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The Eco Village Concept: Climate Mitigation Might Require Experimentation

Robert Boyer of UNC-Charlotte discusses his new article on the hurdles surrounding building environmentally friendly Ecovillages. Follow Journal of Planning Education and Research @JPER7.
JPER | December 8, 2014, 8am PST
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Ithaca Eco Village

Robert Boyer guest blogs about his new article in JPER, which is a case study of EcoVillage at Ithaca as an example of socio technical experimentation in planning and community building.

EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) is amongst the oldest and widely respected cohousing projects in the United States. Situated in the Town of Ithaca, New York, EVI consists of three tightly-clustered residential neighborhoods with direct access to over 100 acres of open space, two community-supported farms, and several independent businesses. The land consists of five parcels, each owned by a separate non-profit entity, and controlled by the consensus decisions of neighborhood inhabitants. A combination of energy-conserving design and cooperative, low-impact lifestyles results in measurably lower ecological footprints without sacrifice to quality of life. Indeed, residences in the project’s newest neighborhood are net-zero energy consumers, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume.

Perhaps most encouraging is that EVI’s educational non-profit, Learn@EVI, has teamed up with county planners to secure funding from the EPA’s Climate Showcase Communities program. The grant funding (awarded in 2010) is being used to replicate EVI’s successes in a mainstream market setting. To date, this has involved (1) the development of a zoning category that will facilitate future cohousing-style development in the region; (2) the recruitment of a residential development company that has embraced EVI’s model for a new affordable housing project in the Town of Ithaca; and (3) the monitoring of several existing cohousing cooperatives in the region.

What can planners learn from this encouraging episode? Firstly, this grassroots/municipal partnership did not emerge overnight. It has taken twenty-five years for EVI to evolve from a cross-continental activist march (1990), to an experimental housing development (1991-2000), to an important partner in Ithaca’s broad environmental community (2001-present), to a model for sustainable housing recognized by local, state, and federal government officials (2010-present). While EVI’s founders did not confront categorical opposition at the outset, they struggled for years to fit their idealistic vision into local land use regulations, legal vehicles for residential development, and typical financial models. Their project was, by many measures, non-rational and “niche”, requiring a disproportionate investment in time and resources. This leads to a second important lesson: successful climate mitigation is unlikely to be a rational-linear pursuit. Some of the most creative solutions may appear messy or imperfect precisely because what “makes sense” is often an outgrowth of an auto-oriented regime.

As communities nation-wide confront pressures and opportunities to lower carbon emissions, planners can benefit by collaborating with low-carbon initiatives that have existed, perhaps in the margins, for decades. There are hundreds of ecovillages and cohousing projects around the world engaged in willful experimentation in the built environment. Unfortunately, such projects often have no choice but to settle in remote rural locations, on cheap land with no zoning or building regulations, but most are working hard to spread the word.  Perhaps the time has come for planners and other local officials to invite such willful experimentation into local planning processes.

The full article by Dr. Boyer can be found here:

Robert Boyer. 2014. Sociotechnical Transitions and Urban Planning: A Case Study of Eco-Cohousing in Tompkins County, New York. Journal of Planning Education and Research 34: 451-464.

Post Author: Robert Boyer.

Dr Boyer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography & Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he teaches courses in urban planning and sustainability. He is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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