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The Case for Urban Villages
By Randall Fleming

Reprinted from Linkages Issue No. 8, periodical of the Institute for Ecological Health

Urban villages are a contradiction in place, as they blend the intensity of a city with the intimacy of a village. Urban villages work because they resolve this contradiction by balancing public interaction and personal privacy; enriching outdoor living with passive open spaces and intense urban places; and by providing diverse living, working, and playing opportunities. The result brings a lot of people together in an urban setting that can accommodate diverse personal and community needs.

Urban villages may also be one of the key building blocks of sustainable urbanization. Villages can integrate social, environmental, and economic systems and they can produce multiple benefits from individual system functions. They mix land uses, increase urban densities, encourage pedes-trian travel, and are a pleasure to visit, work and live in.

As compact urban forms, they use land efficiently and reduce development pressures on agricultural lands, ecosystems, and open spaces. They reduce building and travel energy; and they help mitigate regional air quality by reducing automobile trips. Resources, such as land and energy, and supporting infrastructure are used much more efficiently than those required by sprawling development. Successful urban villages also attract people, and as social places they provide cultural and entertainment amenities that offer alternatives to material consumption.

Villages can serve neighborhoods or regions, local residents and visiting tourists. Villages can exist in rural or urban settings, have small to large populations, and house low to high numbers of people per acre. Structural patterns also vary, and can include:

Itemlinear main streets (St. Helena, CA),
Itemrectangular grids (Mid Town, Sacramento, CA),
Itemmore organic systems (Nevada City, CA),
Itemschemes centered on public squares (North Beach, San Francisco, CA).

Some villages mix uses vertically, such as living units over shops, while others zone uses horizontally. Villages are not franchised or monolithic urban complexes. They have uses, public spaces, architectural styles, and overall patterns that reflect local environments, history, culture, and community needs.

Public Opinion and Housing Markets

There appears to be reasonable market interest in aspects of New Urbanism styled, walkable communities. American LIVES found that 75% of respondents to a home buyer survey wanted to have the option to walk or bike to work or to shops1. Of these respondents, 20% were interested in living in developments that embodied all sustainable principles, including those that increased density and reduced lot size. This response corresponds to a Belden, Russonello and Stewart national focus group study that suggests that renters with no children and empty nesters are more likely to choose a smaller lot in a livable community area where they can walk to stores, etc2. A Fannie Mae survey also found that people believe that a great neigh-borhood is more important than a great house. Public opinion surveys also imply that people value urban village styled development as important places in the urban fabric3. In a study of treasured places in the Sacramento region, downtown areas rece! ived t he highest important urban neighborhood related response (17%), while shopping malls were of much less interest (6%)4.

In the same study, people were also asked what they would want improved to make living in the Sacramento region more enjoyable. Of all improvement responses, 58% focused on providing safe and pedestrian oriented environments that were served by public transit, 38% sought to limit sprawl and improve core areas, and only 6% wanted to build better suburbs and improve vehicular access.

More dense, transit served urban projects have often attracted a younger market. In the SF Bay Area, 65% of the residents near light rail stations are 17 to 34 years of age18. Suburban flight, however, may be a new trend that is attracting empty nesters back to higher density, more active urban areas5. Demographers and real estate specialists contend that their numbers - just a trickle now - may surge dramatically through the next decade. These people are seeking cultural and entertainment amenities, desirable residential neighborhoods, convenient shopping, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, excellent public transport-ation, and relative safety. High-density urban villages, such as the West End in Vancouver, Canada, attract the elderly along with the young.

Given that niche markets appear to exist for village living, the data suggests that the most suitable market may be younger households without children and empty nesters. In Sacramento County, for example, 27% of the population is between 20 and 35 years of age and 16% between 50 and 70 years6. This implies that the approximate market is 43% of the County's population and that some in this market could be attracted to village style living.

Environmental Benefits

Long term environmental protection by urban villages is primarily due to reduced vehicular transit and land use efficiencies. When compared with low density development, vehicle trips can be reduced up to 28%7 and up to 43% less energy can be used for travel8. With mixed uses involving 1 to 1 job/housing ratios, up to 68% less energy can be used and average commute distances have been reduced by 28%8.

Part of making sustainable places is building to sufficient densities to make transit feasible and providing sufficient neighborhood level jobs, services, and shops to make the village district serve all daily needs. With densities beginning at 16 dwelling units per acre, public transit increases significantly and auto usage drops. Villages with adequate jobs, housing, shops, and entertainment that are serviced by good transit appear to be most effective in reducing automobile dependent leisure trips9. In 11 US metropolitan areas, mid to high rise neighborhoods with employment centers, retail, and service areas and 1.5 mile commute distances have at least 25% of the population walking or biking to work7.

