Urban Sprawl and Sustainable Communities

In the summer of 2009 I traveled to three different model sustainable communities or ecovillages: Ecovillage at Ithaca in New York; Findhorn Foundation in Scotland; and Crystal Waters in Queensland, Australia as research for my Master’s Thesis at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. My intent was to understand the design principles and social architecture of these alternative communities and their relevance for urban planning and convey them in an engaging, literary way. While I have endeavored to publish the essays for years, I was not able to find a publisher. However, I have given talks on this topic for various audiences and many people have asked me to share my paper with them. In the next series of posts for this blog, I will do just that, beginning with the Introduction.

Defined as “human-scale settlements harmlessly integrated into the natural world” (Dawson Ecovillages : New Frontiers for Sustainability 9), ecovillages have gained attention in the environmental community due to their commitment to physically model a more sustainable society.  Beyond green buildings, ecovillages attempt the political, social, and cultural aspects of sustainability as well as ecologial ones. A growing number of ecovillages have become mature models of sustainable settlement that use modern technology and sophisticated tools to use resources as energy, water, and food in a sustainable manner. A study of Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland revealed that residents have half the ecological footprint of the average British citizen. Residents of Germany’s Sieben Linde Ecovillage have CO2 footprints of only 28% of Germany’s national average (Dawson “The Path to Surviving Peak Oil”). Many environmental innovations today, such as biological waste water treatment, solar energy, and local food production, were pioneered in ecovillages. In addition to utilizing new technology, these communities take seriously the challenge to live simple lifestyles that emphasize nonmaterialistic aspects of human wellbeing.

The Cost of Sprawl

suburbiaWhen travelers fly over America today, they are likely to see vast tracts of suburbia, characterized by cul-de-sacs and uniform single-family homes, dominate the landscape. For almost two centuries, the landscape of America has reflected the trend of households towards increasing isolation, a larger footprint, and dependence on the automobile. Since 2000, more Americans live in the suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined (Hayden Building Suburbia : Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 10). In the late 1900s, streetcars enabled workers to commute from the suburbs into the city during the day and out to the suburbs in the evening. The advent of the automobile and large-scale construction of highways under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 allowed households to move even farther out in pursuit of space and the pastoral attractions of nature. In the outer ring suburbs, development proceeds in a ‘leap-frog’ fashion where residential and commercial structures sprawl over large distances accessible only by highways.

after total war

Surburbia was built to accommodate the dream of nuclear families for a single family home with land. Away from the corrupting influences of cities and industry, suburbia would be a green refuge where the working man (it was almost always a man) could come home and enjoy his family. The federal government promoted home ownership during the era after World War II by granting veterans no interest loans to buy homes in suburbia. Developers promoted the idea of the suburbs as a “garden refuge” with green space, sunshine, and clean air. The appeal of suburbia was and is closely tied to the conception of the ideal family–a man and his stay-home wife with children. Isolated from the annoying neighbors, the man and wife would find happiness among all the conveniences provided by the technologies of modern life and the autonomy provided by the automobile. The dream persists today with the growth of suburbia into the exurbs with residential neighborhoods dominated by mcmansions that serve as the staging ground for conspicuous consumption. 


1950s ad of suburban family life

The pursuit of the good life as embodied by surburbia comes at great cost to the environmental, social, and economic fabric of the United States. Because structures built with bricks and concrete last a long time, poor community design perpetuates a pattern of unsustainable consumption that becomes very hard to unroot. Lack of density and huge subsidies for the transportation sector has made transportation the second highest energy user in the US. Roughly two thirds of all oil consumed in the United States is processed into fuel for transportation (Farr 23). One study found that the average rural or suburban resident in the Atlanta area drives nearly eight times more each day than the average resident in the city of Atlanta (Farr 24). In the suburbs of Chicago, CO2 emissions per household is four times as high as those in the dense downtown area (Farr 26). Combining urban and suburban areas, automobile traffic contributes to 29 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions, with 58% of transportation emissions coming from light duty vehicles. 


The loss of habitat due to urban sprawl is a leading threat to biodiversity in the US (Baldwin et al.). Sprawl destroys more than two million acres of parks, farms and open space each year, and the rate is accelerating (“Sprawl Overview”). The construction of roads and lawns fragment the habitat and render even undisturbed parcels unsuitable for wildlife. Development also introduces invasive species, some of which can drastically alter the ecosystem, threatening the survival of native species and the animals that depend on them (Forys and Allen). As farmland and wildlife habitat are displaced by development, the land has less capacity to absorb pollution and process wastes generated by traffic and new construction. The degradation of ecosystem services further deteriorates the natural habitat for native species.

