A look into intentional communities and ecovillages, Diana Leafe Christian highlights appealing living alternatives for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle.
Finding community is as critical as obtaining food and shelter, since the need to belong is what makes us human. The isolation and loneliness of modern life have led many people to search for deeper connection, which has resulted in a renewed interest in intentional communities. In Finding Community (New Society Publishers, 2007) Diana Leafe Christian takes a look at these intentional communities or ecovillages; an appealing choice for like-minded people who seek to create a family-oriented and ecologically sustainable lifestyle -- a lifestyle they are unlikely to find anywhere else.
1.You’ll live on the planet with a smaller ecological footprint.
Clearly sharing resources not only saves money but reduces environmental impact. If we cluster housing, we’re using less land for buildings and have more land to grow food (or leave as wilderness). If we use common-wall housing units with shared foundations and roofs we’re saving building materials such as wood and reducing the impacts on air, water, and soil of manufacturing concrete, sheetrock, plywood, paint, rebar, and metal lath and fasteners. If we share common utility systems, and, as many communities do, build passive solar buildings, and/or use gravity-fed spring water or roof-water catchment, we’re saving on energy use and conserving water. If, as many communities do, we recycle gray water or compost or otherwise use our kitchen, human, or packaging waste, we’re reducing the need for sewage services and reducing landfill space. If, as some communities do, we grow our own food, particularly with compost we make ourselves, we reduce the use of fossil fuel-created commercial fertilizer, petroleum-based plastic, and paper for packaging, and the impacts on air, water, and soil of transporting food long distances and storing and refrigerating it at distribution points and retail stores. And if, as some communities do, we organize a carpool or community vehicle co-op, and/or use biodiesel fuel, we are obviously benefiting the environment.
Most intentional communities and certainly ecovillages do many of these practices. Chances are that if you lived in community, you’d be impacting the Earth more beneficially, or at least less harmfully.
Several European ecovillages have found ways to measure their ecological impact. For example, Munkesoegaard, a 100-household ecovillage near Copenhagen in Denmark, learned that they used 38 percent less water than the average Danish household, and 25 percent less electricity. Carbon dioxide emissions from their wood-pellet heating system and from their electricity consumption are both 60 percent lower than the average Danish household, and Munkesoegaard residents who carpool drove only 5 percent of the Danish average.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Kassel in Germany compared carbon dioxide emissions from the daily lifestyles of the average German household, three local “ecological households,” and two German ecovillages: Kommune Niederkaufungen and Ökodorf Sieben Linden. The researchers measured CO2 emissions along the chain of events to create, use, and/or transport electricity, heating, water, and food (including the transport of food grown elsewhere to the local markets).They also measured the CO2 emissions of each member’s work and vacation travel. Given the current number of people on the planet, they determined a baseline for an acceptable level of CO2 emissions.(Not surprisingly, they found that the average German household emitted six times the minimum acceptable level of CO2 emissions.) The researchers found that the CO2 emissions of the two ecovillages were still higher than the minimum acceptable baseline, although the CO2 emissions of Ökodorf Sieben Linden, for example, were only around 28 percent of the average German household. When it came to heating their buildings, Sieben Linden’s emissions were only ten percent of the national average, and they achieved a level of six percent of the national average in all the processes involved in constructing their buildings, the materials used, etc. They also found that the two ecovillages used far less water, electricity, heating fuel, and fossil-fuel for heating and food (including transporting food), than either the ecological households or the average German household. This was because the ecovillagers lived in shared, clustered, passive-solar housing with high insulation and efficient heating systems; ate mostly vegetarian diets; grew much of their own food; and earned a living on their homesites rather than traveling to other locations very much.
The 400 members of Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland have a 40 percent smaller “ecological footprint” than the UK average, according to a 2005 study. An ecological footprint analysis measures a given population’s impact on the environment by translating the impact of its activities — buildings, clothes, food, water, energy, and all products and services used — into the amount of biologically productive land needed to create and maintain these activities. By dividing the total number of biologically productive acres on the Earth by the global population (and allowing for other species’ needs), environmentalists have determined that each person’s “fair share” — how much land one would ideally use to support their activities — is about three acres per person. While many Third World countries use far less than their fair share, with people in Nepal, for example, using less than half an acre per person, typical North Americans use about 30 acres per person and Europeans use about 15 acres per person. Yet Findhorn found that the ecological footprint of the average community member was about 8 acres, or 60 percent of the UK national average.
