What Makes an Ecovillage?

A Perspective from the Yarrow Ecovillage

Yarrow is the name of a wild flower found growing in many places and very useful for medicinal healing. Yarrow is also the name of an ecovillage that was created 11 years ago in the British Columbia, Canada and has 65 inhabitants. As such, Yarrow belongs to the 5% of ecovillages which survive the first ten years, according to statistics. Michael Hale from Yarrow Ecovillage writes about the art of sustainability.

Thinking back a decade and more in the history of the Yarrow Ecovillage, one may well notice the tensions between the “eco” and the “village” parts of the word. When we bought our land in 2002, we dreamed about creating a more sustainable way of living. Though aware of the social, financial and environmental components of sustainability, we hadn’t yet grappled with some of the tensions in holding these three ideas together.

We were lucky to have the guidance of pioneers that had gone before us. We studied the communities that had endured, such as Findhorn and The Farm. Some of us were involved in the cohousing movement begun in Denmark in the seventies and introduced to North America in the late 1980s. We also looked at the communities that had formed following Robert Gilman’s definition of an ecovillage and the formation of GEN in the early 1990s.

Some of our first members came from Windsong Cohousing in the nearby city of Langley, British Columbia. We wanted to build on the vibrant and sustainable community developed there by adding an organic farm and a commercial component, as we saw the value of integrating all aspects of healthy living in one place.
In a way, what we learned was too simple: Build a village. This is an enduring form. While villages in many parts of the world are threatened and disappearing under the pressures of urbanization, in other places subject to the same pressures, village life is continuing or re-emerging. What makes the difference?

A rush of images play across my mind as I think about what makes an ecovillage. Images of groups gathered around tables placing blocks where they thought future buildings should go, meetings with city officials pouring over diagrams, town hall meetings with the local community. Other images of fields with farmers planting crops, and later, harvesting, farmers’ markets, circles of people giving thanks for a meal, people arriving to visit or to stay.

One day I got this query: “I’d like to come to your ecovillage” said a man. “Do you mean to visit, or for a job, or to live?” I asked. “Yes,” was the response. Our first intern had arrived.
Images of groups of children playing on the commons. That is a recurring image from the very first days. Establish a commons and children will come. Troubled images of tense moments with subgroups and factions—pioneers/settlers, people with more (money, power)/people with less. Harmonious meetings, raucous meetings. Many, many meetings.

Each of these images says something about the making of an ecovillage. The groups gathered around tables moving blocks signified that once we had a critical mass of people, a set of goals and facilitator, we could start to imaginatively build structures. Photographing that and showing it to the city planners was an important step. It sent a message that we were serious about building this project. Then we held a town hall meeting with neighbouring community members to get their input and support. These were important steps and ones that we, in Yarrow, repeated many times.

We planned our community together. That doesn’t happen much in mainstream communities. The children playing also marks a difference. While you see children playing in cities, towns and suburbs, there are distinctive differences in an ecovillage: the constancy of the group, the quality of the play, the fact that kids want to be outside all day when the weather is fine.

Images of the farm are significant. It seems that there needs to be a farm or a major garden in an ecovillage, along with other kinds of businesses. Sources of work allow people to remain in one place—to establish a village with work, recreation and communal life. Sources of food connect the eco- with the village. Other aspects bring in the ecological. The type of building: Whether natural building or green building and the need to balance the ecological and financial pillars of sustainability.
What did we do well? Our co-design process with the city and the surrounding community was invaluable. Developing a biological wastewater treatment system and constructed wetland was important too. Finding a formula that would attract farmers was a key, as was learning to deal with conflict. What could we have done better? Our pioneering folk wanted to invent, or develop, everything themselves. We might have saved time if we had learned more from other communities that were further along the path of development.

When I look at the ecovillage now, it almost seems easy. Take a vision of sustainability and blend in meetings, consultation, problem solving, innovative use of technology, lots of learning, and perseverance. Add money, hard work and time. If you get the mix right, you will have an ecovillage.
Our project has gone forward in waves. When we had an immediate challenge (acquire capital, start a farm, get rezoning, build housing, initiate businesses), we moved forward with a clear focus. In between milestones, we sometimes drifted, engaging in heated discussions about the ‘right’ way to go. Tensions at these times were sometimes high. Foolishly, we too often failed to resolve conflicts.

Gradually we learned. Sometimes we learned from other communities, sometimes from consultants, increasingly we worked it out ourselves. We learned to talk things through. We learned to have faith in the consensus process; that it doesn’t always mean unanimity, but rather the willingness to listen, and respond, to all points of view.
Looking at the settlement we have built—the vibrant farm, the kids playing in the fields, the growing businesses—I wonder what all the drama was about. It seems that everyone doesn’t have to see the “eco” part exactly the same way or even the “village” part. As long as we all agree on basic principles and values we will work it out.

Michael Hale and his partner Suzanne are two of the founders and pioneer farmers of the Yarrow Ecovillage, a fairly diverse community of sixty-five people, thirty of whom are children. Michael and Suzanne are on a lifelong project of learning to listen.

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17.06.2013