Ecovillages and Intentional Communities – Permaculture Design in Action

Ecovillages

Ecovillages are urban or rural communities of people, who strive to integrate a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life. To achieve this, they integrate various aspects of ecological design, permaculture, ecological building, green production, alternative energy, community building practices, and much more.

Ecovillages are one solution to the major problems of our time – the planet is experiencing the limits to growth, and our lives are often lacking meaningful content. The motivation for ecovillages is the choice and commitment to reverse the gradual disintegration of supportive social/cultural structures and the upsurge of destructive environmental practices on our planet.

For millenia, people have lived in communities close to nature, and with supportive social structures. Many of these communities, or “ecovillages”, exist to this day and are struggling for survival. Ecovillages are now being created intentionally, so people can once more live in communities that are connected to the Earth in a way that ensures the well-being of all life-forms into the indefinite future. Ecovillages, by endeavoring for lifestyles which are “successfully continuable into the indefinite future”, are living models of sustainability, and examples of how action can be taken immediately.

The social dimension of an ecovillage

Ecovillages are communities in which people feel supported by and responsible to those around them. They provide a deep sense of belonging to a group. They are small enough that everyone feels safe, empowered, seen and heard. People are then able to participate in making decisions that effect their own lives and that of the community on a transparent basis.

Community means:

  • Recognizing and relating to others
  • Sharing common resources and providing mutual aid
  • Emphasizing holistic and preventive health practices
  • Providing meaningful work and sustenance to all members
  • Integrating marginal groups
  • Promoting unending education
  • Encouraging unity through respect for differences
  • Fostering cultural expression

“Among intentional communities, the more socially motivated ones are reacting to the alienation of the individual due to institutionalization of traditional support functions, the breakdown of the family, and the marginalization of the weaker members of society. They tend to emphasize re-establishing “community” and are closely associated to the co-housing movement. The latter is closer to the mainstream and represents the easiest first step for many.” ~Ross Jackson

The ecological dimension of an ecovillage

Ecovillages allow people to experience their personal connection to the living earth. People enjoy daily interaction with the soil, water, wind, plants and animals. They provide for their daily needs – food, clothing, shelter – while respecting the cycles of nature.

Ecology means:

  • Growing food as much as possible within the community bio-region
  • Supporting organic food production there
  • Creating homes out of locally adapted materials
  • Using village-based integrated renewable energy systems
  • Protecting biodiversity
  • Fostering ecological business principles
  • Assessing the life cycle of all products used in the ecovillage from a social and spiritual as well as an ecological point of view
  • Preserving clean soil, water and air through proper energy and waste management
  • Protecting nature and safeguarding wilderness areas

The Cultural/Spiritual dimension of an ecovillage

Most ecovillages do not place an emphasis on particular spiritual practices as such, but in their own ways ecovillages respect and support – the Earth and all living beings on it; cultural and artistic enrichment and expression; and spiritual diversity.

Cultural and spiritual vitality means:

  • Shared creativity, artistic expression, cultural activities, rituals and celebrations
  • Sense of community unityand mutual support
  • Respect and support for spirituality manifesting in many ways
  • Shared vision and agreements that express commitments, cultural heritage and the uniqueness of each community
  • Flexibility and successful responsiveness to difficulties that arise
  • Understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all the elements of life on Earth and the community’s place in and relation to the whole
  • Creation of a peaceful, loving, sustainable world

Intentional Community

An “intentional community” is a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. Life inside each community is managed using established decision-making processes. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, in a suburban home, or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings. Generally, intentional communities place high value on the shared ownership or lease of common facilities — housing, land, commercial buildings — which often serves to demonstrate communal values and goals to the wider society. [More broadly, it is defined as] an interdependent, cooperative grouping of aligned humans, animals, plants, earth energies, and benevolent multidimensional beings who together comprise a sensitive, sustainable ecosystem.

