Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980’s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

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  1. Great information, thank you. I found the contrast with the development across the street really said it all. Why aren’t more planners and developers interested in doing this?

  2. My wife and I rented a place in Village Homes for a year in the mid 90s. Living there was a wonderful experience. It appeared that edible landscape maintenance in the common areas had not gotten much attention for some years, but there was still a lot of wonderful stuff growing all around. On our first day we were walking around taking it all in and someone up in a peach tree offered us each a white peach that we still remember as the best tasting we have ever eaten. That fall we made wine with grapes from the small vineyard shown in the videos. There were several varieties of fig trees in the commons and we were able to enjoy fresh figs every day for nearly 6 months. The swales and water retention were a controversial departure from convention to say the least, and the story was that Davis required an abnormally large bond as a surety against flooding given the lack of storm sewer. Around the third year of existence there was a big rain event and it turned out that not only was the Village Homes water taken care of by the swales, but about a 5 block radius outside VH was also dry unlike much of the rest of town. Now Davis requires swales and similar water retention systems in all new developments. Many of the houses had strange 1970s “solar” features that in some cases didn’t work at all and in others worked in strange and unexpected ways. Our place had a plenum under the floor that was supposed to circulate and store air warmed by the south exposure of the greenhouse. Aside from the most amazing collection of insects I couldn’t tell that it really did anything. There was another plenum above the laundry area on the North side of the house with a bunch of fans that didn’t work whose purpose I could never grasp.

    Anyway, it was a wonderful place. And many of the ideas that we shamelessly stole from VH have shaped almost every aspect of our current house/garden/orchard urban farm in Oregon. Michael Corbett is a visionary genius.

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