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VOL. 4, NO. 2 -- SUMMER 2002

Judy Corbett Pushes Cutting-Edge Progress at the Grassroot Level

Judy Corbett is concerned with the way we live. An ecologist by training, Corbett sees the environmental, social and economic problems facing the planet on a macro scale.

She is dedicated to making the world a better place. It's a pretty big job.

Twenty years ago, Corbett founded the California-based Local Government Commission (LGC) - a nonprofit organization committed to solving those macro-scale problems. She has been the executive director ever since. She and her staff are in the business of facilitating change and, because Corbett has learned the only way to facilitate change is to actually do it, the LGC works with elected officials at the grassroots level.

Corbett was inspired to found the LGC after working with architect and then-husband Michael Corbett to plan and develop the pioneering, 70-acre, resource-efficient Village Homes neighborhood in Davis, Calif. The neighborhood - 220 homes ranging from 600 to 2,500 square feet, and 40 apartments - was begun in 1975 and completed in 1982.

Village Homes has received international attention for its groundbreaking use of resource conservation and environmental protection technology, as well as its emphasis on sustainability. The neighborhood incorporates many non-traditional architectural and planning principles that make it an energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive, and community-oriented place to live.

"When I was putting my husband through architecture school, I became interested in [the relationship between] architecture and behavior," says Corbett. "At the same time, people were becoming upset because there was this sense that 'community' as they had always known it was drying up." She said that people were isolated from one another, even when they were living in close proximity.
"First and foremost, says Corbett, "people need privacy. If they cannot get privacy, for whatever reason, they will put up psychological walls." The results were neighborhoods and apartment complexes where people didn't even know their next-door neighbor.

"I realized also that people need places to come together - but also reasons to be there," she says.
The planning for Village Homes fosters a strong sense of community. Houses are arranged in groups of eight, with each group sharing common areas and green-space. There is a solar-heated pool and community center for residents, and there are orchards, vineyards and garden plots available to all members of Village Homes.

Village Homes incorporates an office cluster. Its narrower streets reduce auto noise, are safer, and provide less heated road surface - and they provide some economic benefit. "When you don't have to put in big wide streets, you can save money," she explains. Those savings, at least in part, helped the budget extend to a solar-heated pool, a community building, recreation facilities including a dance studio, and park and agricultural land. She added that widespread solar energy use was made possible, in part, because each lot in the development has good southern exposure due to carefully planned roads.

It's difficult being pioneers, the Corbetts learned. Just about every deviation from "normal" suburban development - from road width to communal "edible" landscaping - was a hard won battle.
But they did win, says Corbett, and for one reason: three of the five members of the city council supported them. Nobody else. Not planning staff. Not any of the other elected and/or appointed folks in the approval process pipeline.

"When I tried to solve the problems of the world with Village Homes," says Corbett who holds a master's degree in ecology from the University of California at Davis, "just three city officials understood what we were trying to do."

After her Village Homes experience, Corbett knew that in order to facilitate changes in post World War II suburban developments, she would need to work with elected officials at the grassroots level.
She and her colleagues at the Commission would need to work with mayors and supervisors and council members who were open enough to new ideas to be drawn to joining them. Change would need to happen one town, one city, one mayor, one supervisor at a time.

According to its formal mission statement: the LGC exists to inspire and promote the leadership of local elected officials and others to address the problems of our day through the implementation of innovative policies and programs leading to the efficient use of civic, environmental and economic resources. Further, the mission of the LGC is to provide local elected leaders a forum for sharing ideas, receiving inspiration and providing technical support to create and implement innovative policies and programs that foster a sustainable environment, a strong economy and social equity through civic involvement.

The LGC has grown to an organization of 500 elected officials, including some from outside California. The staff has grown to 22. The nonprofit is supported by foundation grants, federal grants and some consulting work for cities.

In 1991, working with some of the country's leading architects and planners, the LGC developed the Ahwahnee Principles for resource-efficient local and regional land use planning. There are 23 principles broken down into three groups: "Community," "Regional" and "Implementation." They are based on the belief that "existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life." The symptoms are: congestion and air pollution resulting from increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community.

The Ahwanee Principles were developed in Corbett's living room. As she is in the office, Corbett was a facilitator in the development process. She helped translate the principles from "architectese." Later, when the principles, dramatic in their simplicity, were unveiled at the Ahwanee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, they were enthusiastically received by the 100 elected officials who attended.

Corbett was thrilled. "It was a seminal moment," she remembers. They had to be the two most exciting days of my life."

Corbett loves her job. She loves her membership. "My people are precious. I get to deal with the top 20 percent of elected officials. The really creative ones who want to lead and who can look at a new idea and see its value."

She finds the biggest stumbling block to healthy change is "a business as usual" mentality as mindless as flicking spent cigarettes out the windows of automobiles. "It doesn't occur to some people to do things differently." And, she adds, sometimes people will react to new ideas with a hostility born of defensiveness. Sort of a "No way I haven't been doing things right" attitude.

Corbett has authored a number of books and guides for policy makers on implementing sustainable land use patterns. With LGC, she has run hundreds of conferences and workshops. An internationally recognized expert in resource-efficient land use, Corbett has lectured at colleges and universities throughout the United States and has served as a speaker for the U.S. Information Agency. Recently, she was a recipient of a German Marshall Fund fellowship to study the relationship between transportation and land use in European Countries.

Corbett also serves on the Board of Directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the California Futures Network and the annual RailVolution Conference. In 1999, she was named "A Hero for the Planet" by Time magazine.

As for her future, Corbett wants to continue to build LGC. She revels in seeing "cutting edge" become "business as usual."

For all she has done to make the world a better place, Judy Corbett is a humble woman. "I like to take complicated ideas and make them really simple. She also has a good sense of humor about her work. "People are busy. As an elected official once told me, 'If it is too long for me to read in the toilet, I'm not going to read it.'"

Corbett knows her stuff. Neither the butt-flickers nor the enlightened, can deny the truth in that.

The Local Government Commission is located at: LGC; 1414 K Street, Suite 600; Sacramento, CA 95814. More information about the Local Government Commission is available online at Telephone: 916-448-1198.