This definition spans a wide variety of groups, including (but not limited to) communes, student cooperatives, land co-ops, cohousing groups, monasteries and ashrams, and farming collectives . . . The range includes Christians, Quakers, and followers of Eastern religions, to ’60s drop-outs, anarchists, psychologists, artists, back-to-the-land survivalists–and the list goes on . . . The scope of their primary values is equally broad, including ecology, equality, appropriate technology, self-sufficiency, right livelihood, humanist psychology, creativity, spirituality, meditation, yoga, and the pursuit of global peace . . . Although quite diverse in philosophy and lifestyle, each of these groups places a high priority on fostering a sense of community–a feeling of belonging and mutual support.

More than 8,000 people, including over 2,000 children, live in 186 of the more established North American intentional communities and extended family groups listing in the first edition of the Directory of Intentional Communities (1990). One hundred forty -two of those groups are rural, or have both urban and rural sites; 113 (80 percent) of the rural groups reported common holdings totalling more than 34,000 acres. Forty-four urban communities and extended families listed common holdings of 98 apartments and 46 group houses, plus additional group houses containing 113 more bedrooms. Of course, these 186 communities represent just a small fraction of the North American communities movement. There are thousands more residing in traditional monastic enclaves or service groups, tens of thousands living in Hutterite colonies, and millions of indigenous Americans living communally.

Most members of intentional communities share a deep-felt concern about home, family, and neighborhood. Beyond the obvious purpose of creating an extended-family environment for raising a family, communities create an environment of familiarity and trust sufficiently strong that doors can safely be left unlocked.

Most communities are multi-generational. In the hundreds of North American communities we know about, most members range in age from 30 to 60, with some in their 20s, some 60 and older, and many children.

Lifestyle

Communities make a wide variety of choices regarding standard of living–some embrace voluntary simplicity, while others emphasize full access to the products and services of today’s society. Communities tend to make careful choices about the accumulation and use of resources, deciding what best fits with their core values. Regardless of the choices made, nearly all communities take advantage of sharing and the opportunities of common ownership to allow individuals access to facilities and equipment they don’t need to own privately (for example power tools, washing machines, pickup trucks, and in some cases, even swimming pools).

Many established communities (20 years and older) have built impressive facilities, some of which are quite innovative in design and materials. The dollars to finance these improvements have come from successful community businesses, ranging from light manufacturing to food products, from computer services to conference centers.

Many people choose to live in community because it offers a way of life which is different, in various ways, from that of the wider society. Since living in community does not eliminate everyday responsibilities, most community members raise families, maintain and repair their land and buildings, work for a living, pay taxes, etc.

At the same time, communitarians usually perceive their lifestyle as more caring and satisfying than that of mainstream culture, and because of this–and the increased free time which results from pooling resources and specialized skills–many community members feel they can engage more effectively with the wider society. In fact, many communitarians are deeply involved in their wider community of neighbors, and often provide staffing or even leadership for various local civic and social change organizations.

Many intentional communities [has a] tendency to be open to new ideas, their willingness to be tolerant of other approaches, and their commitment to live in a way that reflects their idealism. Although communities exist that are close-minded and bigoted, they’re the exception, not the rule. More often than not, people who consciously choose to live in an intentional community also have parallel interests in ecology, personal growth, cooperation, and peaceful social transformation–pursuing the work necessary to change destructive attitudes and behaviors often taken for granted in the prevailing culture.

Because communities are by definition organized around a common vision or purpose, their members tend to hold a lot of values and beliefs in common–many more than shared among a typical group of neighbors. Still, disagreements are a common occurrence in most communities, just as in the wider society. The object of community is not so much to eliminate conflict as to learn to work with it constructively.

Politics

On the political spectrum, communitarians tend to be left of center. In terms of lifestyle choices, they tend to be hard working, peace loving, health conscious, environmentally concerned, and family oriented. Philosophically they tend toward a way of life which increases the options for their own members without limiting the choices of others.

