It began with a walk. A very long walk. Joan Bokaer and Liz Walker were single mothers with a passion for social justice when they led 150 people on a “Global Walk for a Livable World” from Los Angeles to Washington DC. Through high deserts, the steaming back country of Missouri and over the Appalachian mountains, the group visited numerous communities and gave talks on sustainable living. During the course of the walk Joan learned about cohousing, a movement that originated in Denmark in the 1960s and later spread to the US. In cohousing, a group of people living close to each other share a common house where they have meals together and share amenities such as play space, tools, green space and laundry facilities. It embodies the idea that community living was more socially rich as well as ecologically sustainable. Joan seized on the idea of creating an ecological cohousing community in her hometown Ithaca, New York. In 1992, Ecovillage at Ithaca (EVI) was born.
With an ecological footprint about half of the American average, Ecovillage at Ithaca (EVI) is a much talked about and studied model in sustainable living in America. The average resident at EVI has a footprint of 14 acres compared to the 24 acres of the general American population. Built on 195 acres, 90 percent of which is kept as a conservation easement, the community is home to 120 individuals. The first neighborhood, FROG (First Resident Group), was completed in 1997 and the second neighborhood, SONG (Second Neighborhood Group) came soon after in 2002. Along the way the community experienced many challenges, including a fire that burned down the first neighborhood so that it had to be rebuilt. Joan Bokaer quit as director in 1996, and Liz Walker took on the responsibility of leading development. Families and individuals that had committed to the project pulled out midway, and it took thirteen years for the community to pay off the debt from the land purchase. EVI has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, PBS, CNN, and numerous other publications.
When I arrived at EVI in May 2009, the sun was already setting behind the rolling Adirondack hills. Birds twittered in the long grass and lilacs perfumed the evening air. Lake Cayuga, the longest of the Finger Lakes, stretches thin and blue into the distance. The towers of Cornell University could be seen atop the hill opposite the valley nestled between gorges and crystal waterfalls. A girl with olive skin and bright green eyes peddled by on her bicycle, followed by her sister and two friends. Linda, the visitor coordinator, greeted me at the FROG common house. We walked through the village to pick up some plants from one of the residents. Wisteria climbed up the trellises over the doors of the houses and tulips, pansies, dandelions and vegetables dot the small front gardens. A sandpit with picnic tables and swing set occupied the middle of the neighborhood where children and parents gathered to unwind before dinner. Linda carefully uprooted some rhubarb from a green patch with a shovel and put them in her wheelbarrow, while I picked several stalks of asparagus for dinner. Back at the common house, I cook the asparagus with some tofu. They taste fresh and green and tender.
Before EVI bought the 195 acre West Hill property, Lakeside Development Corporation planned to build 150 homes on 1 acre lots on the site. Ninety percent of the land would have been taken up by houses, yards, roads and parking lots. The neighborhood would have been uniform homes dependent on cars and planted with ornamental trees and shrubs, the kind of development taking place outside of cities all over the United States. EVI turned this model around completely. Ten percent of the land at EVI is developed and ninety percent conserved for wildlife habitat, organic agriculture and open space. The village itself, with its 60 homes, is built on only 8 acres of the 195 acre site. The organic farm occupies 10 acres. Fifty-five acres is placed in a permanent conservation easement bordering the village.
Instead of suburban lawns, EVI takes a natural approach to landscaping. Residents grow flowers and vegetables on the land immediately adjacent to their homes. What is not closely cultivated by the residents is mostly left to nature. During the summer, the field around the village is mowed once a week. Dandelions, clovers, crabgrass and all manner of weeds grow in profusion, a state that would inspire horror in a conventional lawn specialist. Beyond the village boundary, the land falls away to forests, wetlands, and open fields. Bobolinks, robins, blue jays and all manner of birds nest in the trees and grass, their calls create a huge symphony of nature. Frogs and insects join them on warm summer nights. Even though the town of Ithaca is only two miles away, EVI is sanctuary to the myriad of animals and plants that call this region home.
