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Peter Bane is the
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in Village Design
by Peter Bane
I live in a new
Village called Earthaven. Part art project, part social experiment,
part bridge to an unknown future, this place is an endlessly
challenging, paradoxical exercise of the imagination. It is
also quite real and solid, home to 60 people and a locus of
much hope and creativity.
Ten years ago, a dozen of us
set out boldly to go where few had gone before: Envisioning
a human-scale community designed and built in harmony with
the natural world, we wanted to show a healthier way for humans
to live with each other while treading lightly on the earth.
We thought we could leave behind the greed, selfishness, alienation,
and destructive habits of US culture and create a more meaningful
life together by living more simply, closer to nature, and
by helping other people to make similar changes in their own
lives and circumstances.
This is still our vision and
to a considerable degree we have succeeded. But we’ve
also tempered our idealism with the awareness that we brought
human nature with us through the gate, and the laws of gravity
work here just as they do in the larger world around us. Rediscovering
the laws of gravity was in fact one of the important lessons
we learned over the past decade, along with some other basic
physical science, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Our community embraced permaculture
from the beginning and it has been a crucial element in our
development. In keeping with this approach, we have evolved
a culture of experiment, of anarchy tempered by cooperation,
and of small-scale, individual action. How has all of this
come about and how has it worked to shape the village? And
most importantly, what lessons have we learned from our development
that may be relevant to other communities?
a Life Together:
Practical Tools to Grow
Ecovillages and Intentional Communities
by Diana Leafe Christian
editor of Communities Magazine
foreword by Patch Adams.
2003 New Society
Publishers, 272 pp.
a Life Together is an overview of the process of
forming new ecovillages and intentional communities,
gleaned from founders of dozens of successful communities
in North America formed since the early '90s. This is
what they did, and what you can do, to create your community
dream. It attempts to distill their hard experience
into solid advice on getting started as a group, creating
vision documents, decision-making and governance, agreements
and policies, buying and financing land, communication
and process, and selecting people to join you. It's
what works, what doesn't work, and how not to reinvent
the wheel. This information is not only for people forming
new communities - whether or not you already own your
land. It can also be valuable for those of you thinking
about joining community one day - since you, too, will
need to know what works. And it's also for those of
you already living in community, since you can only
benefit from knowing what others have done in similar
newest, most comprehensive bible for builders of intentional
communities. Covers every aspect with vital information
and hundreds of examples of how successful communities
faced the challenges and created their shared lives
out of their visions. The cautionary tales of sadder
experiences and how communities fail, will help in avoiding
the pitfalls. Not since I wrote the Foreword to Ingrid
Komar's Living the Dream (1983), which documented
the Twin Oaks community, have I seen a more useful and
inspiring book." --Hazel
Henderson, author, Creating Alternative Futures,
and Politics of the Solar Age.
deal of research and trial-and-error has been assembled
here, and every potential ecovillager should read it.
This book will be an essential guide and msanual for
the many Permaculture graduates who live in communities
or design for them." --Bill Mollison,
co-originator of the Permaculture concept, author of
The Permaculture Designers Manual, Ferment and Human
really valuable resource for anyone thinking about intentional
community. I wish I had it years ago." -- Starhawk,
author of Webs of Power, The Spiral Dance,
and The Fifth Sacred Thing -- and committed communitarian.
Pioneering in the forest
Earthaven coalesced around a
vision of cooperative community in 1991. For the next two
years it built up a core of members, shaped a body of agreements,
and searched through a long list of potential sites in the
Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, before
locating the 320-acre parcel we now own. Then the fun began.
In 1994 we bought this wooded
property. It had a road, an old hunting cabin in poor repair,
and one phone line. The trees were third-growth poplar, pine,
maple, and other mixed hardwoods, mostly 40-60 years old.
There were streams, which the road forded, but no bridges.
The property had numerous springs, none of which had been
tapped. There was evidence of old farm and logging roads,
long overgrown, but no cleared land anywhere. And we were
to build a village for 150 people or more, here? We spent
the next three years figuring out how and where to put ourselves
into the landscape.
The encounter with the forest
was exhilarating. This was to be our home, and it was beautiful.
It was also a slow-motion collision. Like a great wave, our
hopes, expectations, and needs broke over the wall of wood
all around us. For us to live here, trees had to come down,
buildings go up. Sunlight was needed for heating homes, generating
electricity, and growing crops. (For more on the trees-to-homes
conversion story, see“Seeing the Forest and the Trees”
pg.25, by Diana Christian.) We agreed we wanted to leave most
of the land in permanent forest, but that we would clear homesites
as well as ground for village buildings, for agriculture,
and to extend a few connecting roads into the main sections
of the land.
Ecovillages: A Practical
Guide to Sustainable Communities
by Jan Martin Bang
2005, 288 pages
Explores the background
and the history of the Ecovillage movement, and provides
a comprehensive manual for planning, establishing, and
maintaining a sustainable community in both urban and
rural environments. Includes discussions on design,
conflict management, food production, energy, economics,
Where to build?