The most common form of governance is democratic, with decisions made by some form of consensus or voting. Of the hundreds of communities we have information about, 64% are democratic, 9% have a hierarchical or authoritarian structure, 11% are a combination of democratic and hierarchical, and 16% don’t specify. Many communities which formerly followed one leader or a small group of leaders have changed in recent years to a more democratic form of governance.

Education

Dozens of intentional communities, alarmed by rising student/teacher ratios and falling literacy rates in public schools, have opted to establish alternative schools and to form communities as a base of support for that type of education . . . Other communities, usually smaller, have created rural homesteads where they can pursue homeschooling without fear of legal pressure from local school officials. State laws favorable to schooling at home have been promoted, and in some cases initiated, by members of intentional communities.

Ecology

Another popular issue these days [in intentional communities] is ecology. Over 90 percent of contemporary communities I’ve visited, including those located in urban areas, practice recycling and composting. Many serve as model environments or teaching centers for sustainable agriculture and appropriate technology, and feature such concepts as permaculture, organic gardening, grey water systems, solar and wind power, and passive solar home design.

Privacy and Publicity

The degree of privacy and autonomy in communities varies as widely as the kinds of communities themselves. In some communities individual households own their own land and house, and have their own independent economy (perhaps with shared facilities, as in many land co-ops); their degree of privacy and autonomy is nearly identical to that of mainstream society. However, in communities with specific religious or spiritual lifestyles (such as monasteries or some meditation retreats), privacy and autonomy are typically more limited, as part of the purpose for which the community was organized. Most communities fall between these two points on the privacy/held-in-common spectrum . . . one of the fastest growing segments of the communities movement today is cohousing, where residents enjoy autonomy similar to that of any planned housing development. Finding a healthy balance between individual needs and those of the community is a key issue for the `90s–in both intentional communities and the larger society in general.

Within the term intentional community, we make two distinctions: “public” or “homesteading.” Public intentional communities are dedicated to public service, outreach, educational programs, events, and networking. Such groups are broad, even global, in scope. Because interfacing with mainstream society is an essential counterpoint to experimenting with a more ideal way to live, at least some members of public communities must be in dialogue with visitors, researchers, and media representatives.

“Homesteading” communities coalesce with perhaps the same vision of living together with real caring for each other as in the public groups. However, homesteaders are not so open to visitors and have no public programs. They want, perhaps, to create a small Utopia, protected and isolated from mainstream society.

The Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), established to promote and develop democratically run communities based on equality, income sharing, nonviolence, cooperation, ecology, and sustainability . . .They created a voluntary joint security fund for protection against the economic strain of large medical bills. This fund has now grown to more than $100,000 and is used in part as a revolving loan fund that provides low-interest loans to projects and community businesses compatible with FEC values. Member communities also participate in a labor exchange program that allows residents of one community to visit another and receive labor credit at home for work done away. This is especially handy when one community’s peak workload occurs during another’s off season, and the labor flows back and forth when most appreciated. The exchange of personnel also offers an opportunity to take a mini-vacation, learn a new skill, make new friends, maintain old ones, and share insights about common experiences . . . They have [also] created a “Systems & Structures Package”–a compilation of written documents on bylaws, membership agreements, property codes, behavior norms, labor and governance systems, visitor policies, and ideas about what to do when you have too many dogs. The point of sharing this information is to help new (and even some not-so-new) communities ease through the struggles of creating appropriate structures, offering models for what to do when good will and best intentions are not enough.

Future

It is apparent that people–dissatisfied with the gap between their ideals and reality–will keep trying out new approaches until they find lifestyles that solve most of the problems they see in the dominant culture. History suggests that the process is endless.

Although shared living does not appeal to everyone, history confirms again and again that ongoing social experiments inevitably lead to a variety of new social and technical innovations–developments that will eventually find many useful applications in other segments of society. It’s hard to predict just when an intentional community will come up with something new that will be assimilated by mainstream culture. However, if social experimenting results in a product, a process, or a philosophy that makes life a little easier or a bit more fulfilling, then we’d be well advised to keep an open mind as we monitor the progress.

