Commentary: First U.S. Ecovillage – Davis’ Village Homes – 40 Years Later

By Ben Wynd

I was lucky enough to partake in a tour of Davis’ Village Homes – the first deliberate ecovillage in the U.S. – through my Sustainable Development class at UC Davis.

The goal of Village Homes – more than a half century ago – was to be an ecologically sustainable community that utilized the preexisting landscape to reduce waste and encourage a sense of oneness.

Planning of the community began around 60 years ago, by architect Mike Corbett. The final product contains 225 homes and 20 apartment units.

The city of Davis was originally apprehensive to permit this type of development, however. But construction was allowed and the community has served as inspiration for landscape architects across the nation.

There are 20 acres of green space out of the 70 acres of land. Village Homes achieves its sustainability through practices such as expansive solar panel/boiler use, natural drainage (no storm drainage), and allocated gardening plots for all residences, among other factors.

The literal housing element of Village Homes is incredibly unique as well. Around 13 percent of the grounds is utilized for parking, as opposed to 30 to 40 percent for most communities.

Many residents built their houses themselves back in the 1970s. I even had the pleasure of speaking to a resident who built his home in 1979.

But multiple contractors were brought in to develop homes in the area in order to ensure architectural diversity and prevent endless rows of the same homes like many suburbs often have.

Some homes even include green roofs, an increasingly common practice in the sustainability sphere now. The homes are oriented to a backyard like common space that usually has a plethora of flowers and trees lining the grass.

Many of the streets also don’t have sidewalks, along with having no cars parked along the sidewalk. Carports are the most common form of vehicle storage as a way to make sure cars aren’t a neighborhood eyesore.

Additionally, the streets were constructed with quite sharp curves, in order to force drivers to slow down. This allows for safer neighborhood activity, especially for children.

Around 50 percent of the water in the community is derived from a well. Well water is primarily used for irrigation, and the water in homes is connected to the city network, but solar boilers still are present to add a layer of sustainability to this community.

A swale drain that doubles as an outdoor recreation space assists the community in preventing flooding and preserving water through sloping away from adjacent buildings.

The community garden space shared by residents allows for formal and informal food swap events to happen, encouraging interaction between neighbors and reduces food waste. The plots cost residents around $50 a year to have.

Residents are the sole maintainers of the plots and are highly encouraged to keep their plots well maintained. The emphasis on local food growth allows about 30 varieties of fruit trees to flourish within the grounds.

The plots appeared to be widely used by residents, and not just an aesthetic part of the grounds. The resident we talked to even spoke about how he was planning on planting new trees later in the day.

On top of residential use, the Village Homes community contains a restaurant called Osteria Fasulo, playgrounds for kids, and even a nursery for child care. The proximity of daily necessities being close to residents reduces the need for car trips and adds to the sense of community.

However, concepts in landscape architecture and sustainability have significantly changed since the 1970s.

And there’s no denying that Village Homes may be one of the most sustainable communities in the state, but some aspects fail to stand the test of time.

For example, many trees and plants are grown directly outside windows of homes, leading to issues with roots inserting themselves into the foundation and collapse of trees in windy weather.

The community was also never intended to be as expensive as it is. One of the key factors in sustainability is affordability. There’s a five year long waitlist to live in the community, and homes sell for upwards of $1 million.

The New Urbanism movement also was not as present in the 1970s as it is now. From the lens of a current urban planner, Village Homes would be criticized for its lack of apartment buildings and designated affordable housing. While not at a low density, the community could make a shift towards a more multifamily direction.

Village Homes is far from perfect, especially from the perspective of modern day urban planning.

However, the project was trailblazing at its time of conception. No other communities had attempted anything like it. Village Homes is still likely more sustainable than most neighborhoods in the country.

Village Homes’ ideas should be looked at and expanded upon as Davis grows, and as environmentalists look for a way to protect our planet in our daily lives.

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23 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    245 housing units/70acres = 3.5 units/acre or a little more than 1/3 acre/unit.

    I’m all for more of this kind of housing density. Its probably the least dense housing in Davis with College Park, built almost 100 years ago, as a possible exception.

    Sadly, between the time when Village Homes was developed and today, Davis went from a mindset of abundance to one of scarcity resulting in ever more dense housing at the expense of quality of life.

    The greatest irony of all is that some of the biggest advocates of increased housing density in the city live in Village Homes. One thing is certain, people who do so, are not leading by example.

    1. Bill Marshall

      245 housing units/70acres = 3.5 units/acre or a little more than 1/3 acre/unit.

      Aye, there’s the rub… how is ‘density’ calculated?

      In the case of Village Homes, individual properties are ‘dense’… communal property abounds… hence, pretty small ownership lots, relatively large homes, but as a whole, counting the communal spaces, low density.  yet the communal space devoted to streets is minimalist… trade-offs…

      Village Homes “works” for a lot of folk we’ve known… yet, for us, we chose more personal space, less communal space… both are ‘choices’… viva la choices…

      1. Alan Miller

        … viva la choices…

        Such as the ‘choice’ to have a four-story luxury condo built across the alley from your one-story home, blocking your sunset, blocking your solar panels, and despite City planning documents to the contrary.  Those kind of choices . . . shoved down your throat.