EVI is also working to restore the land to increase its biodiversity. Much of the site had been farmland in the centuries before EVI came to it. The soil had been depleted and bales of hay stand forlornly on the fields. The hay was so degraded that farmers wouldn’t even haul it away for free. EVI received a small grant from the USDA to restore an initial 12 acre parcel. Villagers remove invasive species, spread mulch and plant native species on the site. With the help of nature, EVI hopes to raise the numbers of endangered species on site and educate the community about the local ecosystem. Restoring the natural habitat also enhances agriculture by improving soil quality and inviting natural pest predators.
The two neighborhoods of EVI were built at separate times and have slightly different aesthetics. The first neighborhood, affectionately called FROG (First Resident Group), is two parallel rows of eight duplexes, tightly compacted and uniform in design, with a winding path between them. The duplexes range from 900 square foot one bedroom designs to 1650 five bedroom designs. FROG homes were designed by a single architect and have a standardized layout. The second neighborhood SONG (Second Neighborhood Group) consists of unpainted, clapboard duplexes with unique designs, larger front yards and a more spacious feel. Home owners themselves designed the duplexes and construction took place in various stages. The homes in SONG are bigger, more individualized, and spread farther apart, but still closer together than traditional suburban developments. They also cost more to build and took longer time and more negotiation among the residents. FROG looks and feels more like a medieval village, while SONG has a homestead-on-the-prairie feel. The two neighborhoods are connected by a bridge crossing a dip in the path. Cars parked adjacent to the village allow the village itself to have a quieter, more bucolic feel. Children run freely up and down the paths and through the fields. Adults pause outside of their houses to socialize. The density of the village promotes social interaction, conserves energy, and conserves land.
Ithaca and upstate New York is an area known for its long, harsh winters. As such, energy conservation is critical to its environmental impact. With heating bills that range from 25-80 dollars a month, it is estimated that EVI residents use 40 percent less gas and electricity than typical homes in the northeastern United States. Homes in the village are built for maximum energy efficiency. Each duplex is situated for maximum solar gain. High efficiency triple paned windows face south to take advantage of natural light and heat. Awnings let in low winter sun while blocking high summer sun. The super insulated walls are packed with recycled newspaper in an innovative, double wall design that allows plumbing and wiring to run completely inside insulating barrier. A shared hot water system boils water for every eight homes. The neighborhood currently does not use renewable energy but centralized energy centers will make installing them easy when they become feasible. In addition, the small size of the homes and tightly clustered layout allow residents to make better use of the heating.
While green buildings and natural green space are points of pride for residents, the essence of EVI’s ecological experiment consists in communal living, the cohousing model that initially sparked the vision for EVI. The FROG common house is a beautiful light-filled structure overlooking the village pond with a large dining room that seats 80 people, kitchen, living room, with a separate corridor with offices, a play room, laundry room, mailroom and guest bedroom. The common house is always alive with residents cooking, eating, meeting, children playing, or just hanging out. Four times a week, the community cooks and eats dinner together in the common house dining room. A resident can sign out the entire common house for her use once a year if she’s having a family reunion, for example. Other times, one can sign out the use of the dining room or living room for smaller gatherings. With the common house, the private residences at EVI can be much smaller because everyone has access to a larger facility nearby.
A lot of items in the community are purchased communally. Communal purchasing results in a less waste and saves money for individuals. The community buys food for the common meals. Eggs, tofu, flour, sugar, and salt are bought in bulk and resold to individuals. Recently, the ecovillage bought a tractor. Every household pays a maintenance bill (about $500 a year) which covers property taxes, capital reserve funds, repair, coop expenses, and high speed internet.
In addition to communal meals, the ecovillage lowers the environmental impact of food consumed by participating in community supported agriculture. The organic farm at EVI produces organic produce to feed 1000 families in the Ithaca area during the growing season. The owners of the farm have built a sustainable enterprise selling shares of their produce to residents at EVI and the larger community. A share costs $300-500 a year and feeds a family of 2-4 people during the growing season (June-November). Shareholders receive a portion of whatever is produced on the farm delivered to them every week. Residents can also volunteer to work on the farm in exchange for a share.