The Potential of Urban Villages -
California's Central Valley as an Example

Land use is also much more efficient in urban villages. From a historical perspective, villages and urban places in history have had high people per acre densities. Renaissance Florence, Italy was a compact urban village, about 1,200 acres or 3 times the size of the UC Berkeley campus. From Florence's center, one could walk to the city edge in 15.5 minutes. The town was the work place and home to 54,000 souls10 and had a density of 45 people per gross acre11. Jericho, the world's first city, had a year round population of 166 people per gross acre. Ancient Rome had 150, Pompeii 65, and 97 people per gross acre lived in medieval Venice12.

In comparison, the current average density for communities in California's Central Valley is 4.5 people per acre13. The City of Sacramento has 5.2 people per acre. Davis, one of the denser cities in the Sacramento region, has 8.3 . Laguna West south of Sacramento, a recently built community designed to new urbanism principles, is similar to Davis at 8.414.

With creative planning and design, density can be increased without radically changing the housing options available in the Central Valley. If towns are planned with a diversity in living and neighborhood types, achieving an overall gross density of 16 people per acre with urban villages is quite feasible. Assuming 25 dwelling units per acre, a mixed use urban village serving 25% of the local population and occupying between 5% to 10% of a city's urbanized area, creates citywide urban systems that are 35% more land use efficient than most Central Valley communities in California15.


While not all elements of sustainable urban village theory are substantiated by rigorous research, the literature contains a convergence of ideas that identify the importance of preserving habitat and open space;

Itembuilding communities that are more land use efficient;
Itemdeveloping low impact personal and public transportation systems;
Itemgeographically relating jobs and housing;
Itembalancing resource use with ecological capacity to supply resources;
Itemimproving quality of human life.

Public opinion indicates concern with existing development patterns as well as limited interest in new alternatives that explore alternatives to low density single family living. Studies suggest that:

Itempreserving habitat and green space is very important;
Itemmaintaining personal safety is one of the highest community objectives;
Iteminterest in improving existing cities and managing the negative aspects of sprawl;
Itemaccess to nearby nature is sought;
Itemyouth and empty nesters are currently the most likely market to seek alternatives to low density, single family living.

The considerable growth forecasted for California during the next 30 to 40 years can be an opportunity for positive change. With proper planning, growth can help heal existing central cities and their surrounding low density districts. A more vibrant and diverse urbanization would help increase the quality of life, and help provide for a sustainable future.

Adapted from Integrated Sustainable Design : The Urban Village for the Central Valley. By Randall Fleming and Eric Rowell. Sustainable Communities Consortium, UC Davis. You may reach Randall Fleming at (530) 754-8408 or rcfleming@ucdavis.edu.


1. American LIVES. Survey of 1,650 homebuyers in Florida, Texas, California, Michigan, Colorado, and Washington State.

2. Information presented at a national conference, 1998.

3. A national poll by Beldon, Russonello, and Stewart found that only 9% of respondents wanted to live in a large city.

4. Living in the Region: Survey of Resident's Treasured Places. (Interviews with 88 residents) Randall Fleming and Chris Weiss.

5. San Francisco Examiner, Suburban Flight. January, 1998. 6. 1990 US Census Data.

7. Transit Villages in the 21st Century. Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero. McGraw-Hill. (1997).

8. The Energy Yardstick: Using "Places3" to Create More Sustainable Communities. Eliot Allen and Michael McKeever. Center for Excellence for Sustainable Development. (1996).

9. Preliminary regional modeling studies by Professor Robert Johnston, UC Davis.

10. Public Transportation and Land Use Policy. Boris Pushkarev & Jeffrey Zupan. Indiana Univ. Press. (1977). 11. The people per acre figures are calculated on gross densities, including all urban lands such as roads, housing, parks, schools, open spaces, retail, commercial, manufacturing, and cultural uses. This approach allows a system basis to compare densities.

12. Smithsonian Timelines of the Ancient World. Chris Scarre. Dorling Kindersley, Inc. (1993).

13. Municipal Density and Farmland Protection: An Exploratory Study of Central Valley Patterns. Alvin Sokolow. Agricultural Issues Center, UC Davis (1996).

14.The Next American Metropolis. Peter Calthorpe. Princeton Architectural Press. (1993).

15. Mathematical land use modeling studies by Randall Fleming.

Linkages is published by the Institute for Ecological Health, 409 Jardin Place, Davis, CA 95616. (530) 756-6455. ieh@mail.mother.com. This periodical provides information, analysis, and viewpoints about California land issues. It explores the needs of different interests and creative solutions. Topics include, planning and economics, development, urban design, conservation, ecology, agriculture and land use practices. Most issues have a special focus on a subject or geographic area. Distribution includes many people in local government, the media and regional leaders, as well as IEH members. Sample copy $3.

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