Designing Sustainable Communities: Learning From Village Homes

Designing Sustainable Communities: Learning From Village Homes

by Michael Corbett, Judy Corbett

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The movement toward creating more sustainable communities has been growing for decades, and in recent years has gained new prominence with the increasing visibility of planning approaches such as the New Urbanism. Yet there are few examples of successful and time-tested sustainable communities.Village Homes outside of Davis, California offers one such example. Built


The movement toward creating more sustainable communities has been growing for decades, and in recent years has gained new prominence with the increasing visibility of planning approaches such as the New Urbanism. Yet there are few examples of successful and time-tested sustainable communities.Village Homes outside of Davis, California offers one such example. Built between 1975 and 1981 on 60 acres of land, it offers unique features including extensive common areas and green space; community gardens, orchards, and vineyards; narrow streets; pedestrian and bike paths; solar homes; and an innovative ecological drainage system. Authors Judy and Michael Corbett were intimately involved with the design, development, and building of Village Homes, and have resided there since 1977.In Designing Sustainable Communities, they examine the history of the sustainable community movement and discuss how Village Homes fits into the context of that movement. They offer an inside look at the development of the project from start to finish, describing how the project came about, obstacles that needed to be overcome, design approaches they took, problems that were encountered and how those problems were solved, and changes that have occurred over the years. In addition, they compare Village Homes with other communities and developments across the country, and discuss the future prospects for the continued growth of the sustainable communities movement.The book offers detailed information on a holistic approach to designing and building successful communities. It represents an invaluable guide for professionals and students involved with planning, architecture, development, and landscape architecture, and for anyone interested increating more sustainable communities.

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Designing Sustainable Communities

Learning from Village Homes

By Judy Corbett, Michael N. Corbett


Copyright © 2000 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-261-7


From Piecemeal Planning to Sustainable Development

Over the past half century, the concentric growth pattern of cities in the United States has produced urbanization in the form of an incoherent sprawl of look-alike residential subdivisions, commercial strips, big-box retailers, and commercial and industrial parks, all physically isolated from one another. At the same time, we have experienced continually increasing traffic congestion and air pollution, a result of the dependence on the automobile created by this inefficient land use pattern. Perhaps even more discouraging is the rapid conversion of forest, farmland, and open space accompanying the sprawl, which is outpacing population growth by factors of three to fifteen.

Urban sprawl is causing our inner cities and first-ring suburbs, many of which were at one time examples of good planning, to deteriorate. Minnesota legislator Myron Orfield, in his book Metropolitics, documented a doubling of the number of poor and minority children in inner-city schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region during the 1980s. Seventy-eight new schools were built in newer suburbs while 162 urban and older suburban schools were shut down.

No longer is there the human-scale development that in the past provided physical beauty, a sense of community, and a setting where basic human needs can be fulfilled. Instead, urbanization, coupled with much of our modern technology, has produced a society and lifestyle that are unhealthy and stressful for the individual. At the same time, this lifestyle is systematically destroying the earth's support systems.

Unfortunately, those responsible for land use planning have not often considered the natural environment when making decisions. For the most part, neither have they considered the subtle sociopsychological needs of people. They have focused instead on the cities' physical systems, short-term economic considerations, and the interests of the development community. In 1974, scientist and philosopher René Dubos pointed out:

Planners are primarily concerned with the technological efficiency of the urban system with regard to industrial, economic and political activities. They pay less attention to the psychological and emotional needs of city dwellers or to the relationship between city life and civilization. While the technological aspects of the urban system are fairly well understood and can be manipulated, little is actually known about the influence that cites have exerted on the development of human potentialities and therefore on the emergence of civilized life. Civilizations have flourished in cities for more than 5,000 years, but they have difficulty in surviving the huge urban agglomerations of the contemporary world.

A great deal of what we have been doing wrong can be summed up in the term piecemeal planning. Piecemeal planning is the result of our tendency to try to deal with each problem as if it existed in a vacuum, as if our attempts to deal with it had no effect on other values and problems. Our suburban neighborhoods provide an instructive and unfortunate example. For the past quarter century, they have generally been laid out with no more than two or three goals in mind: to provide every family with its own house and yard, connected to water, sewer, gas, and electric utilities; to allow every resident to drive speedily through the neighborhood to his or her own front door; and to exclude any kind of commercial enterprise.

