In Davis, California, Judy and Michael Corbett dreamed of living among green spaces, of houses nestled among fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, creeks, and streams. They aspired to create within suburban Davis a close-knit community of neighbors that would counteract what they perceived as a growing sense of "dislocation, disconnection, and powerlessness" in American communities. Inspired by Michael's memories of playing on the grassy banks of a creek near his childhood home, they set out to create a similar serene environment where their own children could grow up.
To bring their dreams to life, the Corbetts needed to secure financing, but this proved difficult. Financial institutions were skeptical about backing a project that differed so radically from the typical real estate development on the market at that time. Undaunted, the Corbetts persevered and eventually designed and developed Village Homes, a unique urban neighborhood located on a sixty-acre infill property in westernmost Davis, California.
An aerial view of Village Homes
While individual lots in Village Homes are smaller than the average home lot in Davis, the community boasts a wealth of green space for residents to enjoy. Houses in clusters of eight are grouped around shared green spaces that are accessible from private backyards.
In addition, the entire community shares two large parks, two vineyards, and numerous small orchards and community gardens. While fences are not permitted to enclose the private space behind the homes, landscaping such as shrubs, bushes, and trees can be used to foster whatever degree of privacy residents desire. The homes face onto long cul-de-sacs, which minimize street traffic. Homes are shaded by fruit trees and flanked by grassy fields.
Several natural creeks and ponds on the property help to irrigate the vegetable gardens, orchards, and vineyards that provide residents with bountiful harvests of almonds, figs, zucchini, and many other crops.
These streams and ponds form a system of natural filters that negate the need for an expensive storm-water sewer system. The common spaces are maintained jointly by the families who share them. Costs of maintenance are kept low by some cash crops such as the almond harvest, as well as by the natural drainage system that keeps watering costs at a minimum. The gardeners and the Homeowners Association oversee crops and efforts such as the control of mosquitoes and other pests; they stock year-round creeks with mosquito fish and design the rest of the streams to drain within two or three days.
A view of one of the orchards
A reasonable yearly fee goes towards the care of Village Homes' green belts, swimming pool, community center, and open spaces. Village Homes displays the natural beauty, sense of community, and ecological benefits that the Corbetts envisioned. Despite the "urban realities" of the real estate market cited by their many critics, the houses in Village Homes sold quickly, even in the face of the market recession of the early 1980s. This desirability has been consistent; houses in Village Homes reportedly come on the market less frequently than do other homes in the Davis area, and when they do, they sell twice as quickly. It seems clear that the unique characteristics of Village Homes have helped make it an economic success.
One of the streams that is part of the system of natural filters
Moreover, the garden-city plan has helped establish the close-knit community its developers envisioned. One study shows that residents of Village Homes know an average of 40 neighbors, compared to an average of 17 acquaintances in a nearby suburban-style development. The source of this increased connectedness can be traced to the many common green spaces where neighbors come together for potluck picnics, soccer and football games, orchard harvesting, as well as day-to-day maintenance activities.
A typical home
This community spirit and the natural environment of Village Homes are particularly important for providing a nurturing environment for children to grow. The Corbetts' son, Christopher, found in these green spaces safety, freedom, and endless amusement: "Growing up in Village Homes gave me a sense of freedom and safety that would be difficult to find in the usual urban neighborhood."
Natural swales effectively handle flood water
"The orchards, swimming pools, parks, gardens, and greenbelts within Village Homes offered many stimulating, exciting, and joyful places for me to play with my friends. We could walk out our own back doors into greenbelts full of all kinds of trees to climb with fruit to eat and gardens with vegetables to nibble on. Even when we were very young, the network of greenbelts allowed my friends and I to go anywhere within the community without facing the danger of crossing the street. This experience has shaped the way I see American communities. Now that I am no longer living in Village Homes, I feel locked in by the fence in my backyard and the street in front of my house. I feel a loss of the freedom I felt as a child."
It is the natural elements of Village Homes that provide the idyllic setting central to the Corbetts' original idea. The heavily vegetated private and shared land helps create a beautiful, secure and neighborly community; qualities many Americans feel are currently missing from contemporary housing developments. Village Homes proves that hummingbirds and grape vines can indeed be fixtures of urban life that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but economically practical and community-enhancing as well.
All photos courtesy of Local Government Commission.
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