Cohousing communities — small, close-knit urban and suburban neighborhoods owned and managed by the residents themselves — often use “green” building materials, recycle, and use super energy- efficient heating, power, and water systems as well. In the late 1990s Australian architect Graham Meltzer surveyed 278 households in 12 cohousing communities in Canada, the US, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. He found reduced car use, more efficient land use, and more sustainable energy use. Specifically:
• Seventy-two percent of the cohousers surveyed reported reduced driving as well as increased biking and walking, most likely because they coordinated casual errands with neighbors, and they had more social and recreational opportunities at home — and many stayed home to work in home offices. On average, driving was reduced nine percent.
• Cohousing communities use less land and building materials than mainstream housing developments, while they vary widely in population density. Because housing is often common- wall and clustered, cohousing communities are usually more compact in their use of land. Suburban cohousing communities in the US and Australia are more than twice as dense as conventional suburban developments, and the units themselves are about half the size of typical new-built houses in the US.
• A consistent five-to-six percent improvement in energy conservation practices was found in all cohousing communities surveyed, with a nine percent average improvement in water conservation habits. While most cohousing founders have strong environmental practices to start with, the strongest ecological impact is from people who learn to modify their practices after living in cohousing for awhile. It seems that the longer residents live in cohousing, the more likely they’ll improve their pro-environmental practices.
2.You’ll feel safer.
People feel safer living in an intentional community, since they’re usually surrounded by people they know and trust. Even in urban communities they often live on a larger parcel of land than if they lived in a single-family home. This property is not only familiar and welcoming to them, but also serves as a buffer zone between them and outside property, creating kind of a “safe inside the nest” effect. People in group households in a large house in a city also feel more secure. When you are home there are usually a few other people there too. This helps people feel a sense of familiarity, comfort, and ease.
According to gerontologist Deborah Altus, who conducted a study with 60 residents of 3 rural senior cooperative housing communities, 95 percent said that living in the co-op had a good effect on their personal safety. (Altus, D. E., and Mathews, R.M, Cooperative Housing Journal, 1977.)
At Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, where I live, people walk freely along the roads from one neighborhood to another, even late at night, with a feeling of complete familiarity and comfort.
Compared to the increasingly violent mainstream culture, intentional communities are islands of safety for women, who are much less likely to encounter abusive or threatening strangers near their home. They’re much less likely to fear getting beat up or raped.
“There are almost no reports of attacks or physical violence at all in any of the communities I have visited or have knowledge of,” writes Keenan Dakota, who has lived at Twin Oaks community in Virginia since 1984 and visited many others. “Except for armed survivalist communities, the members of every community I’m familiar with appear to be open and trusting. Compare this to the often constant caution and awareness of potential danger present in mainstream culture.”
In community, children feel safe — and their parents feel relieved. Concern for their children’s safety and well-being is a major reason some families join communities, in fact. Since people drive cars more slowly on community roads, or, as in cohousing communities, cars are confined to the edge of the property, children are in much less danger of getting hit by cars. Not only that, children are surrounded by caring adults besides their parents who look out for them.
Even domestic violence appears to be less common in communities, although people certainly do bring their emotional problems with them when they join communities. However, consider the “fish bowl effect” of living in community. Not much goes on in a household in community that one’s neighbors aren’t aware of. If the community is small enough, and close enough, people won’t let abuse within a family continue. The group will call a meeting with the family to try to work it out, or send people with good processing and communication skills over to talk with the family. Even if such interventions are seen as unwelcome meddling, it does put the family members on notice that the “community eye” is upon them, and even that slight amount of social pressure can induce people to behave better towards one another. It not only “takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a village to raise all of us!
3.You’ll most likely be healthier.
Medical research has found there is a direct link between good health and living with a sense of community. People with strong social ties tend to have lower healthcare costs, recover faster from illness, and live longer — one of the reasons the Danish government has supported the development of over 100 senior cohousing communities since the mid-1980s.
“There is strong scientific evidence of the connection between community and healing,” writes Blair Vovoydic, M.D., in Communities magazine. “Of all the many influences on our health, interpersonal relationships are not only a factor, but increasingly are being recognized as the most crucial factor. One study showed that people who said they did not have anybody that could help them out if they were sick or broke had three times the risk or premature death from all causes than those who knew they could get help if they needed it.…”
• In the late 1990s The Journal of Emergency Medicine published two articles demonstrating thatgood social support is the most predictive indicatorof someone’s chances of avoiding asecond heart attack, more so than a person’scholesterol level, measurable heart function,amount of exercise, or whether or not the personsmokes or has diabetes.
