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Rybczynski on America's Love Affair with the Town


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Where do you live? In a high-rise apartment building in the middle of a bustling city? Or, on the outskirts of town, along a tree-lined cul-de-sac?

Architect Witold Rybczynski says what most Americans really want is to live in a small town. So developers are trying to imitate the intimate feel of them everywhere from cities to suburbs. Witold Rybczynski is known for exploring the basic ideas behind architecture, like what is comfort, why do we live in houses and what makes home, home.

He teaches at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book, "Last Harvest," tracks developers who transform a cornfield into a planned community called New Daleville.

Witold Rybczynski joins us. Welcome.

Professor WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (Architect, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So we all prefer to live in something like a Norman Rockwell painting? Is that what you're telling us?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: That's what the demographers say. That's what the surveys say. People like cities. They like the countryside, but the small town wins out in all these surveys. I mean, some countries have, sort of, great feelings about the motherland and blood and forest and for us it's, I think, the town.

ELLIOTT: Now, in this book, "Last Harvest," you follow a group of developers who are working on a project. They start with a cornfield in rural Pennsylvania and they developed that into what you are calling a neo-traditional community. Tell us what a neo-traditional community is. What does it look like?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Well, it's part of a big movement to create a neighborly feeling in suburbs rather than having very big lots, having small lots. The houses are not smaller but they're narrower. They're quite close to the street. There are sidewalks everywhere. There's a number of little parks so you - when you walk around, it isn't simply a, kind of, spaghetti of roads or repetitive. There's a boulevard and then, there's a little street and a park.

And so there's a kind of structure to the place. At the same time, it's surrounded by farmlands. So it's a, sort of, odd mixture of very rural and then a kind of a village feeling. The houses look pretty old fashioned with, sort of, porches and pitched roofs. The garages are all in the back of the house, so you don't have driveways and big garage doors on the fronts of the houses.

ELLIOTT: I found it interesting that early on, before the project was even laid out, one of the planners visited a 13th-century Bavarian town for inspiration. I mean, can you really take something from scratch and get a feeling of something that's been there for centuries?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: You have to. That's how America was built. I mean, when Thomas Jefferson built Monticello, he was trying to create European classical culture on a mountaintop in Virginia. I mean, a completely ridiculous goal. But that's what he had. He had a mountaintop. He was a Virginian. And that's always been the problem in America, is that we are building instant history. Whether we're building Williamsburg or New Daleville, it's the same problem. It's always this push and pull of how far can you go before it's artificial. But if you don't go some distance, it also looks kind of unsatisfying.

ELLIOTT: Now urban planners seemed to like this concept but what we learn in your book that when developers actually take this plan to a town council and try to make it a reality, local officials and local residents don't want change. They don't want more sprawls certainly.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Yes, if you ask me what they ideally wanted, they want no change at all. Unfortunately, this country is growing. I mean, we are - we have immigrants. We have people moving around from one part of the country to the other. Jobs move around. And I think what we call sprawl is often the result of communities making it difficult for builders to build houses. And so if you stop development, you haven't stopped it. All you've done is put it somewhere else because we have to build new houses. And the big question is, what form did they take and where will they be built? But they will be built somewhere. They have to be.

ELLIOTT: Is our country developed the way that it is today because of business decisions?

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Well, we've decided as a people, that community building should - is best done by businessmen. Other countries leave it up to the government, or the king, or princes in the past. Third world countries leave it up to individuals. Nobody plans Mexico City. It grows because individual families build little houses and they kind of accumulate.

From the beginning, we've turned into a business - it's good and bad. The business has been very good at figuring out what people want and trying to deliberate at an affordable price. The bad part is that all these little business projects often don't quite add up to anything. They're isolated because they're competing with each other. They're…

ELLIOTT: Like a subdivision here that has one character and the next subdivision…

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Right.

ELLIOTT: …might have a different character.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: And - but there's nothing joining them. And I think the joints between these things are what we need to be looking at.

ELLIOTT: You know, developers tend to get a bad rep in our society today. You know, many people say that turning the cornfield into a housing development is not a good thing. Your book seems to take a much more nuance approach.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: I was really trying to see the full picture rather than simply standing far away from it and where it becomes very impersonal. Then it's easy to judge because you can, you're just talking about ticky-tacky houses or whatever cliche you ought to use. When you get close and you start talking to the people who are actually going to move into the house, it's more difficult to say, well, you - I'm sorry but you can't live here. This is going to be a cornfield forever.

ELLIOTT: And you take us back in history and you point out that developers have been shaping our society dating back to George Washington.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: Yes, George Washington was a developer. He owned thousands of acres on the Ohio. He wasn't very good at it, so he, I(ph) quote him, "complaining at the end of his life that he wishes he could just sell this because it's too much responsibility." And of course, he was busy doing lots of other things with his life. But - it is a part of the way America was built from the very beginning.

ELLIOTT: Witold Rybczynski is the author of "Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville." Thanks for coming in.

Prof. RYBCZYNSKI: It's a pleasure.

(Soundbite of song "I'm Not from Here")

Mr. JAMES McMURTRY (Singer): (Singing) I'm not from here but people tell me, not like it used to be. That should have been here back about 10 years before it got ruined by folks like me. We can't help it. We just keep moving. Been that way since long ago.

ELLIOTT: That song from the album, "Too Long in the Wasteland," by James McMurtry. Tomorrow, we take another look at development with the story about how the largest private landholder in the state of Florida is giving the panhandle a makeover. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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