To be a part of the ecovillage, every person gives 2-4 hours of work per week on a work team. There is the cooking team cooks, the dishwashing and clean-up team, the common house cleaning team, maintenance team, landscaping team, recycling team, etc. Doing chores together in this way increases the efficiency of work and allows for a finer division of labor. Everyone can find something suited to his or her abilities or interests. Members also participate in committees that help the village run smoothly. There is a land use committee, a social events committee, an education committee, a planning committee, finance committee, etc. When a large job needs to be done, such as building a bridge between the two neighborhoods, the community throws a work party and everyone shows up to help. With so much to do at EVI, everyone is extremely busy, but with each person doing her own part, the whole adds up to greater than the sum of its parts.
Jim, a resident from SONG, calls everyone to attention. The residents are gathered in the SONG common house for the weekly neighborhood meeting followed by the monthly village meeting. Everyone settles themselves comfortably on the couches, chairs, and cushions on the floor. One woman pulls out her knitting. After introducing guests, he asks, “How do we improve the effectiveness of our communication at this meeting?” Several hands go up. Greg says, “Listen with respect and compassion.” Tim offers, “Speak purposefully and thoughtfully.”
The discussion of neighborhood issues touch on a variety of concerns and initiatives. Some residents want more space to garden. One resident feels that increasing land for those on the south side of the village is unfair to those who live on the north side. The garage is overflowing with junk and some of it has been falling on residents’ cars. The SONG neighborhood could use more signs to help people find places, but does that give the village an institutional feel? Not everyone is comfortable with that.
After the break, the meeting convenes with both neighborhoods in attendance. Someone has made vegan brownies and they are eagerly passed around the room. The topic under discussion is the planning of the third ecovillage neighborhood, TREE (Third Residential Ecovillage Experience), which has been underway for a year. The initial EVI plan envisioned five neighborhoods on the site. Currently the verdict is that four is feasible. The issue is fraught with tension as many residents are excited about expansion while others feel overwhelmed by it and don’t want things to change. Liz Walker, the director of EVI, updates the group on the timeline and progress of the neighborhood.
“The time line feels a little rushed,” says Marci, a FROG resident, “I’m dreading the prospect of attending five planning meetings next month to discuss what needs to take place at TREE, on top of everything else we have to do.”
“It’s so hard enough keeping with everything with two neighborhoods,” sighs Lisa, “I don’t know how I will cope with more meetings, more neighbors to get to know and more emails to go through.”
“We need to rethink our social infrastructure,” says Elan, SONG resident. “We devote so much attention to the physical infrastructure of sustainability that I think we sometimes neglect the social aspect.”
Murmurs of agreement arise in the room.
“The planning process at TREE has already been going on for a year,” says Jared, “we don’t want to rush anyone but at the same time the longer this takes the more we have to pay the contractors.”
“If we have to use consensus to reach every decision on TREE, it’s going to take a long time, as we already know from the cat policy,” Sue added.
As other residents raise their hands, Jim, the facilitator, writes down their names in the order in which they raised, and calls on them in turn.
No one is very happy with what is happening, and the discussion seems to head towards a whining fest with everyone adding their woes to the pile. Liz Walker pauses the conversation to summarize what she has heard. “It seems to me that what people are saying is that they need more time,” she says matter-of-factly. “At the same time, the residents and contractors of TREE have their deadlines that they want to adhere to as much as possible. But we know this is a community process, and we can take more time if that’s what people feel they need. Would it be helpful then, if those who feel they need more time think about what issues they specifically want to address and set a timeline that they think would be reasonable, keeping in mind the needs of the residents and contractors at TREE?”
Immediately, a wave of relief seems to wash over the group, and people nod thoughtfully at Liz’s proposal.
“I’m so grateful you said that, Liz,” Lisa replies, “Your calm presence and focus is so good for us right now. If I were you I would be so stressed I wouldn’t know what to do.”
By the end of the meeting, the group agrees on several action items: to communicate the need for more time to planning members of TREE, and for residents of FROG and SONG to agree to a timeline that they would be comfortable with while taking into account the pressures of TREE. The rest of the vegan brownies are devoured and the residents head home.
