When you hear the word “ecovillage” you might think of a collection of rustic cabins on a rural farm. Or maybe you imagine a solar-powered suburb like the Ithaca Ecovillage in NY state. You might think living in an ecovillage is too remote or unaffordable.
But these days, you can find ecovillages in more places than ever – including the 40-member Los Angeles Ecovillage near downtown LA and the Le Case community in San Diego.
For two years, I lived in an urban ecovillage in SE Portland, OR, called Foster Village. Just 6 miles from the city center, 10-12 residents lived in three houses surrounding a central garden area. Fruit trees lined the sidewalks, and ducks and chickens roamed the alleyways.
In some ways it worked just like any other collective house: we bought food in bulk, shared meals together, and had meetings once per week. We worked with the homeowners to keep rents below market rates so that they were affordable for students and activists.
But we also had a focus on environmental sustainability: over the years, we installed solar panels, greywater systems, living roofs, and composting toilets.
The best part was that it was visible to the nearby community: parents walking down the street would hear our ducks and chickens and bring their kids into the yard to see them. Neighbors would ask to pick apples or cherries from our fruit trees. When we hosted workshops, a handy user’s guide instructed guests on how to use our composting toilet system.
Sometimes, it felt a little presumptuous to call ourselves an “ecovillage.” There were only a dozen of us, after all. We weren’t as high-tech or organized as some of the eco-communities I read about online or in Communities magazine. The Kailash Ecovillage, just a mile away from Fosterville, dwarfed us in size and publicity.
But the more that I talked with other communities about what we were doing, the more unique it seemed. Most ecovillages we knew of started from scratch – with investors and blueprints and a top-down plan. Aside from communities like N Street Cohousing in Davis, CA, many urban communities stopped at the nearest property line. It seemed uncommon to “retrofit” an ecovillage by knocking down fences on an existing urban lot.
There’s still much uncertainty around the future of Foster Village, and no guarantee it will survive the ups-and-downs of Portland’s precarious housing market. But urban ecovillages are springing up around the country. It’s exciting to hear about projects like the Avalon Ecovillage in Detroit and the Enright Ecovillage in Cincinnati.
In San Diego, the Le Case Ecovillage describes itself this way: “Although we lead a regular city life and hold traditional (more or less) jobs … our ecovillage is making strides to live more sustainably by making conscious and ethical choices by how we shop, reducing consumption, recycling what we cannot compost and making our community a more beautiful place.”
It’s important not to water down the term “ecovillage” and apply to any community with a slightly sustainable focus. But for communities like Le Case and Foster Village, the description seems appropriate. Thanks to projects like these, I’m hopeful that urban ecovillages will become even more visible and more widespread in years to come.