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America’s Forgotten Food Forest Suburb

Years ago, Permaculture founder, Bill Mollison made a TV series called Global Gardener. In a 10-minute segment of that series he visited a particular 60-acre intentional community called Village Homes, located at Davis, California.

Mollison visited this estate many times. The reason he kept returning there was the way it was constructed. Passive Solar designed homes, water harvesting swales and a forest of fruit trees that were planted in the late 1970s by architect Michael Corbett. It was meant to be a stunning example of a new version of the utopian dream. If America was heading for an energy crisis in the 70s then this was the place to shield the inhabitants from famine. Village Homes impressed Mollison greatly because it anticipated many of the design ideas Mollison was working on. You can still see the original video clip, shot in 1991, via the YouTube video below, where Mollison explains the intricate features of the estate.

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It was into this scenario that Geoff Lawton ventured whilst delivering a talk at Sacramento in the summer of 2013. Lawton had watched the Mollison video clip a number of times and was keen to visit this place and see if it had fallen into disrepair and neglect and if any of the trees were still alive. After all, it was 38 years since it was constructed and over 20 years since Bill Mollison had featured it in his TV series. Village Homes had fallen off the Permaculture radar. The fruit trees could possibly still be alive even if the estate had been redeveloped and changed to fit in with a different age. So Geoff figured it was still worth a visit to see. And it was!

Geoff walked over to a spreading Jujube tree. Red shriveled fruit was laying on the ground. Geoff knew immediately what he was looking at and picked it up, examined the fruit and popped it into his mouth saying, “That’s a good one!” It was a statement of homage to Bill Mollison who uttered the same thing, with this same fruit in his mouth, in the old TV series. It could very well have been the very same tree. Who knows.

All the trees were covered in heavy fruit; Plums, figs, apples, grapes, pomegranates. Nothing had changed. The system had grown into maturity. It was self-cycling its nutrients. We were walking in an abundant paradise – an exciting display of a mature Permaculture Food Forest. This was the endgame. The Eldorado. The climax of why you are interested in permaculture. The placed looked in show-room condition. The architecture, the orchards, the green space, the forest of food trees were breathtaking. It was beautiful. The closest thing to a dry lands Garden of Eden you could imagine. Geoff Lawton talks about abundance and here it was. It was no mythical place, no lofty over-reached dream. And it was thanks to the vision of Michael Corbett who thought that the world would be in peril by now.

So why hasn’t anyone documented this in detail?

Geoff had no idea. Perhaps people have forgotten about it, or they don’t realise what they are looking at.

What you kept noticing was the amount of fruit laying uneaten on the ground. Someone’s timber deck was covered in a carpet of fallen figs. In another part of the estate a carpet of plums lay dotted in the green grass. It was all freshly mowed and tidy looking. Very neat backyards. Actually, there were no backyards. No fences. You could walk through a network of paths that passed by private lawn and chickens in clean coops. People even had tiny plots of vegetable gardens adjacent to their homes. Bees were buzzing from their hives.

All this is featured in a 15-minute video called “How to Make a Food Forest Suburb” that you can view with an exclusive interview with Michael Corbett, the reclusive architect sharing his vision with Geoff Lawton. It’s worth seeing these two chat under a fruit tree about why the world hasn’t caught up with Corbett’s vision.

Corbett says he only managed to get part of his vision approved by the local government authorities. He wanted to make the whole estate be self-sufficient filtering its waste water, grey and black water to be used through a series of reed-bed tanks to feed his food forest system, the same way nature does, but it was too much for the local government officials in the 1970s to handle. Things haven’t changed that much it seems.

Corbett says the estate is probably about 70% self-sufficient. You could ramp it up with rabbits and chickens but the only downside is – no carbohydrates. No corn or wheat field to grow cereal crops. Corbett did try to achieve his goal. He wanted to buy land to grow cereal crops but the idea never went anywhere with the committee running the place. It’s a pity. As Geoff Lawton says in the video, Village Homes is an icon. It should be world heritage listed. One of the best things ever done in America and it should be celebrated and visited by anyone who has ever taken a Permaculture Course. Book your tickets and visit it. It needs to be seen and praised widely. Visit www.villagehomesdavis.org for more information.

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27 thoughts on “America’s Forgotten Food Forest Suburb

  1. Imagine what the world would look like today, if we were only paying attention to such projects, and emulating them, back then?! But, let this just be a lesson to us – to get started right now! Wake up world. Wake up local councils/government authorities. We can see the sun shine on a brand new hopeful day.