In a traditional development, every household has its own building and land which it can do whatever it wants with. At EVI, many innovations require cooperation from the entire community and so a clear decision making process is essential for running things smoothly. EVI agreed early on that decisions in the community would be made by consensus. That means that a decision is only taken when there is no one opposed. If one person doesn’t agree with the action, she can block the decision. The community then tries to work with that person to help her understand the majority’s opinion or to come to a compromise. With 90 households, this is really hard! Sometimes, even very minor decisions are debated over and over with no conclusive results.
For example, the community was concerned that there were too many cats in the ecovillage decimating the local bird population, which the community was at pains to revive. However, those who owned cats regarded them as members of their family and hated to restrict their freedom. At first the community tried to implement a policy where only one cat was allowed per household. But a woman who owned several cats would not hear of it. Then the community compromised that those who owned cats would confine them indoors during the nesting season. But how would such a policy be enforced? Nobody wants to be the police in an ecovillage. Would EVI residents be allowed to acquire new cats? After two years, the community remains undecided over its cat policy.
Some issues are time sensitive and cannot wait for the lengthy process of consensus decision making. One such decision was the decision over whether EVI should allow the town of Ithaca to install a water tank on the site. Ithaca needed the water tank to service its citizens and the tank would enable EVI to fulfill its vision of four neighborhoods. However, many residents objected to the tank because they felt that it was ugly and intrusive. For months, EVI residents debated the effect of the water tank on property values, they stood on the sites where the tank could be situated, they negotiated with the town regarding the remunerations they would receive, held forums and talking circles. Midway through the process, a vote taken on the issue revealed that 60% were willing to take the tank and 40% were strongly opposed or unhappy but could live with it. After much hand wringing and long email chains, the decision was finally taken to the Ecovillage Board, a small group of people who has the final say on community regulations. The board took a vote, and found all except one in support of taking the tank. The issue was closed. The tank was built.
As the community has grown it has become increasingly difficult to resolve conflicts through consensus, as the cat policy and the water tank both demonstrate. The villagers seem to be coming to consensus on the fact that consensus is unsustainable in a large group, and the community would be better served through a representative democracy on some issues. But a part of the group still feels that consensus process itself tests the community’s ability to work together and bring the group to greater harmony. Conflict resolution demands that members answer the questions: How do you support the community and still let your voice be heard? How do you speak so that others respect your opinion? How does the community make a decision without alienating any of its members? How does the community consider an issue thoroughly without taking up too much time to make a decision? Conflicts are inevitable among people who live in close proximity to each other and share the resources of land and materials. Only through education, communication, and compassion can the community realize the social and ecological benefits of living in an ecovillage.
Parenting and Children
Karryn is a mother of two who moved to EVI from a suburb in Northern Virginia. “The price of housing was exorbitant,” says Karryn, “and I had to drive an hour to take my children to a play date. I told the other moms that this was ridiculous. When the other moms looked at me like I was nuts, that’s when I thought, I need to move out of the suburbs.” Karryn and her husband Krishna wanted to move to a small college town that would be great for kids. Karryn is a permaculture consultant and very interested in sustainable living, so EVI was a great fit for them. “It’s paradise for the children, she says. “They all play together outside and I don’t have to worry about them being in traffic. All the neighbors look out for the children. The children get to interact with children of different ages and adults on so many levels.”
Are there any drawbacks to raising children at EVI?
“One problem is that the children are so involved with their friends who all live so close by that it’s hard for us to spend time together as family. We have to set aside time just to be together. Another problem is that there is no common culture around parenting. All too often, the least common denominator prevails. My children think I’m a slave driver because their friends’ parents are not as strict.”
Liz Walker, who has raised two sons at EVI says that children at EVI get a head start. “They are very confident,” she tells me, “They grow up with many friends of various ages and have a deep sense of place. The other day when we had a group music night, the children got up and performed right along with the adults. We all cheered and supported them. They grow up feeling very loved by the community.”
Before the community dinner on Monday night, Eli introduces me to Malia, a ten year old who moved to EVI with her family from Hawaii.
“How do you like living here?” I asked her.
