Designing Sustainable Communities:
Learning from Village Homes

Reviewed by Richard Walthers

"Only in an automobile can you go where you want, when you want, and with whom you want". I remember seeing this slogan promoting the wonders of the automobile on a huge banner a number of years ago at the Chicago Auto Show. As a consequence of all of us going where we want and when we want, urban sprawl has continued unabated since 1900 when the first automobiles appeared. As the population of the United States shifted from less than 40 percent urban in 1900 to more than 75 percent urban in 1990, land use shifted even more dramatically as a disproportionate amount of agricultural and open land was lost to development around cities. Sprawl and its attendant problems will be the major issue facing us in the 21st century.

Fortunately, a number of pioneers are addressing the issue of creating livable, sustainable cities. Two of them, Judy and Michael Corbett, offer a number of great ideas to ameliorate several of the social, environmental, and economic problems caused by inappropriate sprawl development. Their new book, Designing Sustainable Communities, offers some valuable insights that can help designers, architects, developers, government and citizens navigate the critical and often difficult process of planning the future of our built environment. The Corbetts accomplish this by relating a short history of Village Homes, the community they designed and developed between 1975 and 1981 on 60 acres just outside of Davis, CA and where they have maintained a residence since 1977.

The critical components of their sustainable village include maximized common areas that allow for community gardens and orchards, narrower than typical streets, solar homes, pedestrian and bicycle paths, and an innovative ecological drainage system that doubles as additional green space. The book also looks briefly at the historical antecedents of Village Homes—the garden city—as well as several descendents that are in various states of development and implementation around the country. I find it curious that the Corbetts do not mention the Internet, e-commerce and telecommuting—all very viable components for future sustainable communities and for tempering urban sprawl.

The essential conclusion that I can make from this book is that first, and foremost, our governments need to be actively involved in this process in a positive way. There are numerous examples throughout the book of government delays, intrusions, and unknowing regulations that border on the comical. For instance, positioning homes for the proper solar orientation was innovative when Village Homes was constructed. However, this feature proved unacceptable to the Federal Housing Authority, which refused loans for houses that were not perpendicular to the streets. I do not know if this regulation still exists, but at the time, the Corbetts chose to build energy-efficient housing by siting the houses to the proper solar angle—opting to forgo FHA financing.

Just as the federal government promoted tying the nation together via huge land grants to the railroads during the 19th century, it also supported the construction of the massive Eisenhower interstate system. Although this road system was never used for its intended purpose of evacuating cities in the event of a nuclear war—a pretty foolish idea when you consider it—the interstate system has had the unintended deleterious consequence of legitimizing and promoting urban sprawl.

In any city of America, you can follow the development that radiates outwardly from the city’s hub. You can also tell how fast a city is growing by looking at the number of beltways that encircle a city as it develops the spaces between the interstate spokes. The Corbetts would alleviate or sever this type of development by creating well-defined boundaries and green spaces and sacrosanct agricultural land between the "villages." In this way, growth can be controlled. They believe that because we are such a mobile society, we have always designed with more concern for our mobility and not for community life.

For the first time in history, we are being asked to design the built landscape of the future. The Corbetts quote John and Nancy Todd, of the New Alchemy Institute, on the need to restructure our cities for the long term:

    "If it is assumed that making adjustments with parts of the total system is only buying time, the vital support elements of our society must be totally redesigned. For a transition to take place, the new process being created must be allowed to coexist within the present structure."

I believe the Corbetts are using this thought as a sort of plea to governments and lawmakers to allow these new ideas to take root and grow within the existing set of regulations—even though they may, at times, be at odds with each other.

Summing up, the Corbetts state, "The key to future success lies in our ability to enlighten the vast majority whose professional efforts are still contributing to piecemeal planning, cookie-cutter design, and urban sprawl. Local elected officials and planners must recognize an environmentally sound development when they see one and be willing to be flexible and innovative in supporting it. They must be willing to be proactive in planning to ensure that new development is more sustainable rather than just responding to piecemeal proposals. Finally, they must take the lead in the redesign of existing communities."

While this book explores many facets of sustainable design, there are several drawbacks to the way the material was presented. I wish the Corbetts had included more site plans and layouts. While it is helpful to learn the principles of good sustainable community design, it would have been even more impactful to see them being applied via the use of site plans and overlays of the Village Homes community. For instance, it would have been nice to see the natural drainage of the site depicted on maps and how it was utilized and married with village streets and paths on an overlay. The book also has numerous photos that could have been reproduced more clearly.

As executive director of the Local Government Commission, Judy Corbett and several others created a set of development principles for community and regional level implementation. These guidelines were developed to aid in reducing automobile use, associated air pollution, and provide local officials with a new version of what communities of the future should be and provide proven alternatives to urban sprawl.

One of the most positive outcomes of the success of Village Homes was this set of implementation guidelines. By early 1997, more than 100 cities and 18 counties in California have adopted some or all of these Ahwahnee principles, named after the site of their unveiling—the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to name the principles after the original inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley, the Ahwahneechee Indians, who sustainably lived in the Yosemite Valley for several thousands of years before it was "discovered" and the Ahwahnee Hotel was built.

Today I can drive for hours from downtown Chicago in any direction and never really be out of the city. Discrete towns of the last century—like Kenosha, Wisconsin and Schaumburg, Illinois—have transformed into suburbs that are connected to Chicago. The Corbetts believe so much of the human-made environment is created without thought for visual consequences. I agree, and if we are not able to learn how to create sustainable cities, we will all find ourselves living in an unpleasant and ugly paved-over environment that allows no escape.