  2. Grains and cereals are overrated. I’m not just talking from a paleo diet perspective, but from my experience using diet software produced by enthusiasts and followers of Calorie Restriction science. If you enter and watch your diet and analyze all the nutrition elements- vitamins, minerals, different types of fats, amino acids, etc- by software (I use one called cronometer), you find that you don’t get enough nutrition in grains to make up for the increased calories. Better and more complete nutrition can be gotten from eating many more vegetables. And that’s even before you take into account the nutrition improvement from having better soils.

  3. Is there a way for some folks @geofflawtononline.com or @PRI to make some synchronized subtitles in english so that one could translate the vids in different languages ?

    Translated vids like those found here could have tremendous potential to spread the permaculture joice in coutries like France

    Thanks for all the good work

  4. Get your carbs from root vegetables, nuts, pumpkins, legumes and sprouts – far more productive per ha. Potatoes can produce up to 100 tons/ha/year far more than cereal crops try 3 friends viz: corn, beans & pumpkins or potatoes or sweat potato planted together. 1 acre can produce enough carbs for a family for a whole year,

  5. Can someone comment on HOW the water soakage was measured? What tool was used, etc? I would love to do this with water harvesting projects in Phoenix to show that they are indeed rehydrating the soil. Also the comment was made that with a certain depth of soil moisture (in the video about 17-18 ft) pretty much any tree adapted to that climate could grow without supplemental water. Is there more information on that? If so, where do I find it? I would LOVE to show that information to our water planning commission.

    Many thanks,
    Jen in Phoenix

    1. Rats tend to hang out where there is a permanent food supply and great accommodation. As those fallen fruits are only there on the ground for a short time I would hazard a guess that the local rat population is small as outside of fruit fall there won’t be much on the ground to eat, especially if the wildlife is anywhere near as diverse as the flora.
      Lots of things eat rats it’s just that humans seem to prefer creating the perfect environments for rats rather than a holistic environment that rats and their predators need.

  6. The Ahwahnee Principles

    Preamble:

    Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life.
    The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence
    on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and
    public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of
    community. By drawing upon the best from the past and the present, we can plan communities
    that will more successfully serve the needs of those who live and work within them. Such
    planning should adhere to certain fundamental principles.

    Community Principles:

    1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing
    housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of
    the residents.

    2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities
    are within easy walking distance of each other.

    3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit
    stops.

    4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide
    range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.

    5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s
    residents.

    6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit
    network.

    7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and
    recreational uses.

    8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of
    squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.

    9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all
    hours of the day and night.

    10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well defined edge, such as
    agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.

    11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and
    interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle
    use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by
    discouraging high speed traffic.

    12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation of the community should be
    preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.

    13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.

    14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural
    drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.

    15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute
    to the energy efficiency of the community.

    Regional Principles:

    l. The regional land use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation
    network built around transit rather than freeways.

    2. Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife
    corridors to be determined by natural conditions.

    3. Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located
    in the urban core.

    4. Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting continuity
    of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of
    local character and community identity.

    Implementation Strategy:

    1. The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.

    2. Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments
    should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new
    growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.

    3. Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on the planning
    principles. With the adoption of specific plans, complying projects could proceed with
    minimal delay.

    4. Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be
    provided visual models of all planning proposals.

    For more information, contact the LGC Center for Livable Communities: 916-448-1198
    © Copyright 1991, Local Government Commission, Sacramento, CA

  7. It was great to hear an update about this fantastic project. I actually had the chance to visit Village Homes and meet Michael Corbett in 2001, and the place is just as wonderful as it looks.

    It’s a pity that Geoff mainly talks about the water flow systems — and in a rather technical way that I for one found hard to understand.

    He mentions the passive solar design but rather superficially, and spends the rest of the time waxing lyrical about how wonderful it all is — but without going into too many useful details. (It was interesting to learn that they tried and failed to get permission for grey water recycling.)

    A number of questions that the video raised for me…

    Why isn’t there anyone around? Are they all out at work or school? (What’s the point of living in such a great place if you’re not using it during the day?)

    Why is there so much fruit lying around unused? (If people don’t want to use it, couldn’t they at least collect it and swap it with the chicken keepers for eggs, say?)

    And finally — a question that came to mind when I first heard of Village Homes — why hasn’t this model been replicated everywhere in the world?