Having achieved these goals, we have discovered a host of new problems. There is no local community because there are no local shops or public areas where we meet our immediate neighbors—only private houses and private yards and the wide, inhospitable streets. Children rarely see adults at work. Any errand requires the use of a car, and then the streets are clogged with traffic and it is difficult to find a parking place. In many communities, children cannot get anywhere safely without being chauffeured. Large amounts of gasoline are consumed, and automobile exhaust pollutes the air. Storm runoff from streets and roofs causes erosion, flooding, and damage downstream. Sewage disposal becomes a problem rather than producing a usable by-product, even though fertilizer for agriculture is increasingly costly.

Unenlightened and undaunted, we have tackled these problems in the same piecemeal fashion, creating whole new sets of problems. We have installed antipollution devices on cars, but that has decreased gas mileage. We have built suburban shopping centers with huge parking lots and huge ponds to contain storm runoff, and now we notice that agricultural land and open space are getting scarce—and so on, indefinitely.

There is a pattern here: at each step, we have neglected to look at the whole picture. We have assumed that our wealth, technology, and "problem-solving ability" can bail us out of any new problem somewhere down the road. But technology and ingenuity have not bailed us out. In fact, we find ourselves deeper and deeper in a quagmire of environmental and social problems. As Milwaukee's mayor, John Norquist, once said to us, "A lot of our problems are caused by solutions."

Long before the 1940s, there were visionaries who saw looming problems in uncontrolled concentric growth around cities and were promoting alternatives. In 1898, social reformer Ebenezer Howard promulgated a scheme to build new towns rather than add population to the already large cities. Called the garden city plan, Howard's scheme would have incorporated a unified system of community landownership, greenbelts, and a balance of land uses, including industry and housing for workers, a balance between industrial and residential uses, self-government, and an intimate relationship between city and countryside. As Howard pictured it, "each inhabitant of the whole group, though in one sense living in a town of small size, would be in reality living in, and would enjoy all the advantages of a great and most beautiful city; and yet all the fresh delights of the country." A series of small, self-sufficient towns was to be interconnected through a mass transit system, with a cultural center located at the core. As a result of Howard's writings and influence, two garden cities were built in England: Letchworth, begun in 1903, and Welwyn Garden City, established in 1920.

During the early 1920s, a group of about twenty-five individuals joined together to further Howard's concept. The group held a common belief that the existing centralized, profit-oriented metropolitan society should be replaced with a decentralized one made up of environmentally balanced regions. Called the Regional Planning Association of America, the organization sought to locate people outside cities, arguing for "a dedication to a new social order where people have decent homes, a stable community life, a healthy and varied environment, and a genuinely urban culture." The organization's membership included such people as planning critic Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein, who was chief architect of Radburn, New Jersey, one of the few substantial attempts at garden city development in the United States. The group dissolved in the early 1930s, having been involved in the development of Sunnyside, a neighborhood community in New York composed of houses grouped around open space owned by a community association, and Radburn, built in New Jersey. Radburn continued the Sunnyside land use pattern on a larger scale, bringing together a series of Sunnyside-like neighborhoods, each centered on an elementary school and a shopping center. The automobile was deemphasized in both of these plans, which used cul-de-sacs as the only access to the homes. A network of paths provided pedestrians with direct access to all destinations in the community.

Although political and economic forces prevented full realization of the vision of the members of the Regional Planning Association, the garden city model was not forgotten, and it served as inspiration for subsequent newtown developments. In 1936, right after the Great Depression, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt built three garden city communities: Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. Other communities built on the garden city pattern include Columbia, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia—and many more in Europe. These can be visited today and stand as living proof of the value of the garden city as a means of providing people with a better living environment.

Researchers recently compared Almere, a new town in the Netherlands based on the garden city pattern, and the new town of Milton Keynes, England, where the neighborhood development pattern was rejected in favor of the "choices" provided by automobileoriented development. The researchers concluded, "Not only is it in the interests of energy conservation and environmental planning to develop towns like Almere, rather than Milton Keynes, but they are also popular with the inhabitants, an important factor not always considered by planners and other urban gatekeepers." For this reason, the garden city concept will be referred to continually throughout this book as a better model for community planning.

Although the memory of Ebenezer Howard and his garden city concept has faded, a number of new revelations not only reinforce the validity of Howard's ideas but also, if viewed together, form the basis for a new, broader vision of planning. Best named sustainable design, this vision includes both environmental and social considerations. Although the term sustainability is currently used in a variety of contexts, we believe that a sustainable community is one that allows its inhabitants to live in a way that does not damage the environment or consume nonrenewable resources. At the same time, a sustainable community supports the realization of human potential.

