This phrase of permaculture co-developer Bill Mollison (although he said “falling food”), kept running through Diana Leafe Christian´s head each time she almost bumped into limbs heavy with peaches hanging over the path. This happened last August in Davis, California, when it was her great pleasure to visit Village Homes with her friend Vince, who lived there at the time.
Village Homes is 240-home subdivision in a college town in California’s Central Valley. Begun in 1975 by developers Mike and Judy Corbett, one might call this 60-acre property a “proto-ecovillage.” While the Corbetts had most likely not heard of ecovillages yet, they were nevertheless passionate about developing this unprecedented model housing development that combined ecological savvy with a socially connecting site plan.
The homes are laid out on narrow, curving, shady east-west cul-du-sacs with Lord of the Rings names (Buckleberry, Bree, Overhill, Bombadil, Rivendale). The 23-foot-wide streets create a cooler microclimate in summer than the usual 36-foot-wide streets, (and take less petroleum-based asphalt to build). Their east-west direction gives the homes north-south orientation for passive solar gain in the winter and natural ventilation from evening delta breezes in summer. Deciduous trees along the streets were selected to overhang and shade the narrow streets, but they’re not tall enough to block sunlight from roof-mounted solar water collectors.
The backs of the houses look out onto the narrow east-west greenbelts and footpaths (the natural “sidewalks”), that connect each housing cluster along the backyards. A north-south greenbelt and path runs the length of the property and connects with all the smaller greenbelts, so you can walk or bike anywhere on the property. Nestled in the eastern side is the large commons, with two large playing fields, community gardens and orchards, a children’s playground, and a commercial building with a daycare center and offices. There’s even an upscale Italian restaurant.
As Vince and I strolled along footpaths overhung with fruit trees, we saw backyard after backyard filled with tomatoes and onions, peas and broccoli. We stepped aside as folks whizzed by on bikes, and waved to his friends on back porches. Like most communities with few streets or fences and with footpaths close to the houses, people know their neighbors. We made impromptu visits to the homes of two of Vince’s friends to see their special high-tech features. All homes in the subdivision are energy-efficient, and most are passive solar. Some residents have added solar hot water, PV panels, or other eco-tech features. Many homes are designed to scoop up summer evening breezes, and don’t need air conditioning.
Vince showed me the storm drainage system, a network of above-ground natural ditches which become small creeks when it rains. These allow water to percolate naturally into the ground and replenish the water table, and was much cheaper to build than the usual underground piped and pumped stormwater system. Before we finished our circuit, I’d seen heat pumps and natural drainage, and eaten plums, cherries, nectarines, peaches, apricots, and more different kinds of berries than I can remember.
The Corbetts intentionally designed the subdivision to support mixed incomes, with 500 sq. ft. apartments next to 3500 sq. ft. homes. However, they felt strongly that carpenters and others working in the trades on the project should be able to live there too, so they added 1000 sq. ft. affordable homes. Some of the workers, most of whom were Mexican, did buy homes and live there still. (Vince and I passed by backyards of corn, beans, peppers, papaya, avocado, prickly pear, and agave.) All the homes are quite expensive now, much more than comparable homes in nearby neighborhoods.
It wasn’t the homeowners who insisted on enough trees to create “a grave danger of falling fruit,” but the developers. Back in a time of even more cookie-cutter subdivisions and agri-biz than we have today, the Corbetts dared to include environmental features and edible landscaping. And since most fruit trees take 10 or 15 years to produce abundantly, the energy and resources that went into all this sustainable agriculture didn’t benefit the first homeowners, but the next generation. This was visionary! As I walked along that summer day savoring yet another juicy peach, I wanted to go back and say to my community, “We need to plant fruit trees. Now!”
Diana Leafe Christian, author of Creating a Life Together and Finding Community, speaks at conferences, offers consultations, and leads workshops about ecovillages internationally. She is a representative for the Eastern US in GEN-US, a GEN-Europe Ambassador, and an EDE trainer. www.DianaLeafeChristian.org