The Eco-neighborhood as Catalyst

“Like a healthy organism with healthy organs made up of healthy cells, sustainability needs to operate at all levels: the individual, the household, the neighbourhood, the village, and the city. A flourishing, sustainable “eco-city,” by definition, would include many flourishing, connected ecovillages and neighbourhoods.”

Site plan of Earthsong Ecovillage (courtesy of Earthsong)

This insight comes from Robin Allison, in her Communities Magazine article about Earthsong, a 3-acre eco-neighborhood in the western suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand. Often articles about ecovillages or eco-neighborhoods focus on how they are an oasis of sustainability in an unsustainable society, and Earthsong certainly sounds like that—with parks, gardens, a pond, small clustered homes (to facilitate community), and car-free design.

But more important than their design is ecovillages’ role beyond their borders: how they influence the larger communities they are nestled in—whether directly in the neighboring cities and towns, or globally through how they serve as training ground for like-minded individuals who come for eco-living courses, or ideally both.

In my own travels to ecovillages, I saw the potential of this broader influence especially in places like the Los Angeles Ecovillage, nestled right in the heart of LA, offering both affordable housing and community to environmentalists but also serving as a hub of local eco-activism—from helping to commission a local park that processed street run-off water to organizing events to get mayoral candidates to declare their green credentials and commitments publicly.

The eco-neighborhood is too often the overlooked piece in the puzzle of how to make cities more sustainable and resilient. But this piece is essential as individuals can only do so much (and are often easily manipulated into buying “green” products rather than making the harder lifestyle changes), as can top-down city approaches—as the resistance to recent efforts by New York City Mayor Bloomberg reveal. But it is the energy of the neighborhood that could play the key role both in bolstering commitment of individuals (as they keep up with the eco-commitments of the Jones down the street) and in serving as a counterbalancing lobbying force to help pass bold citywide initiatives (rather than them being killed by industry lobbies or others that may be opposed).

Look at this impressive visualization of New York City 50 years from now that the students from the University of Michigan’s Master of Urban Design Program created.

A future sustainable New York City (courtesy of University of Michigan’s Master of Urban Design Program)

As this Atlantic Cities blog post describes, it includes major design overhauls: tidal marshes and bus rapid transit systems, redesign of new skyscrapers and retrofitting of old buildings. It would cost billions and at every step of the way would anger someone—whether architects, builders, industry lobbies, property owners (what do you mean my restaurant needs to be turned into a wetland!?!) and so on.

But if neighborhoods were engaged—if neighbors were helping to flesh out the local eco-vision and lay the groundwork (and even more basic: keep the energy and spirits up of community activists who spend day after day fighting for these changes)—the odds of success would increase significantly.

So how do we catalyze the neighborhood? Existing self-defined ecovillages and eco-neighborhoods will certainly play a role. They are filled with committed individuals who understand both the need for major changes and for community engagement. But obviously they’re not enough of these out there. So we’ll need other drivers beyond the declared eco-neighborhood—whether that be Transition Town groups, Neighborhood Associations, church groups, Resilience Circles, or informal networks of neighbors who gather regularly (or in reality all of the above). Each of these will not only play a role in the actual greening process of neighborhoods and their town or city, but also help to sow the seeds of cooperation and political energy that will be essential in the process of building a sustainable civilization in the decades to come (or in the worst case, at least help facilitate a smooth and orderly evacuation if their neighborhood is one of the many eviscerated by a changing planet).

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