In addition to ecological costs, urban sprawl is also a huge financial burden on American households and local governments. When buildings are spread far apart, more infrastructure—including roads, sewage pipes, power lines and parking lots—are required to service them. National studies show that low-density development increases the cost of infrastructure and with it the tax burden in developed areas by an average of 11 percent (Farr 25). In addition, the cost of transportation for households has risen astronomically over the decades. Today, the average cost of owning a car is $9000 a year (Duany and Pater-Zyberk 66). Together, housing and transportation costs accounted for 52 percent of annual household expenditures nationwide, more than twice what families spent on housing and transportation in 1972 (Cervero 125).

traffic Northern VirginiaAmericans spend an extraordinary amount of time sitting in traffic. One study shows that the average American spends 52 hours a year sitting in traffic, with residents in the suburbs around Washington DC spending as much as 78 hours a year in traffic, with the accompanying productivity and health losses. More time spent on the road also means more risk of traffic accidents which constitutes the leading cause of death among young people.


A car-oriented landscape exacerbates social inequality. It disadvantages the young, the elderly, and the low income. Women, especially, are saddled with the responsibility of driving children who can no longer walk to school, play or extracurricular activities. Healthy senior citizens who could live independently but don’t have the ability to drive are confined to living situations where their needs must be met at a higher cost (Duany and Pater-Zyberk 66). The poor who cannot afford a car must expend more time and energy getting from place to place, which limits their employment opportunities and impoverishes their lifestyle (Nystrom 97). The car-oriented landscape privileges the motorist over the transportation needs of everyone else.

In our effort to create the American dream, we have deteriorated the fabric of our landscape and the quality of our lives. The pattern of urban planning in the United States has forced people to spend more on housing and transportation, widened the gap between rich and poor, degraded the natural environment and isolated people from each other. Instead of a pastoral paradise, the building of suburbia has meant more highways, big box stores, parking lots, along with their accompanying congestion and air pollution. Instead of friendly neighborhoods, we have created fragmented developments, gated communities, and homogenous neighborhoods divided by age and income. Sequestered in our automobiles, we no longer encounter neighbors in the streets. Without walkable streets and public spaces, children are no longer able to play out of doors. One urban planner said, “We have made it impossible to have the good life. Our lives are frustrated with congestion, high expenses for transportation and housing, lack of good public spaces and isolation. So we have turned to consumerism and the domestic realm for happiness, and find that these are insufficient and comes at the high expense to the environment” (Haas 89).

Ecovillages: Old and New

The framework of ecovillages as a countermovement to urban sprawl, globalization, and ecological imbalance is recent, however, the concept and practice of building model communities to advance social change has been in existence throughout human history. Communities scholar Bill Metcalf considers the first intentional community to be Homakoeion developed by Pythagoras in about 525 BC (Dawson Ecovillages : New Frontiers for Sustainability 15). During the Middle Ages, monks or nuns lived together in cooperative communities to create social order in a time of political instability and keep alive the flame of learning. Perhaps the most fervent period of commune building was in America in the early 19th century. For European Americans, America was still vast and unsettled territory, ready to be made into an earthly paradise where new forms of social organization could be practiced. During the period of 1810 – 1860, several hundred communal villages were built in the United States. Many of these belonged to religious groups such as the Shakers or Mormons, others belonged to sectarian groups that wanted to establish equality between the sexes or create a new social order. All envisioned model communities that could be replicated across the land, spreading the groups’ philosophies (Hayden Seven American Utopias : The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 13-15).

Cohousing, a movement popularized in Europe in the 1960s, is another precedent for ecovillages which attempts to address the isolation and expense of living in individual households by gathering households together to share facilities and participate in community activities. Homes may be stand alone houses, duplexes, or multiunit residences clustered around a common house or green area. The common house serves as an extension of individual dwellings and provides a venue where residents can eat meals together, socialize, and hold meetings. Decisions in cohousing communities are often made through consensus. Cohousing doesn’t necessarily incorporate environmental and energy efficient design though the communal aspect of cohousing can reduce consumption by individual households.


