanism movement has found inspiration in her writing. It is true, as Robert A. M. Stern pointed out in his recent adress to the CNU convention in Philadelphia a few months ago, that the accomplishments of New Urbanism have had more to do with suburbs than with city centers so they have usually been built at lower densities. That has partly to do with the market in the 1980s, when New Urbanism started. Today, a few developers have figured out how to do high-density, mixed-use and we are seeing more new construction along those lines (Atlantic Yards, for example).

Incidentally, all ideas in urbanism that start out as ideologies (Charles Mulford Robinson’s city beautiful, Howard’s garden city, Jacobs, McHarg, DPZ) get severely compromised by the time they have gone through the sausage machine of the market. In the 1960s, did Jacobs imagine that her Village would become an expensive enclave? I doubt it.

W: The Village is certainly not what it was in the 1960s, but that has a great deal to do with people rejecting the aesthetics and isolation of the suburbs. The prices of places with a strong sense of place are rising specifically because of characterless development, which is what New Urbanism aims to change. It makes sense, then, that most of the successful NU developments would be outside of the urban core, but the one thing that the oft-cited examples (Seaside, Newpoint) share is a great attention to detail. After observing the development of New Daleville and comparing the outcome with other NU developments you've seen, how important do you think this attention to details is to successful New Urbanism?

WR: Attention to exterior detail in neotraditional developments is important. Partly it has to do with establishing a sense of place, partly with the houses being close to the street, hence more visible. I think that equally important is a marketing issue. Neotraditional development is not cheap to implement, since there is landscaping, street details, money spent on the public realm, usually a more expensive permitting process. The builder finds himself in the position of selling a house on a small lot for the same price as a house on a large lot. To offset the competitive disadvantage, builders have found that spending more on design and details of construction makes the house more attractive to buyers. The details at New Daleville included metal porch roofs, porch columns, solid front doors, often with side-lights, shutters, decorative moldings. The overall effect is to make the house appear more solid. The discovery that people will accept higher density in return for a sense of place and good design was one of the key discoveries of Seaside.

Incidentally, prices in places with a strong sense of place are not always higher. There are plent of attractive old villages that are languishing. Location is still an important factor. The first generation of neotraditional developments were in booming real estate markets—that helped a lot. At New Daleville, prices were initially set high (in the hope that people would pay more for detail), but as the market slow-down set in, prices were lowered significantly. This has had a positive effect on sales, and New Daleville now has the lowest prices in the area. But profits are lower than they were initially.

W: Speaking of money, much of the hesitation of the residents of Londonderry toward New Daleville seemed to have come from the fear of how increased density would affect land values in the area. How have things played out in the months since you finished Last Harvest?

WR: I think the general resistance to development from communities arises from the fact that new residents will mean more traffic on the roads, more children in the schools (hence higher schol taxes), and of course, development means the loss of views of open landscape, which is what originally drew people to the rural location. This is quite irrespective of density, except that lower density means less of all the above, so if development must take place, folks would prefer that density be as low as possible.

The other issue is that everyone wants their neighbor’s house to be more expensive than their own—not cheaper. So people are very resistant to having new housing that will cost less than what is already there. That is why it is so difficult to build affordble housing—nobody wants it in their neighborhood. By the way, New Daleville consists only of detached single-family houses. When I asked the developer, Joe Duckworth, about this, he said that he could have included town houses, but that would have made getting approval even more difficult, so he didn’t risk it.In Last Harvest I describe a town meeting at which Joe mentions that the future houses at New Daleville will cost about $200,000, which satisfied the neighbors. In fact, the New Daleville houses started at $340,000 when the sales office opened, although prices have now dropped to about $270,000. This is still more than the price of existring houses, so it is unlikely that New Daleville will negatively impact surrounding land values.

W: It's sort of ironic that two of the three worries that you listed as being associated with higher density in the suburbs -- increased automobile traffic and loss of natural open space -- are two of the biggest concerns of urbanists regarding suburban and especially exurban development, yet the two sides view these problems from slightly different angles. All of it, as you note in your book, gets lumped together as "sprawl." This seems to support your claim that sprawl is actually a myth, a scapegoat for change.

WR: As I wrote in Last Harvest, sprawl is always perceived as somebody else's fault. I think there are serious issues to be addressed in a country with a growing population and technologies that permit decentralization--and plenty of space--but the concept of sprawl has not so far proved useful in resolving the issues. It seems destined to reinforce entrenched positions, rather than finding a solution. Which is a shame. We need another model, that permits discussion rather than merely argument.

W: Any ideas of what that might be?

WR: I don't. But I do hope that it will be based on something other than prejudice, misinformation, and self-interest. Actually, replacing one simplistic model by another would not achieve much. I'm hoping that readers of Last Harvest come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the community building process. That would be a start.

Witold Rybczynski talks to Diane Brady of Business Week

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