“It’s awesome!” She replied with dancing blue eyes, making a thumbs up motion, “I have made more friends here in one year than I did in my entire life.”
“What do you and the other children like to do?”
“We play outside. In the summer we pick berries and swim in the pond. In the winter we go sledding and have snowball fights. We play in the rain and sun and snow. I also like to help cook.”
“Do you watch TV?”
“Almost never! We would rather play outside!”
“What do you not like?”
“When I have to stay inside and play by myself.”
Dinner is ready and everyone lines up to help themselves to the delicious buffet. A father and son pause their guitar lesson in the common house living room to join the feast. Outside, mothers pushing children on swings laugh with them by the light of the setting sun. As everyone settles merrily down at tables, it is evident that the benefit of living in community extends far beyond the ecological.
Spreading the Word
While the residents of EVI form a discrete residential community, they are far from being isolated and self-absorbed. The community is constantly trying to push the boundaries and they are eager to share their learnings in their many educational initiatives. One of their educational initiatives is their collaboration with nearby Ithaca College and Cornell University. In 2002, EVI received a three year $149,000 matching grant from the National Science Foundation to work with Ithaca College to develop a curriculum on the science of sustainability. Many of these courses involve hands-on projects that fulfill a need in the community. One year, Cornell students designed and built a bus shelter at the EVI bus stop. The bus shelter was made entirely out of recycled materials and had passive solar features. Another year students analyzed the feasibility of a wind turbine at EVI, researching costs, technologies, and resource availability. Other projects include interviewing members of the community to understand their motivation for living at EVI, and the pluses and minuses of environmental and social choices at EVI. Students from other universities, including those overseas, have come to Ithaca for internships or base their research. Over the years, six master theses and two PhDs have been completed about EVI.
EVI is also involved in the region. Working with Sustainable Tompkins, an umbrella organization in Tompkins County, New York, EVI and other area residents are working to make Tompkins County the greenest county in the country. Sustainable Tompkins provides forums for residents to discuss sustainability and guide them to resources that can help them with projects such as renovating their homes to be more energy efficient or starting a green business. The organization is leading an effort to build a Green Resource Hub in Ithaca that will be a center for public education, workforce training and professional development on green building and green purchasing. The organization also provides grants to support citizen initiatives that improve the quality of life and long term health of residents in the neighborhoods.
A recent educational initiative at EVI involves training new farmers in sustainable agriculture. Agriculture in America has become dominated by large corporations obsessed with yield and profit. Hundreds of thousands of small farms have been put out of business, unable to compete with the large companies that rely on incessant applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep their crops growing. EVI received a three year grant from the USDA to develop an educational program that would teach new farmers in the methods of sustainable agriculture. The community supported agriculture at EVI is part of a growing movement to restore local farming enterprises and promote farming practices that are healthier for people, the planet, and local communities.
While life at EVI sounds like an environmentalist and socialist’s dream, the community itself is far from perfect. The cohousing model and shared governance creates challenges that ordinary citizens do not have to deal with. For one, EVI’s ecological footprint could be a lot smaller. While it is only half of the average American footprint (14 acres per person), it is nearly twice as much as that of Findhorn, the ecovillage in Scotland founded in 1962 (8 acres per person). Several things contribute to EVI’s comparatively larger footprint. EVI does not use renewable energy (with the exception of solar hot water). Solar panels and wind turbines are still prohibitively expensive in the United States and wind and solar resources are not particularly good in this part of the country. Ithaca’s cold climate necessitates high energy expenditures in the winter. EVI’s waste water treatment systems are also conventional; the village does not have grey water systems or compost toilets. Travel is another aspect. One study found that air travel made up 10 percent of EVI’s total footprint.
“Transportation could be a lot better,” says Steve, one of the earliest residents at EVI. Even with residents being extremely conscientious about driving less, poor public transportation and the lack of amenities within walking distance still makes owning a car a necessity. Currently, almost half of the households get by with one car, but no one in the village goes by without a car. The bus that comes by EVI stops at the bottom of the entrance road, so that residents have to walk half a mile to get to it. Service is extremely limited. Only a handful of residents including Steve take the bus regularly. Steve tells me, “A few years ago, the village decided to put $30,000 towards rebuilding the access road because it was seriously worn down, and I blocked the consensus because I felt that it was not right that we invest so much money towards infrastructure for cars and do nothing to improve alternative transportation. The village compromised with me by agreeing to set aside some of the money towards an alternative transportation fund. All that has been accomplished with the fund is the building of a bus shelter. We didn’t have much of a choice at the time but ideally the village should have been situated within easy access of public transportation.”