Individuals from various pursuits have contributed insights. One is economist E. F. Schumacher, who in the subtitle of his book Small Is Beautiful succinctly expressed his philosophy: "economics as if people mattered." Another is Howard Odum, whose work has played a major role in the development of the field of ecology. Edward T. Hall's The Hidden Dimension and Robert Sommer's Personal Space and Social Design, which explore the relationships of the human-made environment with the individual and society, catalyzed the development of a new academic endeavor, environmental psychology. This combination of economics, ecology, psychology, and sociology has become the backbone of a body of knowledge about the relationship between humans and the environment. The students of this interdisciplinary field have been a strong force in bringing about an awareness of the earth, people, and their interrelatedness.

During the 1970s, the concept of sustainable community design gained momentum. Though unsophisticated and many times misused, the environmental impact statement (EIS) or environmental impact report (EIR), required by most governmental agencies before approval of many projects, is an example of a significant change in process aimed at examining the potential effects of development. As for products, the most visible examples are those created by work in three distinct areas. The first of these areas was the movement toward environmentally benign sources of energy, for which Amory Lovins argued eloquently in his book Soft Energy Paths. The second was the development and adoption of different forms of organic agriculture, as advocated years ago by J. I. Rodale and described in Organic Gardening magazine. The third was the attempt in the 1970s to build ecologically planned communities. These included Cerro Gordo, near Cottage Grove, Oregon; Solar Village, planned by California architects Sim van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe but never built; and our own Village Homes neighborhood in Davis, California, which was heavily influenced by the garden city movement. Of these planning experiments, Village Homes—the focus of this book—has proven the most successful, having achieved build-out and met its twin goals of helping people live more lightly on the land and creating a sense of community.

The changes brought about by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s put most progress on hold, however, and the problems of urban development worsened. Interest in producing better development all but disappeared. Between 1980 and 1990, the conversion of forest, farmland, and open space to sprawled residential and commercial development accelerated. Toxic chemicals accumulated in the environment at an increasing rate. The earth's protective ozone layer continued to be depleted. Global warming became recognized as a scientific reality, rain forests continued to be cut and lost at an alarming rate, more nuclear waste was accumulated, and more agricultural land was lost to salinization and erosion as well as to urbanization. The distribution of wealth became more lopsided, and social problems such as drug addiction and crime increased.

The decade of the 1990s, however, brought hope for the future. There was again a growing concern about environmental problems throughout the world and renewed enthusiasm and commitment to improving community design and building sustainable communities.

One promising movement, the British Urban Villages Campaign, started up in late 1989 with the support of the prince of Wales. The mission of the campaign is to bring about more livable urban environments. Characteristics of the British urban village are generally described as follows:

• A resident population of 3,000–5,000 in an area of about forty hectares

• Medium-density land use, ensuring that all parts of the village are within walking or bicycling distance

• A diverse range of mixed land uses at neighborhood, block, street, and building levels

• Convenient shopping and services and local recreational and community facilities

• A high quality of urban design and architecture

• An employment base that encourages residents to work in the local center or from home

• An energy- and information-efficient built environment that is responsive to climate, location, and orientation

• Human-scale urban design that encourages crime prevention and home-care networks

• Diverse and usable public spaces

• Integrated land use and transportation design

• A pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, traffic-calmed environment

• A mixture of public and private housing providing for a range of needs and incomes

• An urban form that reinforces economic, social, and environmental sustainability

• A management system that ensures long-term achievement and maintenance of the urban village concept

The British Urban Villages Campaign engages in public education and supports development that meets its basic criteria. Members have promoted urban villages on large inner-city brownfield sites (previously utilized properties that may or may not suffer from toxic contamination), on suburban and urban peripheries, on infill sites (unused properties within the existing urban area), and on greenfield sites (properties outside the urban area that have never been built on). In 1996, they could point to thirteen such projects in England, either completed or on the drawing board, that generally followed their principles. At the national policy level, the group is receiving considerable support.

A parallel movement in the United States, called the new urbanism or livable communities movement, has been primarily driven by public dissatisfaction with faceless sprawl development and the loss of a sense of place experienced in many communities throughout the country. It has resulted in a proliferation of books and magazine and newspaper articles that once again examine the way we build and the alternative paths we could take. Although this movement has a positive influence on environmental sustainability, its principal focus is on creating human-scale neighborhoods and towns designed to better meet the social needs of people.


Excerpted from Designing Sustainable Communities by Judy Corbett, Michael N. Corbett. Copyright © 2000 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Corbett is principal in the consulting firm Town Planners and author of A Better Place to Live (Rodale, 1981). Judy Corbett is founder and executive director of the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit membership organization consisting of mayors, city council members, and county supervisors from across the state of California. She is co-author of Village Homes: Solar House Designs (Rodale, 1979).

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