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UC Davis West Village a global model for sustainable urban planning

May 14, 2012

The Ramblle Apartments in West Village

West Village is a global example of an eco-district and of net zero energy development. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

UC Davis West Village overcame funding constraints, delays, regulatory changes, a housing market collapse and other challenges to become the nation’s largest planned zero-net energy community, according to a new report on sustainable, low-carbon developments.

The pioneering development is one of four case studies featured in the current issue of the journal Planning Theory & Practice.

The report, “Exploring the Challenges of Environmental Planning and Green Design: Cases from Europe and the USA,” highlights UC Davis West Village as a model for new town construction and an example of how progressive planning and creative partnering can lead to new possibilities in energy conservation.

The UC Davis case study was selected from among several international green design projects submitted for inclusion in the report. 

“Our inclusion shows that West Village is a global example of an eco-district and of net zero energy development,” said case study co-author Stephen Wheeler, a professor in the UC Davis Landscape Architecture program.

Situated on 130 acres just west of the main campus, UC Davis West Village opened in 2011 to roughly 800 students living in 315 apartments. Eventually, the community will include 343 for-sale homes for faculty and staff and be home to an estimated 4,200 residents. The project also includes a village square; recreational, study, retail and office facilities; and the first community college center located on a University of California campus.

UC Davis West Village is designed to produce as much energy as it consumes in the course of a year. Highly energy-efficient design, photovoltaic solar panels and a planned waste-to-energy biodigester are expected to make the community meet that goal. UC Davis West Village also features bicycle and bus transportation, streets oriented to maximize passive solar design, on-site drainage, and relatively high residential density, all of which embody many goals of sustainable development, the report says.

UC Davis West Village overcame several challenges during its decade-long planning process.

While the university administration recognized a need for local housing to attract students, faculty and staff, the Davis community had historically resisted new developments, particularly those displacing agricultural lands.

To ease initial community concerns, the university held public workshops and eliminated direct street access from UC Davis West Village to surrounding city neighborhoods. Campus planners also secured and preserved farmland five miles west of campus, between Davis and the neighboring town of Dixon, to mitigate loss of agricultural lands at the new community.

The challenges continued when an unsuccessful lawsuit by a neighborhood group delayed selection of a developer.

Then the housing crash, beginning in 2008, presented new uncertainties. Developer Carmel Partners of San Francisco now plans to construct homes only when pre-sold, which could slow future build-out of the neighborhood.

Regulatory incentives discouraged the large-scale community solar “farm” that planners originally preferred, causing them to erect a system of combined rooftop and parking lot photovoltaic panels instead.

Though initially a challenge, the slow-growth culture of the Davis community became an asset. “The strongly pro-environment views of Davis residents encouraged planners to make the project highly green in order to gain community support,” the report says.

Davis residents had long supported bicycle and pedestrian transportation, energy-efficient development, and compact development. Village Homes, built in the 1970s and located roughly a mile from UC Davis West Village, had set a positive example of ecological suburban development. When zero-net energy emerged as a concept in the design process — well after the original plan was approved in 2003 — the Davis community was ripe for it.

The strongest advantage that UC Davis West Village planners had, the report says, was the university itself. UC Davis owned the land, provided a built-in market for the development, and, as a state agency, was exempt from the need for local planning approval. It was able to establish clear development guidelines and secure $7.5 million in state and federal planning grants to study zero-net energy systems.

The university was also able to draw on its faculty, research centers and community and business partnerships to create UC Davis West Village. Among others, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, Energy Efficiency Center, California Lighting Technology Center, and Western Cooling Efficiency Center all contributed expertise toward helping the project approach zero-net energy.

Yet constructing UC Davis West Village would not have been possible without private investment, the report says. While the university invested roughly $17 million to bring utilities to the border of the site, San Francisco-based developer Carmel Partners agreed to invest about $263 million in the project. The developer also took advantage of tax credits and incentives available only to the private sector, and brought financial analysis and construction experience to the energy efficiency and renewable power investments.

Wheeler hopes that others seeking to replicate the community’s efforts will have fewer hurdles to overcome now that UC Davis West Village has helped paved the way.

“The first examples of anything new will be the most difficult,” said Wheeler. “It may take special leverage to make them happen. But then you can work to try to mainstream it.”

Wheeler's co-author is Robert Segar, assistant vice chancellor for campus planning and community resources at UC Davis.

The other case studies in the paper include a large renovation project in Alingsas, Sweden; a comparison of low-carbon developments in Stockholm, Sweden, and a car-free suburb near Freiburg, Germany; and the carbon-neutral Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.

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