Ecovillages as a solution to urban growth problems
From: Kevin Wolf (
Date: Sun, 10 May 1998 16:00:36 -0500
NOTE:  This originally appeared as an opinion piece in the Davis Enterprise
on May 3, 1998.  This version is adapted for a broader audience, but I left
in many of the Davis specific examples.  Unfortunately the names of the
land speculators pushing suburban sprawl may be unique to Davis, but almost
every town and city is facing a similar story. Ecovillages could be great
ways to expand cohousing. Comments on this article and concept are welcome.

Eco-villages as a Solution to Urban Growth Problems
Published in the Davis Enterprise May 3, 1998
By  Kevin Wolf, kjwolf [at]

Most of the land surrounding Davis and other Central Valley towns has been
optioned or purchased by speculators hoping to convince the city or county
to allow them to build a new subdivision on what is presently farmland or
wildlife habitat. Given the history of land development, their bet will
likely pay off.

Locally these deep-pocket developers include the Ramos Oil Company family
and PG&E Properties.  They have tremendous influence in the state
legislature and with local elected officials because they invest heavily in
professional lobbying and campaign donations.  Today's campaign rules favor
the rich and business, because they wrote the rules.

Davis will be highly vulnerable to the power of the land speculators when
we attempt to craft the 2010 General Plan, and possibly much sooner.  

Think about it.  Projections show that the front-loading of home building
in the 1987 General Plan developments leaves the City with five years of
virtually no-growth from 2006-2010.  Home prices and rents will likely
skyrocket to San Francisco and Berkeley levels.   

The political dynamics will pit renters and developers against land owners
seeking higher property values and no-growth, save-the-farmland activists.
As new housing stock declines, demand for both starter homes and move-up
housing will mount.  A rigid no-growth policy in Davis will displace some
of this demand to new suburbs built on prime ag land around neighboring
towns, which will effectively deprive the save-the-farmland argument of its
moral power. The remaining local demand will then coalesce into a powerful
force for explosive growth in Davis.

Adding to this will likely be the state of California continuing to "force"
us to accept "a share of regional growth" in our next General Plan.  The
last time it was 1.8%.  Next time it could easily be higher.  At any time,
the city council could pass another version of the 1987 General Plan that
brought us to the mess we are in today.

What should we do - Just say No, ignore it, try to solve it later or what?
One real solution is to change the rules of the election game so that
campaign contributions no longer play as important a role in who writes
state and local laws and rules governing growth. Another is to slow or
direct growth in the entire region or significantly increase densification
in our existing footprint. 

A new idea being tried around the country is the eco-village model of
farmland and wildlife habitat protection.  We should explore the idea of
locking up as much land around Davis as possible in ag land trusts crafted
around various versions of the eco-village model.  By doing this before the
2010 General Plan process begins, we can avoid the worst of the land price
increases that would otherwise occur as development interests take
advantage of the next round of growth. 

If we pro-actively plan a decade in advance, we can ensure that future
growth is done in an environmentally sound manner. If we wait, we will more
than likely lose again to the powerful forces of the walled suburbs.  If we
do it right, we might be able to score 320-640 acres in permanent land
trust for each 15-20 acre eco-village.  (In Ithaca, 4-5 neighborhoods of
25-30 homes will be built at a density of 10 units per acre.  Their 12-15
acre village will save 150+ acres from its previous zoning of a one acre
lot suburb.) 

To quote from EcoVillage at Ithaca (, "The
basic idea is to create a pedestrian village which maintains open space and
agricultural land within the urban area, by densely clustering housing in
appropriate-sized neighborhoods."

The village's neighborhoods can be a co-op like Dos Pinos Mutual Housing
Cooperative,  a cohousing community like Muir Commons, or a
condominium/townhouse complex, even a neighborhood like Village Homes. t
can be a mixture of rentals and owner occupied properties. In all cases,
the surrounding land would be donated to a land trust which can never
develop it.  

I hope the first village we develop follows Ithica's example, which uses
the Danish Cohousing model as a taking-off point.  "In cohousing,
households cooperate to design, build and manage their neighborhood. Key
aspects of cohousing are a Common House where meals can be shared, and
pedestrian-oriented commons areas."

In addition, each neighborhood in the village could have its own bylaws,
shared laundry, tools, play structures and more.  The communities can be
designed by their occupants as was Muir Commons Cohousing, or by architects
and developers.  

In the middle of the 4-5 neighborhoods lies the village center.  Likely it
will have child care facilities, a telecommunication center, and a small
office complex. Different residents might run a small café, copy center,
store  and more.  There could be space for storage and recycling, a
baseball/soccer field, basketball courts, even a pool as in Village Homes..
 Where no single neighborhood could afford this, a village could. 

To help ease transportation problems, the village could be required to
establish a car and van co-op to assist in commuting kids, students and
adults.  Throughout Europe, car co-ops are underway in different
communities and towns.  

Ideally the protected farm and wildlife land would be farmed and managed by
people who lived in the village.  Most likely the farm would be organic in
order to minimize pesticide drift, a great improvement over what occurs on
the farm-urban interface of most towns like Davis. 

If each village sat on 640 acres, one square mile of land, the first ring
around Davis would accommodate at least 10 villages,  the next ring
slightly more.  Done as an integrated plan, these villages could help
restore and tie together wildlife habitat areas and connecting corridors,
and create great places to live.  

By pursuing a 50-100 year plan with a slow (1% or so) growth rate, the city
could annex  a five mile or larger ring around the city, and tremendously
lower the price of the land optioned by the speculators facing no hope that
they can make the wild profits they were expecting.  A five mile ring would
allow for the comprehensive planning for habitat corridors, transportation
routes and more and provide the city with the framework for a long term
vision for what its future will look like, instead of having to react to
the pressures of those who have bet on their land becoming the next suburb. 

Unfortunately, Davis' accelerated growth has allowed the sound-bite
argument of "just say no to growth" to make sense.  This logic not only
shuts out planning that could lead to eco-villages, it sets us up to lose
again in the 2010 General Plan. Now is the time to envision and debate our
future for 2010 and beyond. 

We cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand.  We must plan wisely and
realistically if we are to avoid repeating the growth patterns of the last
ten years.

Kevin Wolf lives in the N Street Cohousing Community, the oldest cohousing
community in the country and a model for retrofit cohousing.  He works as a
facilitation and environmental consultant who believes in long-term
thinking, and local political action.  

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