Findhorn Community

While 19th century ecovillages were often formed in response to social principles, The three ecovillages that I researched all had ecological sustainability as strong underpinnings. Each of them was designed and developed through the initiative of individuals who eventually became residents of the ecovillage. As future residents, these developers had strong incentives to make the village as socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable as possible. Each village was united by commitment to a set of core values, philosophy or lifestyle and each in their own way endeavored to minimize the use of fossil fuels and utilize more local resources.

At Ecovillage at Ithaca, a tract of land slated for suburban development was turned into a vibrant cohousing community bonded by their commitment to ecological sustainability. The village functions as a real community, with families, young children, the elderly, and single adults cohabiting on two acres of land. Ecovillage at Ithaca strives to balance the independence of the American family with a close-knit sense of community. Because the community operates by consensus, decision-making is difficult and many good ideas do not get implemented. However, the process of making decisions together opens up communication and demands maturity.

Crystal Waters, a rural ecovillage in Queensland Australia, takes living in harmony with nature seriously. Living conditions at Crystal Waters are more primitive than in Ecovillage at Ithaca. Residents drink and wash with purified rainwater or streamwater collected onsite and treat their wastes on site through compost toilets. The 72 acre property contains second growth rainforests, manmade ponds, an abundance of romping kangaroos and wallabies as well as endangered bird species. Most of the food is grown on site and residents keep cows, horses, chickens and other livestock to support their life on the land. Located far away from urban centers, Crystal Waters demonstrates that true sustainability is rooted in cultivating natural resources in a specific place.

Findhorn ecovillage was founded upon the spiritual vision of three religious visionaries. Rather than shutting out the external world, Findhorn fully embraces it by welcoming thousands of visitors each year who come to attend workshops, retreats, and experience living in community. Its mission to spread its inspiration necessitates a greater use of fossil fuels. It offsets this consumption through education about ecological living in hopes that these practices will take root in other communities. Findhorn is a unique place where spirituality, social justice, and ecological sustainability combine in a communal expression of humanity’s potential.

My goal in writing this book was not to cover exhaustively every aspect of each ecovillage, but rather to focus on the most innovative strategies employed to reduce their impact on the environment and improve quality of life. At each ecovillage, I tour its facilities, interviewed residents, and experienced living in community. My intention is not to promote ecovillages as the “correct” way to live or the solution to society’s social and environmental problems. In my conclusion, I point out some of the challenges and shortcomings of ecovillages as a solution to our ecological crisis. What I hope to convey is an intimate look at an alternative way of life and the remarkable stories of the men and women who had the courage to live in accordance with their principles and to carry out that vision in a community rather than as individuals. It is the story of dreamers with simple desires and enormous ingenuity: the desire for food, shelter, nature, and community, age old longings of the human heart that they found were no longer being fulfilled by modern society. It is a story of hope in hard times.

Works Cited

“Sprawl Overview”.  Sierra Club April 8 2010. <http://www.sierraclub.org/sprawl/overview/&gt;.

Baldwin, Robert F., et al. “Relationship between Spatial Distribution of Urban Sprawl and Species Imperilment: Response to Brown and Laband.” Conservation Biology 21 2 (2007): 546-48. Print.

Cervero, Robert. “Transit-Oriented Development in America.” New Urbanism and Beyond Ed. Haas, Tigran. New York Rizzoli International Publications 2008. 124-29. Print.

Dawson, Jonathan. Ecovillages : New Frontiers for Sustainability. Schumacher Briefing No. 12. Totnes: Green Books, 2006. Print.

Duany, Andres, and Elizabeth Pater-Zyberk. “The Tradtional Nieghborhood and Urban Sprawl ” New Urbanism and Beyond Ed. Haas, Tigran. New York Rizzoli International Publications 2008. 64-66. Print.

Farr, Douglas. Sustainable Urbanism : Urban Design with Nature. Wiley Book on Sustainable Design. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2008. Print.

Forys, Elizabeth A., and Craig R.  Allen. “The Impacts of Sprawl on Biodiversity: The Ant Fauna of the Lower Florida Keys.” Ecology & Society 10 1 (2005): 1-14. Print.

Frumkin, Howard. “Urban Sprawl and Public Health.” Public Health Reports 117 3 (2002): 17p. Print.

Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia : Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print.

—. Seven American Utopias : The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1976. Print.

Nystrom, Louise. “Restraining Sprawl: A Common Interest to Enhance the Quality of Life for All ” New Urbanism and Beyond Ed. Haas, Tigran. New York Rizzoli International Publications 2008. 93-97. Print.


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