• In studies beginning in 1966, researchers from Harvard and Yale found that while most American men 55–65 have increasing numbers of heart attacks, in the close-knit town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, whose Italian-American residents were regularly looking after one another and were active in local social and service organizations, men 55–64 had almost no heart attacks, and men over 65 had half the death rate from heart attacks as the national average.
• A research team from Harvard University School of Public Health, Yale University School of Medicine, and Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago, found that social and productive activities were equally as significant as physical exercise in promoting longer, healthier lives in Americans 65 and older. (British Medical Journal, August, 1991.)
• Research by Bernard A.Shaw at State University Of New York, Albany, found that neighborliness, and the expectation of help from neighbors, tend to be highly correlated with elder adults remaining more physically functional into their later years. (Research on Aging, Vol. 27, 2005).
How does it work, Dr.Vovoydic asks? “It is likely that people manifest healthier behaviors, such as eating better, when they’re with other people. They also tend to do more ‘self-correcting’ with a higher degree of social interactions. Living with other people usually results in getting feedback that can serve to steer us back on track if we’re behaving in ways that we don’t realize are unhealthy.” (Communities, Spring, 1999.)
4.You’ll save money.
After the initial expense of joining an ecovillage or another form of intentional community and the expense of building or buying a home there, the cost of living is often a lot less than in mainstream culture. Usually members share the expenses of property taxes, property insurance, and maintenance and repair costs of common physical infrastructure. The group can share many expenses and might only need one tractor, snow plow, laundry room, or crafts room, for example — each household doesn’t need its own. If there’s a community garden, many people can share the costs of garden fencing, sheds, carts, and soil amendments, seeds, plant starts, etc. Depending on the group’s agreements and degree of trust, the expense for chainsaws, weed-eaters, large power tools, or a whole woodshop or sewing room can be shared, reducing the cost for everyone. According to Deborah Altus’s study mentioned earlier, for example, 69 percent said living in a senior housing co-op had a positive impact on their financial situation.
And for every meal a community eats together, the cost of food is less from buying at a volume discount. “We’re proud of how much money our food committee has saved members while providing delicious, nutritious food,” observes Nancy Lanphear of Songaia Cohousing in Bothell, Washington. “We serve five common meals a week, and stock our community pantry, from which our members can take any food items they need for preparing meals at home, for $80 per month per adult member. The fee for children is $5 per year of the child’s age; for example, a three year- old is $15 per month. I believe it’s possible for members to live well on our community purchased food alone, without needing to purchase additional food, although of course they can and often do. Obviously it’s a lot cheaper to live a community lifestyle when it has a wellorganized food system like this.” (Communities, Fall, 2002.)
Most communities are well aware of the money-saving factor. “Our mission,” write the founders of St. Anthony Park Cohousing in St. Paul, Minnesota, “is to be a community for people who want to live simply among friends rather than extravagantly among strangers.”
“We live simply and well,”say members of Lost Valley Educational Center in Oregon.
Of course your cost-of-living expenses in community will vary widely with regional property values, the scale of your lifestyle and amenities of your dwelling or homesite, and the number of other community members among whom common expenses are shared.
5.You’ll grow as a person.
“In my years at Twin Oaks I’ve been passionate about understanding what community is and how it affects people,” writes Keenan Dakota, “so I’ve talked with hundreds of members (and particularly ex-members) of other communities who have come through here. I’ve also visited over 20 other communities and attended many communities conferences. So, based on this extensive, broad-based, and yet informal research, here are some tentative conclusions.
“People appear to experience personal growth and at times profound transformation from living in community, even in communities which are not focused on personal growth per se. Community members report common results, regardless of the size, focus, location, or governance structure of their communities. Here, in no particular order, are what current and ex-community members most often report as the changes they’ve experienced:
• Increased self-confidence.
• Better communication skills.
• Broader perspective.
• Clearer thinking.
• Less idealism.
• Increased responsibility.
• Broader set of skills.
• Broader general (useful) knowledge.
• Increased awareness of personal limitations
“What makes communities tend to foster these similar patterns of personal change? First, communities are small social entities so the social relationships among members are intimate and intense. And because communities are self-selecting, inevitably more homogeneity is present than in the culture at large. And most communities are, to some degree, socially self-reliant.