        The greatest irony of all is that some of the biggest advocates of increased housing density in the city live in Village Homes.

        Can you substantiate that?  I’m not doubting, I just don’t know what/who you are talking about, “biggest advocates”.

    2. Todd Edelman

      Quality of life

      is obviously subjective
      Here’s where I lived in Prague and here’s where I lived in Berlin. Lots of people around but good construction makes good neighbors! Lots of friends. Stores across the street, yards behind in some cases, or now green roofs Multiple public transport options within steps.

      I’m curious about transportation modal share for trips between Village Homes and the rest of the community, excluding the university and elementary schools or junior high, and how what’s available in Davis limits transit and cycling. It’s close to much of the university, but how many friends do people here have in East Davis, or South Davis?

      Certainly the internal communal designs are great – I lived in one of earliest townhouse condominium complexes in West L.A and it had a few shared features that I still appreciate – and was a minute away from the Class I multi-user path to the beach!

      Why has this design not been replicated in  more recent developments such as Wildhorse? I do appreciate that some of the local streets in parts of Mace Ranch are quite narrow.

  2. Ron Oertel

    For example, many trees and plants are grown directly outside windows of homes, leading to issues with roots inserting themselves into the foundation and collapse of trees in windy weather.

    In some new housing developments, developers plant trees in the actual, future driveways of the model homes.  I guess they figure no one will notice, until it comes time to park their car.  🙂

    Kind of reminds me of how developers often incorporate the name of the thing they’re “replacing” within the name of their development (“farm”, “ranch”, “orchard”, “cannery”, etc.). Or, “make up” names that you wish were there, instead (e.g. “persimmon”).

  3. Rick Entrikin

    Oh, the irony.  Mike Corbett, hailed as a national/international pioneer for his innovative and sustainable Village Homes in Davis is now a defendant in a lawsuit brought by an elected City of Davis council member (and reportedly paid for by the developer) because Corbett was one of the Davis citizens who signed a NO on H ballot argument, disputing the claim that DISC is sustainable and environmentally-responsible.

    I haven’t talked to Mike about his opposition to DISC, but imagine that he must recoil in disbelief when he reads the pro-DISC claim that paving over 102.5 acres of prime ag land will “protect endangered species.”

    Many of us will never forget the horror of bulldozers moving tons of earth over the burrowing owl burrows in what is now Mace Ranch, during breeding season, burying alive parents and owlets alike.  That is the environmental legacy many of us will forever attach to the Ramco name.

    1. Ron Oertel

      recoil in disbelief when he reads the pro-DISC claim that paving over 102.5 acres of prime ag land will “protect endangered species.”

      You forgot “Combats the greatest challenge we face, climate change”.  (Literally on a campaign mailer.)

      Many of us will never forget the horror of bulldozers moving tons of earth over the burrowing owl burrows in what is now Mace Ranch, during breeding season, burying alive parents and owlets alike.  That is the environmental legacy many of us will forever attach to the Ramco name.

      Hence a reason that they no longer include the word “DISC” on campaign mailers (or campaign signs)?

       

    2. Ron Glick

      Ezekiel 18:20

      “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

      Isn’t it time to move on from things that happened over 30 years ago?

    3. Ron Glick

      “Oh, the irony.  Mike Corbett,…”

      Calls into question the claim that a deep pocketed developer is suing poor grass roots activists.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Mike Corbett is not paying that bill, for others.

        From earlier discussions on here, I understand that father/son Ramos work in the same building. The original “discer”, and the “son of discer”.

        And that the city has recently approved an ordinance, stating “don’t say DISC”. (And don’t say “megadorm”, either.) 🙂

    4. Bill Marshall

      Mike Corbett was a very active member of the Covell Village development team… history can instruct…  Measure J was about Covell Village… where did he ‘stand’ then?  I wonder… (using other posters questions)

      1. Don Shor

        He was also involved in the Manzanita proposal for a full new city in Solano County next to Winters.

        The Solano County Orderly Growth Committee (OGC) was formed by citizens in 1984. John Scott Forster, Craig McNamara, and Al Medvetz, among others, were the original organizers. They were alarmed by the proposal to build a new city, to be called Manzanita, on agricultural land in eastern Solano County. Other developers were proposing another development to be called Rancho Solano on the western side of Fairfield, but not part of the city. The OGC challenged the proposals and collected enough signatures in 1984 to put an initiative on the county ballot. Measure A, the Orderly Growth Initiative, was approved by the voters. It ended both plans. (Rancho Solano was later developed as part of the city of Fairfield.)
        https://solanoorderlygrowth.org/about-us

  4. Richard_McCann

    I lived in VH a couple of times, the first time for a dozen years. I loved living there and the house built in 1982 was quite comfortable even with its faults. It’s the closest that Davis has come to a sustainable neighborhood that builds community. It’s too bad that we can’t create another visionary neighborhood with so many of these traits. The long wait list and high prices are due entirely to our inability to build another place like this.

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