Simple Ways to Create a Natural Neighborhood

Create an urban utopia by pursuing a natural neighborhood.

| January/February 2003

It is great to live in a natural home, and it is wonderful to see more and more of them. But what about the context of these natural homes? Are they also located in natural communities or natural neighborhoods? Very few are, I expect. Many of us have a dream of living in a sustainable, healthy community—a “natural community.” What can we do to make the dream a reality?

This desire is not new. Witness the many American utopian communities that have flowered at one time or another. Remember also the new towns of the 1920s. Modeled on the English “garden city” concept, many were actually built—including Radburn, New Jersey, which is famed for its early segregation of cars and pedestrians. New communities in Reston, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., followed similar ideas in the 1970s. Alongside these are “green” planned communities, notably Village Homes in Davis, California.

Often called the “granddaddy of green developments,” Village Homes was completed in 1981. Consisting of single-family homes and apartments (240 units) and 4,000 square feet of commercial space set on 70 acres, the concept and designs of Michael and Judy Corbett have proven a remarkable success story. Using “urban permaculture” principles, they naturally integrated closely clustered solar and energy-saving houses with orchards and vegetable gardens. A network of paths and cycleways reduce reliance on cars and encourage walking and biking. They also facilitate close neighbor contact, as do generous community provisions including meeting rooms, swimming pools, and playing fields. Twenty thousand trees shade houses and roads from the hot sun, making for a pleasant environment and less air-conditioning. These benefits, plus advanced recycling systems, make Village Homes a model sustainable community, where living a little bit lighter on the land and consuming a little bit less make all the difference.

The urban approach

Planned communities—whether green or not—are few and far between, and they evoke mixed resident reactions. Some say they are excellent and the way forward, and some say they are too large, too low in density, and take up too much virgin land. Now, with mounting pressure on open space, it is vital that we concentrate on revitalizing our existing neighborhoods and reusing already developed land to reduce urban sprawl and create compact towns and cities. The answer may be to take a smaller scale, more urban, grassroots approach.

In an attempt to steer Berkeley, California, on an ecological course, Richard Register wrote Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future (North Atlantic Books, 1987). He proposed “integral neigborhoods” that would be like an eco-village within the city. These would allow for close proximity of home, work and leisure facilities. He saw these being created via gradual addition of small projects—tree planting here, creek restoration there, a “slow street” for bicycles elsewhere—all coalescing to transform the neighborhood. But later he admitted, “The pieces never coalesced in the minds of the public. Nowhere do enough ecocity features come together at a single glance.” However, his vision is still very much alive, and Urban Ecology, the education/action organization he started in 1975, continues to inspire Berkeley’s future.



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