    I’ve thought about this one a lot and the only answer I can come up with is a rather gloomy one. Michael Corbett pushed this project through despite all the obstacles, because he really wanted to create a wonderful place to live (for himself among others). But most people in the real estate business, whether architects, builders or whatever, just don’t care enough about the places they are creating, in order to put in the extra thought and effort to make somewhere really great.

    Sadly, I don’t see this having changed anywhere in the world today. Most people who are in the real estate business — as investors, architects or builders — are doing it for the money. The people who really want to replicate the Village Homes model — the permaculturists and ecodesigners — are working on the fringes or fighting against stupid bureaucracy.

    That’s not to say there aren’t good examples all over the world but they are still a tiny minority, and look like staying that way.

    1. Hi Robert

      I think your questions can be summed up in:

      Why isn’t there anyone around? Are they all out at work or school? (What’s the point of living in such a great place if you’re not using it during the day?)

      I haven’t been to this project, but if the people are indeed busy at their modern ‘day jobs’, then your next question about fruit lying on the ground is related to the above question, as is your next question about why this model hasn’t been replicated everywhere…

      The answer, in my opinion, is simply this (and it’s something I’ve said repeatedly in multiple posts on this site) – if the system we live and work within still works for us (even if not for the ‘others’ around the world), then we don’t take the need to overturn it very seriously.

      The Village Homes project was born out of the energy crisis of the 70s. i.e. it was born out of some necessity, or at least the recognition that it will become necessary to build such ‘life rafts’. Eventually that crisis ended, and was forgotten by most. The ‘Century of Self‘ not only continued where it left off, but it became increasingly all-pervasive globally. We subsequently saw the ‘big hair’ 1980s, and the growth of the media movement and increasing takeover of our economy (and our education…) by multinationals – bringing increased inequality, and more dependence on ‘the system’, rather than on community interdependence. And so it went on, with the 1990s and the 2000s – bringing more gadgets, media control, mass consumerism, and so on.

      I can’t speak for the residents of Village Homes, and perhaps they’ll be somewhat perplexed (or even horrified?) by the attention they may now receive after this post went up, but they are simply people like you and me – trying to survive while living an enjoyable life. Surrounded by consumer, globalised, market-based civilisation, it’s not easy to be unaffected by it – particularly, again, if the system is still bringing you supposed benefits.

      As I wrote here:

      In the present economy, if one wishes to truly live harmoniously with the earth and those around him, he is immediately met with oft-insurmountable challenges. He quickly realises that it takes community interdependencies to create a life that is whole and sustainable, and he finds that the needed community is very difficult to form, since the individuals within it are distracted from the task at hand due to their attempts to persevere with the status quo, to flog the dying horse. Their full-time participation in supporting the system ties up their waking hours and keeps them from transition.

      We end up in the situation where the world is divided into two camps — the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, the fat and the furious. We’re at an absurd point in history where the people who are in a position to effect change, don’t want to, or dare not, and those who want to effect change, cannot.

      The haves don’t fully appreciate, or seek, or often even understand the need for change. So long as they’re above the bread line — so long as the system is at least somewhat working for them — they continue their involvement. Indeed, in many cases they feel they’re forced to do so, and the closer they get to the bread line the more they feel forced to persevere, harder, with the system, so as to stay afloat within it. Essentially, they feel they can’t afford to rock the boat, in case they fall out.

      The have nots understand the need for change — they yearn for it, some even fight for it — but too often find themselves unable to do anything about it. With no land or resources, they’re now outside of the leveraging zone — isolated, feeling powerless, but still having to deal with the results of a system they have no control over.

      If the people in my street represented a diverse mix of practical skills, from shoe-making to natural, passive-solar home-building, to clothes-making to biological gardening, etc., we could, as a community, determine to work together and build interdependent resilience, somewhat weaning ourselves off the collapsing system as we go. But, our centralised economy has long since out-sourced those skills to pollution-spewing factories in China and across the world. My neighbours live specialised lives in niche fields in exchange for money that is worth less and less as the months go by.

      Consider how the U.S. of A. would look today, if Village Homes wasn’t just an ‘island’ in a sea of consumerism, but was instead just one of many thousands of such communities. If they were not alone in their original quest, they would be even more emboldened to extend on what they started. The economy would have shifted significantly, tailoring itself towards the needs of people on the ground working to be more self-reliant. The transnationals and their media influence would have a fraction of their present influence, and the laws of local authorities would have shifted towards the needs and possibilities of this new majority.