Consensus as a decision making process is undergoing reevaluation as well. One resident says “it takes way too much time and nothing gets done.” Another noted that “it is such an emotional process.” “I would be happy to go to an 80 percent majority vote at this time,” says Liz Walker, the founder of the ecovillage. “A lot of the conflicts that we have here could be avoided if a clear vision was defined from the beginning,” says Karryn. “Currently the vision statement is really broad and is subject to different interpretations. At one point some residents left because the community decided to serve meat at the communal meals. They felt that was fundamentally opposed to the principles of an ecovillage. If these provisions were made clear from the beginning, it would be a lot easier for residents to agree to them before they move in instead of having to work out these issues after everyone has settled in.”
Another issue that has divided the community is gardening. SONG especially, planned its neighborhood to incorporate communal gardens. However, shortly after the neighborhood was constructed, several individuals with multiple chemical sensitivities moved in. In order to accommodate them, the community garden had to be given up. The “eco” part of the village mission favors growing one’s own food, but the community part of the village asks that once residents have moved in, everyone work out problems to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. EVI felt this tension when it defined its mission. The founders wanted the village to be as ecological as possible, but it also wanted to be mainstream enough to appeal to middle-class Americans.
Ultimately EVI was created as an alternative to suburbia, and as the village strives towards becoming a self-sufficient, zero-carbon community, it comes against limitations put in place by the original plan. Residents live a communal lifestyle, but they can be less involved if they chose to. They have regular jobs. At EVI, homes are beautifully situated on top of a hill overlooking hills and vales and forests. However, the location is not ideal for rainwater collection. Gardening immediately around the village requires deer fences and other obstructions, which has not received approval due to objections of blocking the view. Tree planting around the neighborhood has received the same objections, even though trees would help the village conserve energy. Because consensus favors the status quo, the consensus process has prevented the village from implementing more radical sustainability measures. Some people have left because they have not been able to live as sustainably as they thought they would at EVI.
Elan, a lecturer at Ithaca College and leader of educational programs at EVI, spoke about the need for more social infrastructure and diversity. A resident of SONG, Elan moved to EVI after having lived in a cohousing community in Berkeley, California. “We put so much effort into building the physical infrastructure to make this place more sustainable,” he says, “but we don’t put nearly half of the effort into the social and spiritual aspects, which are just as important to sustainability. The social aspect absolutely benefits the ecological. When you don’t have depth of communication with people you can’t do ecological work. Trust, vulnerability and cooperation are essential for behavioral change.”
Access and diversity are another challenge. A 2002 demographic survey of EVI showed that the village population was 90 percent white, 99 percent college educated with 40 percent having master or doctoral degrees. Liz Walker said, “The homes at EVI, especially at FROG, were built to be quite affordable. But as residents moved and resold them, the price of the houses have gone up considerably. Now it is impossible for a low income person such as myself to buy a house in this neighborhood.” Steve added, “It is quite difficult to put down 20 percent of your house before it is built. Low income people can’t afford new construction.”
“In the long term,” said Elan, “it is cheaper to live here than in a traditional development. Our utility bills are smaller, our houses are smaller, and we can easily borrow stuff from the common house or our neighbors. But our close location to town and the community itself has made this place a premium on the market. Our houses sell for much higher than a house of similar size in another neighborhood. We have some low income residents who rent, and residents of all ages, but we have very few nonwhite residents. As environmentalists, we should be doing more to show that sustainability cannot be achieved without dealing with poverty and injustice. It is not just about trees or polar bears. It’s about rectifying the situation where a small portion of the population consume most of the world’s resources while a majority have access to next to nothing.”
