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Does Newer Mean Better in Sustainable Planning?

Many things have improved in the past 30 years. Examples are the quality of digital cameras, the design of camping tents and the critical standing of comic books. Others have gotten worse, such as gasoline prices, the narrowing separation between church and state and the reputation of postmodern architecture.

But has sustainable planning gotten better or worse?

Mere drift seems unlikely: The world of planning has been in an uproar for much of the past quarter century. Urbanism and the repair of aging cities, rather than the endless replication of car-centered suburbia, has become the main thrust of the planning profession. The new urbanism has made a splash and given rise to a pushback in certain quarters. Above all, concerns about the future viability of human life on earth have become a central preoccupation of the culture at large, rather than the concern of a few sky-is-falling nut jobs nattering about rigid insulation and the angle of the sun in late October.

The good news is that widespread worry about Spaceship Earth has made sustainable planning a mainstream product. Developers, including homebuilders, are tripping over their LEED certifications to prove their goodwill towards mankind, not to mention their moral superiority to other developers (those despoilers). Green community planning is widespread, and will probably become the norm. Once the applause of self-congratulation dies down, however, the question is whether the current fashionability of green planning represents an advance over the quality of work done when sustainability had granola in its collective beard.

For the sake of argument, I have selected a project from the late 1970s – the famed Village Homes in Davis – and a recently approved scheme for Windsor Mill Housing in the Town of Windsor. The choice of these two schemes out of many others entails a long list of disclaimers. Yes, sites differ in topography, biology, climate and cost, and the same designer, working in two dissimilar places, might come up with two very different schemes without any self-contradiction. That said, let's look at what is good and bad, advanced and regressive, in both of these schemes.

 

Village Homes

Designed and developed by Mike and Judy Corbett in 1977, Village Homes remains a radical experiment that has weathered well. Landscape, rather than the built environment, seems to dominate and becomes the vehicle of communal life in the form of common gardens, orchards and vineyards. A system of open drainage channels collects stormwater, sparing the developer the need to build conventional storm drains. It's a brilliant innovation if communities are prepared to manage the safety risk of open water.

The orderly site plan arranges houses in rows, while public spaces and retail are concentrated on the west (lower right in the illustration). With primacy given to planting, rather than construction, the non-show-offy houses of Village Homes look like adjuncts to a large garden, rather than the other way around. For children in search of exercise and adventure, the development may well look like heaven.

But do people want to open heaven to outsiders, or to allow change? In a monograph about Village Homes by Mark Francis (Landscape Architecture Foundation, 2003) the Corbetts reported that some homeowners opposed the construction of the retail space during the 1980s, even though those facilities had been part of the original plan.

 

Windsor Mill Housing

The more recent plan is Windsor Mill Housing, designed over a period from 1997 to 2007 by a team led by Lois Fisher when she was principal at Fisher and Hall Urban Design of Santa Rosa. (She is currently principal of Fisher Town Design. Other members of the design included JZMK Group, Ripley Design Group, Carlenzoli & Associates and KTGY Group.) Their site plan for Windsor Mill achieves a fine balance between new urbanist formality and tract-building ingenuity.

Faced with a very awkward site—imagine a row of mountains drawn by a child—Fisher has made lemonade by locating a park in the center of the largest triangle and arranging the streets around it. Although streets are almost all different lengths, and intersect at different places, the final result is order, not developer spaghetti. Almost every part of the site looks and feels different from every other part, so residents would always know exactly where they are. Although approved by the Town of Windsor in 2005, no homebuilding has started yet at Windsor Mill, presumably due to the weak housing market.

 

The sustainable bits at Windsor Mill include preservation of existing oak trees, which will form part of a linear park along the banks of Windsor Creek; beyond the creek are disused freight rail tracks. A long row of houses, fronted by porches, face the water and the tracks. Fisher says the plan is intended to "celebrate the public realm," and the houses along the water are dressed for promenade.

 

Is This Progress?

Is Windsor Mill, then, an advance on Village Homes? I admire both projects, and would be happy to live in either. The big difference is the notion of public space. In the near-utopian setting of Village Homes, the line between public and private seems intentionally blurred: One visitor complains of feeling self-conscious because he wasn't sure if he was trespassing into somebody's back yard. By not making an explicit distinction between public and private, the designers may have created the unintended consequence at Village Homes that nothing seems completely public.

At Windsor Mill, in contrast, the new urbanist plan draws clean lines between public and private, and arguably adds some drama and importance to those areas that are intended for all. Village Homes may win in terms of enchantment, but the cost of that magic spell may be a fully inclusive sense of a public realm.

Given the high land values in California, Village Homes, with its low densities and high ratio of open space to housing, seems an isolated experiment, albeit with lessons to share. Windsor Mill, on the other hand, is urban infill designed to plug into the surrounding city. Village Homes taught us how to live amid a living landscape with respect and stewardship; Windsor Mill updates that lesson with urban values and a clear sense of public space.

If Village Homes offers a desirable way of life, Windsor Mill gives us a plan of action for a viable urban future. In a world of increasing scarcity, that counts as an improvement.

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