      Instead, parents in such communities become targets. Little Aubrey shouts at her father, “but why can’t I have this, and why can’t I have that – all my friends in school have them…”, etc. Swimming against the current can be very tiring. Our work is to gather momentum – to gain a critical mass of objective decision-making and practical action, so that the messages of modern consumer society are seen for what they are – shallow, and absurd. The more people working on the same goals – sharing ideas, influence and means – the easier it becomes for all to follow that dream.

      Moving forward from the 1970s to today in the U.S. of A., the post-2008 crash has seen foreclosures and people moving into their cars, etc. I would wager that a decent proportion of the people who have, often through no fault of their own, ended up on the streets, would eagerly move into Village Homes (were it to be vacated by its present occupants), and build on its promising start and make it even more amazing than it is.

      The old saying, “where there’s a will, there’s a way” comes to mind here.

      The point of Geoff’s post above is simply to show what is possible. We need to see such examples, as I do believe our collective determination to follow through on what needs to be done will only intensify over the ensuing years as resource issues, socio-economic issues, and climate change, etc., become more acute and pressing.

      In short, as a race, we’re not very good with foresight. We usually wait until the waters are lapping at our doorsteps before we do what needs to be done. Necessity is the mother of invention…. Study the possibilities, and get started….

  8. Thanks for the reply Geoff – and I would really look forward to seeing a more detailed report. Another key topic that wasn’t much discussed was the design of separate foot/bike paths and roads for cars — how is that working out?

    In 2001 Michael Corbett told me that house prices in Village Homes were rising exorbitantly like in the rest of California — he said “the problem was we built it in the wrong state!” I wonder how that has changed with the house bubble bursting.

    Any interviews with the residents? Etc. etc.

    It’s such a key project, there’s a real need for an in depth report!

  9. Hi Craig

    Thanks for your reply… When you say,

    “if the system we live and work within still works for us (even if not for the ‘others’ around the world), then we don’t take the need to overturn it very seriously”

    I think that’s more or less equivalent to what I mean when I say

    “But most people in the real estate business, whether architects, builders or whatever, just don’t care enough about the places they are creating.”

    Of course the example of Village Homes is not entirely isolated — there are others — it’s just that they are mostly, as you say, islands in a sea of consumerism.

    I think the value of Village Homes (beyond its value in and of itself) is that it has been around long enough — in probably close to the most consumerist environment on the planet — that it can give us a pretty good idea of what can happen to a community like this in the long run. I would love to find out more about how it works as a community, not just from the point of view of its sustainable infrastructure.

    By the way, my kids (who’ve grown up in what amounts to a small intentional community) have never shouted at me to get them a Furby or Monster High dolls. But then I have never tried to stop their less-ecologically-aware relatives giving them this sort of present — however abhorrent I may find them personally.

  10. I think its great that Geoff visited this well-designed and amazing community. Saying its been “rediscovered” is akin to Columbus saying he discovered america. Because Geoff just went and checked it out doesn’t mean it was “lost”. Village Homes is well known community in many circles. There’s been books written about the community. When I’ve visited there’s been a lot of activity.

  11. My favourite part was where Geoff said “gidday mate” to the kid on the bicycle, and the kid looked a little taken aback.

  12. I share Robert perplexity on this video. It gives me the opposite impression than the one intended. To me it looks like a rich neighbourhood far from being self-sustaining where yes a few beautiful fruit trees were planted 30 years ago but that are being intensively manicured by a team of expensive gardeners paid by residents through maybe high condo fees (please provide details!). I see a lot of manicured lawns and other expensive features too, a lot of maintenance work and I suspect not done by people living in those pretty houses. So yes I think residents are somewhere else working hard to pay their fees or enjoying their surplus money in some other activity.
    225 homes, let’s say 800 people. That’s a lot of food to be grown on 70 acres. The architect says they could reach 70% self-sufficiency but again I understand they are far from that, probably nowhere near (please provide details!).
    The fruits on the ground seems reflecting a totally detached group of residents using the green area just as a pretty looking backyard whose maintenance is outsourced to others (It doesn’t seem to be much community life or self-production going on). Beside swales and solar panels/passive solar I do not see much permaculture or forest gardening in it, probably residents and the paid gardeners wouldn’t even know what we are talking about. A cardboard and straw sheet mulch would look quite messy to most of them.
    Definitely it all started from a nice idea, and it is a very nice neighbourhood but I am afraid still far from being a sustainable community and a low maintenance forest garden that could be taken as an example. Maybe I am over interpreting and this was just a video to show how it could all look like and not a video to show a living and functioning example, but for me the presentation and title is quite ambiguous.
    Sorry for sounding negative and feel free to not post my comment or to delete it in the future, but I would like to have a feedback on the points I raised.
    I would be very glad to be proofed wrong too!
    My favourite is: You can’t buy a 30 years old fruit tree no matter how much money you’ve got.