“A byproduct of living in mainstream culture is the sense of being cut off from contact with other people — variously called alienation, isolation, or anomie. While members of communities may not always find the intimacy they desire, communitarians at least seem to accept each other and encourage personal challenge and exploration. In community, without fearing of harsh judgments or negative consequences, it’s much easier to take personal risks. Many community members find this profoundly liberating.
“All of these factors taken together seem sufficient to explain why community members may become more confident, are better able to communicate, develop a broader perspective, and become more responsible. But why should living in community make them more aware of their personal limitations?
“I suspect it’s this: community living provides a brutally accurate mirror. We see each other, and we see our selves in more detail than most people were accustomed to before coming to community. Some members can’t handle this incidental and unavoidable openness, and leave, seeking more privacy. But for most of us, observing that even wonderful people around us also have glaring imperfections is a release from our own expectations of perfection, and from self-punishment for our failings.
“The community mirror reveals our capabilities and keeps us from effectively hiding our shortcomings. We tend to blossom with previously unknown strengths, and accept and shrug off the revelation of any shortcomings, rather than being devastated by them.
“It is true that not everyone is cut out for community, and I doubt that any one communitarian will experience growth and change in his or her life exactly as I have outlined, as I certainly didn’t conduct a rigorous empirical study. Nevertheless, I have found these trends to be generally true. If you join a community, you will almost certainly find your life enriched as a person — often in ways you never could have imagined.” (Communities, Spring, 1995.)
6.You’ll experience connection and support with like-minded friends and colleagues.
In Deborah Altus’s study of 60 members of rural senior housing co-ops, 92 percent reported that living in the co-op had a good effect on their life satisfaction. “An overwhelming majority of respondents also indicated that the co-op had a positive effect on the quality of their contact with friends (83 percent), the amount of contact with friends (82 percent), their happiness (81 percent).”
In the Spring, 1995, issue of Communities magazine, Orenda Lyons wrote:
I was raised in an alternative community where cooperation, acceptance, and support were the codes of life. The Miccosukee Land Co-op near Tallahassee, Florida,was started in the early ’70s. My parents were among the first to buy land in the Co-op and I was born 11 days after they moved into a yet-to-be-completed house. Nestled deep in the pine and cypress wetlands, miles outside the city limits, the roads, property, community center and the entire Co-op was — and is — my playground.
Growing up, I had many families: my Co-op playmates were my siblings and their parents were also my parents. As children we had preschool in each other’s homes and roamed the community freely. I remember once my best friend Kristin’s yard flooded and about six of us carried a canoe a half mile to her house; we then canoed through her yard and up a path to another friend’s house. We believed that the Co-op belonged to us, but as we grew we found that in actuality, it possessed us.
The memories of my childhood lie everywhere, from the creek beds we would tromp through to the room in our house where my sister was born. I have seen changes in the land and in the people. I’ve learned from disagreements among the children and among the adults of the community. I have found a home in the forests, swamps, and families, and hopefully, helped make a home here for others.
As people moved to the Co-op and new acres were developed, everyone helped with the building of the houses and the settling in of the new households. On the common land, the pool, community center, and boardwalks were all constructed by everyone giving up a weekend or two for the benefit of the neighborhood. We had a way of making something spring out of almost nothing.
As with any close group, the Co-op family has experienced tragedy. In 1988 a founding member of the community died of AIDS, and another, my uncle, died in 1989, just months after a teenage girl was killed in a car accident. Besides this, two houses have burned and two older men have passed on. Through all of it, everyone has always been there for each other. I remember going to see my friend and neighbor Gerry the day he died. We stopped by on the way home from school and arrived about 30 minutes after he passed away. He had been suffering from AIDS for quite a while and we (and many others) had prepared meals for him and helped him out for months. My mother was at his side when he died, and minutes later friends and relatives gathered to mourn his death, comfort each other, and celebrate his life. Such was also the case with Chip, who died on my 14th birthday. I went to see him, but walking out to his house I met up with my parents, who gave me the news. I still regret not being there at the end.
It is priceless what we can learn from disaster. But what is incredible, what really amazes me, is the way it brings people closer. People stick together so selflessly in times of need. One person’s lack of strength is balanced out by ten strong hearts. One family’s sorrow is felt by all. Fundraisers to help them, or friends to console them, are just the beginning.
