New Suburb,
Old Model

In his latest book, Witold Rybczysnki, the Martin & Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the School of Design and professor of real estate at Wharton, details the creation of a village-style suburban subdivision on old agricultural land in Chester County, Pennsylvania. One of the leading characters in Last Harvest: How A Cornfield Became New Daleville is real-estate developer Joseph Duckworth WG’72, whose firm led the project. On Saturday morning of Alumni Weekend, Rybczynski and Duckworth sat down to talk about why American suburbs look the way they do, and one trend that may change them.

DUCKWORTH: Real-estate developers, because we are change agents, and almost nobody wants change, tend to be terribly unpopular. So getting into this project, we decided to specialize in this little niche called New Urbanism … Although some people would argue that what we do is still conventional, it is on the complete cutting edge of profit-making development. What we try to do is figure out the place where the market will accept some of these new trends of smaller lots, walkable communities, infill, cluster, etcetera, and not just deal with McMansions on large acreage. The way we got to this site was that a rather conventional developer had purchased the site and filed a plan for it that was compliant with zoning. He showed it to the town, and the town said, “Oh my gosh. That's not what we had in mind! It's a terrible thing.”

Well, the developer said, “That's exactly what your code calls for!”

“Yeah, but we don't like it.”

“Well what do you want?”

“We want a village with sidewalks, and little lots, and parks, and a store you can walk to, an athletic field…”

“But that's not in your code!” …

RYBCZYNSKI: We think of development as something done by the developer. What we forget, I think, and what gets left out of the equation, is that communities also create development, because communities decide that this site is going to be for housing, and this site is going to be for some other use-industrial use or agricultural use…

Who's really to blame for sprawl and the kind of suburban development that we see? … The developer who builds is to blame in the sense that the developer and homebuilder are actually doing the work, but the decisions made by communities are very important. To the extent that new developments succeed or fail, I think a great deal of the responsibility really hangs with the citizens in those areas, because they are making decisions to protect themselves, they are sometimes making simply ill-informed decisions, they are sometimes making decisions to be popular with their neighbors. It's a very democratic process, which is good, much more democratic than urban development ... I think the interesting thing about suburban development is the communities are so small that everybody knows everybody, and the people sitting on this planning board are just five citizens and everybody in the audience knows them. They're neighbors. The process is much more transparent than what you would see in a city, but it's not always very logical. …

DUCKWORTH: We came out of a tradition, which kind of ended with World War II, of small-lot, walkable places with towns. I have a theory that during the Depression and World War II, very little housing was developed, so there was a time to shift and come up with a different approach. In the early '50s, the Levittowns and such responded with the mass production of houses. What I find interesting is that during the '50s, all the codes were changed to separate uses, to make lots larger, to widen streets, and to basically make life safe for the car and not the individual. And in fact the rulebook was changed for all suburban development … So what we're attempting to do … in the New Urbanism movement and the “smart growth” movement, is, instead of going to acre and acre-plus lots, going to small lots, with sidewalks in front of them, ideally with destinations that are walkable within the community, so that you can still have a single-family house on your own lot, but instead of being an acre lot, it might be a 6,000-foot lot, which is one-seventh or one-eighth of an acre…

Those things were made illegal by the zoning changes in the '50s and '60s. You no longer were permitted to do narrow streets, small lots, and uses that were closer together. What I'm saying is the change is to go back to the past. It's not new, it's really going back to the old.-T.P.

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