Staggering Towards Community

Between 1973 and 1981, Michael and Judith Corbett were part of a small group of people who advocated for, designed, financed, and built a 240-unit development on 60 acres of land on the outskirts of Davis, a city noted for its environmentally friendly bent. The Village Homes development incorporated many of the features that have come to define sustainable living: a mix of single-family homes and apartments, bike paths, edible landscaping, passive solar design, community areas, natural drainage, narrow streets, and a design that doesn’t prioritize the automobile. Michael wrote a book, A Better Place to Live, which explained how Village Homes improved over what singer Malvina Reynolds famously called “little boxes made of ticky tacky” that described tract houses at the time. (Now they’re big boxes made of of ticky tacky…)

The group encountered resistance from city planners and had to negotiate over what were at the time very unusual features. The completed homes sold instantly to people seeking an alternative to traditional tract-home design. The Smart Communities Web site lists these benefits:

  • A 1990 study found that Village Homes residents use 36 percent less energy for vehicular driving, 47 percent less electricity and 31 percent less natural gas per household than a conventional neighborhood control group.
  • Tree-lined streets keep the temperature about 10 percent cooler than surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Open space accounts for 25 percent of the development.
  • Village Homes residents know 50 percent more of their neighbors than do residents in nearby developments.
  • Initially, Village Homes sold for the same price as other homes in Davis. On average, they now sell for $11 per square foot more.

It seemed like a “happily ever after” story, but it turned out to be just the first act of a lifelong saga. Michael and Judith wrote a book about the development, Designing Sustainable Communities: Learning from Village Homes, and Judith still writes about innovative communities. Michael served as city councilmember and mayor of Davis. Hoping to expand upon the success of Village Homes, he designed Covell Village, a much larger development.

Corbett reasoned that Covell offered a chance to expand on the success of Village Homes. The new 1,864-unit development would include solar panels on every home, a retail center, a new fire station, an 82-acre educational organic farm, a community recreation building, an outdoor amphitheater, sites for the school district, a Rotary Hall, Yolo Hospice, Davis Parent Nursery School, a 124-acre wetland habitat, 8 miles of bike paths, and a 776-acre farmland buffer that could never be developed. In addition, 48 percent of the housing units would have had a price restriction, an effort to keep the development affordable for a range of people and occupations.

It required a vote to annex the land to the city of Davis. After a very heated campaign, the measure was voted down last November, with about 60 percent voting against the measure. “It was really hard to see it voted down,” says Corbett, “especially since I’m of an age where I probably won’t get a chance to have such an impact again.”

I caught Michael Corbett at his office in Davis, where he works as a planning consultant.

What lessons do you think planners and developers learned from Village Homes?

I have no indication that most people have learned much at all. It’s still a fight for natural drainage, edible landscaping, and narrow streets. The north-south orientation rule [which required that homes be built on a north-south orientation so that passive solar power was possible] also has been relaxed, so developers aren’t doing north-south orientation any more.

We could make a big jump with photovoltaics, and design closer to the city to minimize auto traffic. In Village Homes, we had a community center, a restaurant, a dance studio, and some offices, but many people still had to use their automobiles daily.

Even your critics acknowledged that Covell would have improved the standard of living in Davis. Why do you think it was rejected by the voters?

That development was the best possible model development. It was big enough for jobs and was designed near bus lines, schools, commercial development. It had edible landscaping, permanent agricultural set-asides—everything you could want, really. But Davis has become so anti-growth. It was really sad to work so long on something so positive and have it go down. It was just so short-sighted. A lot of people who consider themselves progressive aren’t. They’re reactive. It’s the nature of the world we live in now, and it really stops creative solutions and the people who want to try them. Society will stall unless progressives come up with real solutions.

Do you think that people’s attitudes have changed?

The world has changed a lot from the one I grew up in, in the 1940s, to the 1960s, when television started having a real impact. When I was little, we had to use our imaginations to play. We made our own toys, our own designs. We didn’t buy them at a toy store, we made them. I think that starting in the 1960s, people started to have more handed to them. The next generation grew up tuning their brains to accept or reject what’s handed to them. They label new ideas good or bad, but they don’t work out new solutions. Meanwhile, much more creativity goes into video games, computers, and entertainment, which just reinforces a corporate mentality.

What do you think the future of community design will be?

The future is probably in some kind of semi-collapsed society. We’ve spent 100 years building for the automobile. We now have urban areas that are very vulnerable to shortages, global warming, and drought. The future could be enormously different from the present. Communities such as Tucson and Palm Springs could get just warm enough or lose their access to water to be virtually unlivable. We’re going to see lots of changes just due to global warming. And as fossil fuels dry up, that will make even more disruption& We might have to live the way we did before cars, with local agriculture and business. But it won’t be so much because of political views, it will be because of the way we’ll have to use energy and resources.

That’s a pretty depressing view of the future. Do you see any promising developments that might offer some hope of a more sustainable future?

Actually, there’s a little bit of hope in the fact that Davis voted down Covell Village. It was trying to take hold of its future. It was good that they took control. But the question is whether they can still extend that control and use it wisely. Local governments can still require energy conservation, buy land, control their own development. Local control increases the diversity of solutions, and problems get solved through diversity and learning from each other. But most of the time, there is such a symbiotic relationship between money, politicians, and development that it’s really hard. Davis, Arcata, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley all want to redo the urban area. All of these cities have succumbed at one time or another to the sheer magnitude of corporate stuctures. So for every step forward, you get beaten back five.

I see some hope in what individuals choose to do with their futures. Biking, living without a car, recycling—these are all good, but the real change happens when the local governments drive change. We’re at a fork here, facing collapse, and the big question is whether society will hobble along for 15-20 years or whether it will be in four or five years. It’s kind of like living under one of the bad emperors in the Roman Empire. We’re destroying our environment, but we’re stuck with the infrastructure we’ve built, and many people can’t figure out what’s a good plan and what’s not.

Comments are closed.