  13. “quickly realises that it takes community interdependencies to create a life that is whole and sustainable, and he finds that the needed community is very difficult to form,” – Bang on.

    The realities are often more difficult than presented.

    One of the places enthusiasm wanes – is when your planting achieves genuine “abundant” fruiting. It’s an enormous amount of work just picking/picking up- and if you then must process, or sell – those are different skills, and additional huge work. Sustaining your own interest when faced with acres of ground covered with fallen whatevers is quite difficult. You will spend not hours- not days- but weeks and months, bent over and working all day.

    The personality needed to cope with the harvest is DIFFERENT from the personality needed to establish the planting. At some point- we all need to start teaching that, and coping with it. I’ve had people just become clinically depressed in this situation, and walk away from it; or suddenly “develop” some other interest, take a job- that prohibits the time expenditure, giving them an excuse for ignoring it. This was a major fact in the end of my first marriage.

    The standard response of “well, then, give it away! barter it!” etc- likewise, is enormously more work than the innocent may presume- those folks who are cheerfully willing to pick up free fruit? – some of them will be utterly clueless- drive their SUVs into places where they get stuck and you have to stop and pull them out – or run over new trees- etc. When you barter- you will find many folks offended by what you KNOW your produce is worth… be prepared.

    I do speak from experience. 30 years of it. Eyes fully open going in- is necessary.

  14. Thanks for all your comments and keep them coming. We make these short brief free videos on http://www.geofflawtononline.com to help connect people to permaculture design who have yet to engage. We also get to learn the details that you would like even if you have a great deal of experience and engagement, which will help us to fine tune our work and efforts to produce the longer more detailed films of these subject theme titles as full feature detailed versions. We are always in the pursuit of excellence in quality and presentation with the information and education you require.

  15. It’s taken me a bit to digest the video. I’ve been able to separate the somewhat negative present day aspects of the video such as fruit on the ground, etc from its design aspects. We can build individual houses – cob, rammed earth, etc. but they are just that, individual houses. How do we build communities? There are lots of people talking about and building intentional communities. But here’s a working model that predates permaculture but incorporates many permaculture design concepts. I think the true value of this video is in looking at its design. There are aspects that Corbett tried for such as grey and blackwater management but couldn’t incorporate. There are aspects missing – aquaponics and coppicing. It would be great to see the plans and notes to see how they could be added to in order to develop a permaculture town plan.

  16. There is opportunity and challenge.
    I’d like to comment on two aspects here:
    “Yield” and “Community”

    Yield: like others, I noticed the uncollected fruit – yield that is not used! So here is a gap: the permaculture principle to design for yield, and it not being used. Which is weird, as many struggle with the opposite problem: having unmet demand. So the question could be: why is this community disregarding yield? Is it that it seems easier to buy stuff at the supermarket, or is it lack of knowledge that this fruit is useful/edible, or something else?

    Community: There is scientific evidence (I’m sorry, forgot the book and author) that close communities, weather work, social or other, function well only if members are numbered around 150 or less. In a nutshell, it’s hard to feel connected to people we can’t remember their faces, let alone their names, Wednesday night Sports or favourite foods.

    Village Homes is an example – like others – about which designs work, and which don’t. Our opportunity is to figure out what’s what. And replace the things that don’t work with more promising solutions.

  17. What an inspiration, yet we do need to persuade our local governments to think outside the square. Here in my home town of Lake Munmorah in Australia our local government is proposing 20,000 extra homes over the next two decades. It is my job to make sure they are totally sustainable, leaving as little footprint on the bushland and being a pleasure to live in.
    Like most countries we have aging populations and those with disabilities and mobility issues. My aim is to have all developments to be 32% compliant to Disability Inclusion legislations.

  18. Either way, Davis was a major eye opener for me. What Geoff stumbled upon (camera rolling) was a testimonial to an important semi-arid working system. It is certainly an impressive example to those of us who know the make-up of the earth and the general climate there. One could not say enough about the need to practice AND teach permaculture water management throughout California today. Our greater failure (as a species) is in not taking these examples seriously enough to realize actual quantum gains.

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