There are other things which I have gained by living here. The vast diversity of the households encourages acceptance of every kind of living arrangement, culture, and belief. These are taught from parent to child, from child to child, and taken out into the world around us. Happiness abounds in our community through the birth of children, the marriages, the parties, and the celebrations of life and Earth — truly these are the heart of community. Looking back, I would never dream of changing one detail of growing up here. When I think of the ideal place to raise a family, I think of the Co-op. When I think of the most stable and largest family anywhere, I think of the Co-op. When I think of myself, I think of the Co-op. It has made me who I am.
7.You’ll have more fun.
“I love the fact that sometimes someone will make a special treat for the whole house,” writes David Franklin about living at Walnut Street Co-op in Eugene, Oregon. “I love when some of us will spontaneously decide to rent a movie, make popcorn, and pile onto someone’s bed; or walk over to the neighborhood bar to shoot pool and sing karaoke together. I love being able to stop and talk with someone for a couple of minutes, to have people who can pick me up from the airport, and to laugh at meals with, or to know that if someone can’t do something around the house that someone else will volunteer to cover for them. I love that sometimes we can support each other around our struggles and difficulties, and help each other out.” (Communities, Winter, 2004.)
In EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering Sustainable Community, Liz Walker writes:
One of the most fulfilling aspects of our community life is celebrating together. And it doesn’t take much to spark a party — just someone with inspiration and the energy to organize. Add some shared food or drink and a little music, dance, or ritual, and voila!
We celebrate Easter with an egg hunt and Chanukah with potato latkes (cooked by the dozen). Other Jewish holidays, Christmas tree decorating, a big Thanksgiving feast (complete with the option of vegan turkey), and occasionally a Buddhist-inspired ceremony or Earth-based spirituality ritual all take the spotlight during the year. We have corn roasts in the fall and a strawberry festival on the summer solstice. Birthday parties happen year-round. And we don’t stop at ordinary parties. What makes our community extraordinary is that we often invent our own celebrations, drawing from many traditions — or creating a new one. We live for those times of creative and meaningful fun.
…At EcoVillage at Ithaca meaningful human contact is the norm and not the exception. I consider myself blessed to live here. I can maintain my privacy when I need to, but also have plenty of opportunity to form and develop my connections with my cohousing neighbors. Indeed, I think that living in community fills the deep longing for human love and connection that is shared by our whole species.
Excerpted with permission from EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering Sustainable Community, by Liz Walker (New Society Publishers, 2005).
SHARED HOUSING, REDUCED COSTS
At Magic, a residential service-learning community in Palo Alto, California, seven adults and two children live comfortably by North American standards, and luxuriously by global standards. We do this on less than half the average per capita income in our area, and with less than half the per capita pollution and resource depletion of an average US resident. We earn our livelihoods by studying and teaching how people can learn to apply ecological principles to further the common good, and enjoy round-the clock access to each other’s thoughtful counsel. We can afford all this by living in community.
Sharing housing can help improve personal well-being, reduce social inequality, and protect environmental quality. Renting or purchasing a four-bedroom home or apartment is less than four times as expensive as renting or purchasing four comparable one-bedroom dwellings. Providing a kitchen and bathroom for every bedroom increases environmental impacts and labor burdens as well.
The average US household contains between two and three occupants, and between one and two bathrooms. Because at Magic we lay claim to fewer than ‘our share’ of bathrooms — about one-tenth of a bathroom per person instead of one-half — we’ve avoided $100,000 of capital expenditures. We also reap savings by cleaning one, rather than five bathrooms.
Seven adults in the US each living alone, typically pay for seven phone lines. They either answer their phones, let a machine do it, or miss their calls. At Magic we share two lines. We take calls for each other, serving callers and called, and becoming better acquainted with each other’s family and friends in the process. For being each other’s personal assistants, each enjoys the services of several personal assistants.
A high-speed Internet connection costs less and is faster and more reliable than seven dial-ups. Our single utility bill is a fraction of what we would pay if each of us lived alone. We’ve one washer and one dryer to purchase and maintain. We clean and repair
less than two thousand square feet of floor space, including workspace, and we service one, rather than two or five or seven, of everything from an ax to a zoom lens. Our pooled tools, books, vehicles, musical instruments, recreational equipment, etc. are so extensive that friends and neighbors regularly borrow from us. The list goes on and on.
— Hilary Hug and Robin Bayer, Communities magazine, Fall 2002.
Finding Community reprinted with permission from Diana Leafe Christian and published by New Society Publishers, 2007.