Keywords : ecovillage, intentional community, permaculture, human habitat, design, cities and villages, housing, agriculture, civilization, spirituality, ecolovy, society, community, family, children, education, ecosocial crisis, sustainability, institutional diversity, policentricity, participatory democracy, self-governance, co-intelligence, co-responsibility, self-organization, interdependent self-reliance, appropriate science and technology.
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This article is a summary of the following articles :

  1. “Introduction to Ecovillages” at the website of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) at http://gen.ecovillage.org/
  2. “Intentional Communities: Lifestyles Based on Ideals” by Geoph Kozeny of Community Catalyst Project, San Francisco, California at http://www.ic.org/pnp/cdir/1995/01kozeny.php
  3. “Who We Are: An Exploration of What ‘Intentional Community’ Means” by Dan Questenberry at http://www.ic.org/pnp/cdir/1995/05quest.php
  4. “What’s True About Intentional Communities: Dispelling the Myths”, Compiled by the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, October 1996 at http://www.ic.org/pnp/myths.php

4 thoughts on “Ecovillages and Intentional Communities – Permaculture Design in Action

  1. I’m surprised to see citations of the 1990 guide as authoritative (this is an observation that the source articles need to be updated, not a critique of the summary itself); the FIC’s Communities Directory is now in its fifth edition, with a new one due this year.

    The summary draws some broad conclusions that may make it technically inaccurate with regard to some types of intentional communities. For example, cohousing communities appear to fall into the “homesteading” category, yet are very integrated with mainstream society, with people holding regular jobs, conventional mortgages, kids enrolled in public and private schools, and often activism and engagement with the larger communities around them (for example, a Denver cohousing community, immediately upon move-in, went to work helping the neighborhood fight off a Wal-Mart; an Emeryville (CA-San Francisco East Bay) cohousing neighborhood got one of its members elected to the school board. Many cohousing communities are regionally organizing to host tours and share best practices, fostered by the Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US) — note that national cohousing tour day is coming up May 19, in Denver, Seattle, Washington, D.C., the SF Bay Area, and Boston — sign up today.

    The assertion that “many established communites have impressive facilities… funded by community businesses” reflects a different development model than cohousing communities typically follow. Cohousing groups usually develop the entire project, including extensive common facilities, before move-in, financed through a professional developer with a construction loan, and get individual-unit mortgages that pay for the entire project at the time of move-in. Changes after move in tend to be relatively minor in scope, although “retrofit” or “organic” cohousing neighborhoods start with existing structures and sometimes add common facilities (and knock down fences to expand when neighbors are willing) over time.

    One last thing perhaps worthy of mention: the types you enumerate are not exclusive. For instance, some ecovillages use the cohousing model to create neighborhoods within their communities. You can think of cohousing as the fast-growing, conservative sector of the intentional communities movement.

    Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach, Planning for Sustainable Communities
    Living in Berkeley (CA) Cohousing
    Boardmember, Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC)

    P.S. Your typeface and color for this site is extremely difficult to read on my MacBook screen using Firefox;

  2. First and foremost, I am surprised by the speed of response on a new article in a new website such as mine, from a person with full authority in an organization of the same level of authority such as yours. And i thank you for your invaluable insights. May i know where and how you find this summary ?

    ————————-

    The truth is, i can not and did not call the summary as authoritative, since i really am no expert on this subject.

    Whenever possible i try to get the newest source for a summary i make on a subject. However, from where i live now, the internet is my most reachable source in terms of cost in financial term, and in term of time needed. And you can not obtain many new articles (let alone books) for free or for cheap on the internet.

    Thus, the next best thing i can think of, is to get to the website/article of someone or some organization who actually is the expert on the subject i am researching. And for this case, on permaculture, ecovillages and intentional communities, i did precisely that.

