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.
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.