But Is It Really an “Ecovillage”?

By Diana Leafe Christian

If a cohousing community uses the word “ecovillage” in its name, is it really an ecovillage? What does that mean, anyway?

Today I got an email from a cofounder of a cohousing project in the Northeast. She wrote, “Can you tell me how a community gets to use ‘ecovillage’ as part of their name? Is there a process, or does the group build the principles into their vision and just use the term? I’m just beginning to organize a group for a cohousing community in my rural village. I think that a group will form and very likely want to be an ecovillage.”

In my experience, cohousing communities that use the term “ecovillage” in their name either did it because they planned to be ecovillages and the founders cared about ecovillage principles and practices or because they wanted to market their project in a way that would appeal to potential buyers. The word “ecovillage” sells. Examples of cohousing communities that also are ecovillages: EcoVillage at Ithaca in New York; Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon; Munksoegaard in Denmark; and Earthsong EcoNeighbourhood in New Zealand.

Sawyer Hill Ecovillage in Berlyn, Massachusetts is comprised of two adjacent cohousing communities, Mosaic Commons & Camelot Cohousing. One of their founders told me that their development advisor, Chris Scott-Hanson, suggested they call their project an ecovillage in order to market their units. I can sympathize — forming groups need to sell units!

The only other cohousing community I’m familiar with that uses the term is Ecovillage at Loudon County, in Virginia. I believe the founder-developers called it an ecovillage because they built energy-efficient passive-solar homes with green building materials, perhaps thinking that that’s what makes an ecovillage. But I see it differently. In the last few years I’ve visited ecovillages in the US and Canada and interviewed many ecovillage founders and members. I live in an ecovillage myself (Earthaven in North Carolina); publish an online newsletter about ecovillages [ http://www.ecovillagenews.org ]; and in 2007 was the keynote speaker at the Urban Ecovillage Conference in Chicago and one of several keynote speakers at the Japanese Ecovillage Conference in Tokyo. I believe I know what ecovillages are, and know well that just having green and sustainable alternatives does not an ecovillage make.

I think increasing numbers of cohousing communities and plain old housing developments will call themselves ecovillages in the future, either because they are in fact ecovillages, or to sell units, or else because they just want to help motivate us all to live in more green and sustainable ways. And I believe that as it’s increasingly co-opted, the term will gradually become meaningless.

So if you’re looking to join a cohousing community that really is an ecovillage, please know that ecovillages seek to learn, and then model and demonstrate to others (often with classes and tours), examples of (1) ecological, (2) economic, and (3) social/cultural/spiritual sustainability.

Some resources:
Definitions of an ecovillage: http://www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/What_is_an_Ecovillage%3F
Online and other resources for learning more: http://www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/Ecovillage_Resources
Best book out there on ecovillages, in my opinion: Ecovillages, by Jonathan Dawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, 2005.
Wonderful cohousing-ecovillage to visit to get a first-hand experience of being in an ecovillage:  EcoVillage at Ithaca http://www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us
—Diana Leafe Christian

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