    Three articles i used for my summary, as you surely must have realized, comes from a section called “Reference Articles” from a website called “Intentional Communities – A Project of the FIC”, which is part of your organization’s project.

    It would be nice of course, if your newest directory (with the newest and most authoritative article) is available in a local library i can go to. But let alone libraries (which is limited in numbers and collections in this part of the world)… local book shop here don’t even, or very rarely, sell books with a “quite non-mainstream” subjects such as intentional community. Even if i can found one in a book shop which sells the latest volumes on foreign books (written in english), the price of the book will simply exceed the amount of money i have in my wallet :)

    It would be nice if people and organizations publishing articles or books for “a better world” follows the footsteps of Lester Brown of the WorldWatch Institute (who publishes digital versions of his book, “Eco-Economy” and “Plan B” for free to download) or Paul Hawken (who did the same for his book “Natural Capitalism”), considering ofcourse, the financial sustainability of him/herself and the organization’s.

    But for now, a kind update containing the most recent authoritative articles on intentional communitites (not all of them, just the most important ones) in your “Reference Articles” section of the website would suffice i believe, and be more than gladly welcomed by researchers-on-a-budget such as myself :)

    ———————-

    As for the correction on co-housing and “homesteading”, the development model of co-housing projects and type exclusivity of ecovillages and ICs, i could not agree more, thank you.

    It is my dream to one day be able to travel round the world visiting (and living if possible) great places, not just sites where tourists go, but also sites such as ecovillages and intentional communities. Maybe someday i will be able to join one of your tours.

    In Indonesia, so far, i only heard of about three such intentional communities, without exact information about their whereabout or present condition. And believe it or not, from what i heard, one of them is a government project . . . (which might probably translate to funding from foreign debt money)

    As for the site’s readability, since it’s html, i should be able to change font color, type and size for my entries through my desktop bloggin application. I’d just have to learn how to do that i guess.

    Many thanks for the insights and suggestions.

  3. First and foremost, I am surprised by the speed of response on a new article in a new website such as mine, from a person with full authority in an organization of the same level of authority such as yours. And i thank you for your invaluable insights. May i know where and how you find this summary?

    I have a technorati feed set up so that I am notified if anyone uses the word “cohousing” or “co-housing” anywhere on any indexed blog.

    The site is more readable now indoors, but yesterday in the sun the small type in white on black was difficult to read.

    The directory is available online, so you don’t need to find it in a library or pay for it:
    http://directory.ic.org/

    However, the articles you cite are not posted there for free yet. I’ll use this exchange to bring the gap to the attention of people who might be able to make it happen.

    Thanks for your coverage of this subject!

    Raines
    who should make it clear that I’m speaking on my own behalf, not that of the FIC or anyone else.

    P.S. It might be worth noting in your Dr. Donella Meadows article reprints that she passed away in 2001. I’ve visited the cohousing community in Vermont that she founded and her spirit definitely lives on there. Note the Sustainability Institute, which maintains the copyright on her articles, has a simple procedure to ask permission to reprint/re-use. Her passing is ironic given her Edward Abbey quote in the “Not So Fast” piece you excerpt:

    “…I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.’’

    Good advice. Too bad I don’t have time to take it.

  4. Thank you, i’ve look arond a bit on the online Directory. I’m sure it will be of great use for me in a not-so-distant future. For now, let alone establishing an IC, or transforming communities to ICs, it is quite difficult to even find a person who ever heard of that term here.

    Knowledge diffusion does indeed take time.

    Thank you for your information and comments. This is a subject i’m sure i’ll go back to as i learn some more. I hope you would be so kind to also provide invaluable feedbacks such as this in the future.

    Wit.
    P.S. At first, it does appear like an irony, but since i believe she is one of those larger-than-life human, her “life” already outlived the bastards of yesterday and will certainly do so for those of today and of tomorrow. That i believe, is the function of “enlightened ones” are supposed to serve.

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