progressive communities

Utopian Cowtown

Davis, California gives us a hint of the future, a future that suggests that small communities can do great things where mega-cities just don’t have a clue. Most definitions of utopia don’t include submitting to grass police. Yet in one northern California hamlet, residents are lining up for the privilege of having their lawns monitored for eco-incorrect sproutings. “They send people around to check for Bermuda grass and they fine you if they see it growing,” admits Paul Teller, a University of California professor and long-time resident at the exclusive communal Village Homes housing scheme in Davis. When asked if this kind of scrub-scrutiny is a small price to pay for being part of a forward-looking community, the philosophy teacher is passionate in the affirmative. “I paid extra to secure a spot here and now I’m never leaving!”

Due to its unique concept, the professor’s vaunted neighborhood—a 240-home, 60-acre development in an agricultural town 16 miles (26 km) outside the state capitol, Sacramento—has been the subject of national and international television documentaries on environmentally sustainable living. Conceived at the height of the unsettling Ford-era gasoline crisis and economic recession and built in 1975, Village Homes attempted to recreate a traditional sense of community while conserving energy and water in the most efficient ways. Solar water heating and passive space heating designs are incorporated into each home. Neighbors share not only the unfenced yards around each home, they also meet in the large village green, entrust their children to a community day care center, hold performances at the village amphitheatre, and relax in the community-run pool.

Yet this environmentally-conscious sanctuary has not built high walls to shut out a cruel world, as the surrounding town of Davis is also dedicated to an excellent quality of life, clean living and sustainability; it was named one of the healthiest U.S. communities in which to live and retire. With an approach combining innovation, education, recreation and social awareness, Davis is brimming with unique community aspects. In addition to its community-built Art Center, more than $200,000-worth of publicly owned objets d’art are exhibited throughout the charming pedestrian-friendly town, for the residents’ strolling pleasure. The numerous cafes are equipped with modems for easy laptop internet access, the morning Farmer’s Market is an institution of fresh produce and down-home cooking, and neighbors volunteer their time to run the Co-op, a popular communal health food and natural supplies market. The wholesome-looking students in the well-tended public school system consistently get the best test scores of the entire region. Down at City Hall, citizen committees advise 30 boards and commissions on issues ranging from natural resource conservation to childcare.

If pioneering California often fulfills the most progressive of its nation’s dreams, then Davis must surely fulfill the most progressive dreams of its state. With its emphasis on recreational opportunities and greenery (including 25 miles [40 km] of greenbelts winding through town), the City’s budget for parks and community services, unusually, exceeds the combined public safety (police and fire) budget. Recognized since 1977 by the National Arbor Day Foundation as a ‘Tree City’, Davis boasts 18,000 trees—from flowering crabapple and apricot, to oaks, eucalyptus and redwood—lining its streets and parks, with species chosen for both drought resistance and their evergreen and flowering aspects.

Meanwhile, wheelchair ramps, audible traffic lights and Braille signs for the seeing-impaired round out the politically-correct public services to aid independent living. As for the impact of 25,000 University students on the relaxed township, resident Colleen Stanturf proclaims, “They’re not a problem, they all ride.” Bicycles, that is. Also known as the bicycle capital of the U.S., Central Valley-bed Davis sports a renowned system of bikeways that cover 40 miles (65 km) of parks, greenbelts and roadway bike-lanes.

Davis’ commitment to utilize non-traditional approaches to solve traditional problems owes a great debt to its world-class university. One of the ten University of California campuses, it was founded as the ‘University Farm’ in 1908 and its focus on life sciences has led to a stellar international reputation in agricultural, biological, biotechnological and environmental sciences. With students and faculty making up nearly half the total population of 62,000, Davis is one of the last ‘college towns’ in California—and its residents boast the highest level of education per capita in the state, ranking second in the nation.

Many of the university’s ground-breaking research programs influence the way the town works. For instance, the city is on the national forefront of multipurpose storm drainage facilities, with its drainage ponds also serving as wildlife habitats. The school researches commercial farming practices it describes as “more sustainable, ecologically sound, economically profitable and socially just”. Meanwhile organic compost material, a staple of clean agricultural practices, that is derived from the collected yard waste of Davis residents, is redistributed free-of-charge by the City “while supplies last”. Roses as large as salad plates were fed off this rarefied city-issue compost.

Davis has been recycling on a city-wide basis since 1970 and now diverts from its landfills a whopping 50% of its waste-stream (including mixed papers, glass, cans, plastics and yard waste). The extensive curbside recycling program, detailed in its publication Garbage Guide (printed on 100% recycled, 100% post-consumer unbleached paper with soy-based ink of course), also accommodates hazardous waste (like car engine oil and batteries), which the city will pick up and safely dispose. Truly putting its money where its mouth is, City Hall places a priority on the purchase of products made with recycled materials as well.

Throughout neighborhoods visited by jackrabbits, woodpeckers, deer, bluejays and hummingbirds, community gardens which protect rare and endangered species are sponsored and maintained by the University and residents alike. In a state beset by drought, native scrub and water-hardy plants are not only encouraged by the authorities, they’re readily available at local nurseries. Private greenhouses can be spotted all over town, along with rainwater cisterns, windmills, solar panels and innovative wildflower rock-gardens.

In an important stewardship, the school administers more than 30 nature reserves that represent the spectrum of California’s ecological biodiversity. A study with the U.S. Department of Energy focuses on the global environment and climate change. The school’s Center for Design Research meanwhile tackles issues of ecologically-appropriate design (including resource and nature conservation) and socially responsible design (that is, environmental design emphasizing user needs and participation). Yet another institute works on improving the scientific basis for making decisions on environmental issues, both natural and human.

With heady stuff like this going on, it’s no wonder even the heavens aren’t beyond Davis’ utopian reproach. In 1999, mayor Julie Partansky’s pet project unanimously passed into a city ordinance: to reduce ‘sky glow’ (otherwise known as light pollution) so residents can see the stars again. From now on, all new outdoor lighting will be shielded and pointed downward. “We needn’t light this place up like an airport,” Partansky declared. “We’re not San Jose, after all,” the mayor added, taking a swipe at the state’s fastest growing, soulless, highway-laced city in the heart of another Valley, the high-tech Silicon one. In the face of continuing expansion San Jose was bidding adieu at that same time to its last remaining fruit orchard, the principle produce of its fertile valley for much of the past century. For agriculturally-based Davis and environs, the march of progress has very different plans.

++++ Variations of this appeared in numerous publications around the world, including New Renaissance, Vol. 11, No. 3 and its website May 15, 2006