EVI’s plan for a third neighborhood, TREE, involves making the ecovillage experience more accessible to diverse individuals. The planning committee intends to build a multiunit residence that would be attached to the common house. The smaller units would enable more low income, singles, or childless couples to move to EVI. Immediate access to the common house would conserve resources and enable individuals with physical disabilities to use its facilities.
Implications for Sustainable Urban Development
EVI’s huge appeal can be seen in the tremendous media attention they have received and the high selling prices of houses at EVI, but can they be easily replicated and become mainstream? Asked about the reproducibility of EVI for large scale sustainable development, the residents are optimistic. “People come here and think the place is wonderful,” says Steve, “The community is safe, it’s a good environment for children to grow up in. We have a high quality of life.” Many residents at EVI are like much of the general American population. They grew up in cities or suburbs, have jobs, and are college educated. Many of them came to EVI because they were tired of the suburbs with its congestion and isolation, wanted to live closer to nature, and be part of a community. A 2002 survey showed that while half of the residents came to EVI for its ecological mission, just as many came for the community.
While some residents are worried about the growth of EVI, especially increasing social demands, expansion clearly has ecological benefits for EVI. Not only will more people have the experience of living at an ecovillage, but some sustainability features that are not possible in a small village becomes possible at a larger scale. More residents mean that the village will have greater financial resources for projects such as renewable energy and public transportation. The community could have its own shuttle in addition to a car share program. They may be able to install their own biological sewage treatment system. With enough economy of scale, the community could cater to its own needs and develop a stronger internal economy. For example, the community could have its own coffee shop, store, and onsite educational programs.
Currently, planning regulations prevent developments like EVI from easily taking root. For example, New York State regulates that every house comes with 1.3 parking lots even if those parking lots are not needed. Composting toilets are not allowed, neither are narrow roads or natural drainage. To implement such measures require enormous regulatory effort. In many cases, those who wish to develop according to alternative methods cannot get financing.
“We are building a green community and culture, rather than individual state-of-the-art green buildings,” Writes Liz Walker in the 2000 issue of Building Green Community on a Budget. “My advice for building a green community on a budget, is to forget the latest solar gizmos and instead to take a giant step back to look at the whole picture. Where will you locate to minimize travel distances? How much land will be used for housing vs. open space? What energy-saving concepts can be designed into your buildings from the start? How can you best integrate food production? How will you conserve water? What lessons can you learn from nature’s designs? Perhaps most importantly, how will you nurture a green culture in your community—one that supports people to share resources and knowledge and laughter and tears? How will you share what you learn with the broader public?”
At the end of the day, the strongest appeal of places like EVI may be the community element. For people like Jim and Katie Bosjolie, a retired couple at EVI, the community is their family as well as safety net. “The best thing about living in community is that everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the worst thing about living in community is that everyone knows everything about everyone else,” says Jim, whose favorite activities at EVI include pancake breakfasts at the SONG common house and the Thursday night sing alongs. “I don’t have much family,” he says, “My parents are dead, I’m an only child, and I have no children of my own. The community is my family, and we all care for each other. Last year, our neighbor fell down the stairs and had a concussion. The community took turns driving his children to school. We visited him in the hospital with his wife. We all made sure that they were getting the help they needed. Another time, a couple who lived across from me got divorced. I was friends with both of them and was deeply affected by what was happening to them. I thought, why should I care? This is their business. But I did care. I couldn’t help it.”
It is 10am on a Tuesday morning in EVI. The sun is shining brightly and several residents have gathered in the common house kitchen to get a portion of the leftovers from the communal dinner last night. I needed a ride downtown to catch the bus to New York City. Instead of calling a taxi, Elan sends out an email to the community listserv asking if anyone was going to town and could give me a ride. At 10:15, a resident pulls up at the back of the FROG common house where I am waiting with my suitcase. On the way downtown, she talks excitedly about her work starting a private school with an emphasis on environmental education for K-12 children in Ithaca. It is a beautiful spring day, Ithaca and the ecovillage feel as if they evolved here organically along with the waterfalls and gorges of upstate New York. The community will continue to evolve as it tries to realize its dream of living in community in harmony with nature.
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