The community employed me and
Chuck Marsh, both permaculture designers, to develop a plan
of neighborhood placement. We set out to identify the areas
with good solar access, potential for water supply, and to
which a sound road could be built. We were inspired by Max
Lindegger’s example of Crystal Waters in Australia (he
had been a teacher to us both at different times) which was
planned with small clusters of houses (3-8) built on ridges
between and around dams in the small intervening valleys.
We also borrowed a pattern from Christopher Alexander and
colleagues, “Agricultural Valleys,” (1) itself
inspired by the work of Ian McHarg (2), which suggested that
the bottoms of valleys were too valuable as agricultural land
to be covered with buildings, and that therefore houses and
settlements should be placed on the slopes above these valleys.
Our landscape fit this pattern to a “T.” Steep
slopes crowded narrow valley bottoms. Flat farmland in the
southern Appalachians is scarce and was being rapidly developed
all around the area. We didn’t want to make the same
mistake as conventional developers.
In late 1997 Chuck and I presented
our conclusions and our maps to the community council. We
had found 15 areas we felt would be suitable for building
clusters of homes or public buildings. Some were small (only
three homes were envisioned), others had room for 10 or more
dwellings. We called these housing cluster areas “neighborhoods,”
in the suburban sense of the word, meaning a few homes together
at the end of a cul-de- sac, rather than in the urban sense
of a block or two occupied by hundreds of homes. The council
accepted the plan in its broad strokes, but elected to exclude
two areas, one because it was on a ridge, the other because
it was a uniquely isolated and very special valley within
the property which seemed to have special qualities we wanted
to preserve. There were disagreements about a third, more
remote area, but we decided that if a suitable road route
could be found to the “East End,” that a neighborhood
could be built there.
Of the remaining 12 areas, one
was already being developed as a transitional housing district
with a common kitchen, bath, and other services. With tiny
huts and a few trailers and yurts, it continues to function
as an entry point for members moving to the land, though more
options exist today than when we broke ground there in 1996.
Another of the 12 was reserved for the village center with
a meeting hall, a dining room, and an unspecified section
for townhouses and apartments above shops. And a third, relatively
central area was seen as suitable primarily for commerce and
industrial activity, though not for homes because solar gain
in that area was limited by trees in a protected watershed.
That left nine neighborhoods
with a green light, and another waiting on yellow for a road
route to be found through seemingly impassible terrain. The
road was ultimately staked and built, though not without controversy.
And as it went in, yet another neighborhood area with five
homesites was revealed.
When the neighborhood site plan
was approved and members were at last allowed to select lots,
the group was amazed to find that there were no conflicts
over where to settle: Everyone wanted a different site. Twenty
of us chose sites in seven of the ten neighborhoods (we learned
about the 11th later). That was our first serious mistake.
And we couldn’t agree on how to authorize development
of sites within the village center. So we deferred the question.
That was our second.
Work outward from a
Based on a simple precept from
physics—that energy radiates outward from a source—a
principle well understood in permaculture design, where it
directs one to start small and keep one’s efforts contained,
this advice should have kept us on a sensible course. We had
supposedly understood and embraced it, but the voices of economy
and common sense were overwhelmed by the desires of many of
us to have our own “piece of the pie,” to live
a green version of the American Dream. Maybe with a smaller,
more natural house, maybe with more local autonomy than in
the suburbs, but still looking to escape from the perceived
problems of the city, crowding, discordant neighbors, noise,
Many times in the early years
we said to ourselves, “We must become the people we
want to be, BEFORE we can create the village we want to live
in,” but this turned out to be an impossible task. To
become THOSE people, we needed a village in which to transform.
Catch-22. We were who we were: a bunch of headstrong, creative,
independent thinkers, imprinted on suburbia like so many goslings
on a goose. Without a spiritual or charismatic leader, it
took the kind of determination we had brought to the project
to get Earthaven started and to see it continue, but that
same independent, stubborn streak in most of us was a blind
spot when it came to rational land use. Paying lip service
to compact development we nevertheless scattered to the many
corners of a large and diverse property.
Y2K came too soon
None of this might have mattered
as much as it did if the year 2000 panic hadn’t come
along when it did.
Aware of our suburban propensities
and apprised of some of the lessons of other intentional communities,
we had made some pretty strong agreements with each other
about keeping the center strong. One of those was a commitment
to build our common meeting hall before we began building
individual homes. Research by Valerie Naiman, one of our founding
members, revealed this as a common regret among other communities
who hadn’t done so. We also adopted a compact, densely
settled pattern for our Neo- Tribal Village, which we now
call “The Hut Hamlet.” We did this for three reasons:
1.We needed a place to sleep,
eat, and bathe so that we could be more effective at working
on our land. Getting to the village site from Asheville, where
most of us lived in the early years, and back, took a couple
of hours over winding mountain roads. We would obviously get
more done if we didn’t have to commute as often.
2.Building meant land-clearing,
and that was a lot of work. So we cleared as little as we
could, which meant small buildings close together.
3.We wanted to challenge ourselves
to live close by our neighbors, sharing facilities and living
more simply on our way to becoming better villagers.
So we decided to use a small
south-facing hillside near the old hunting cabin (toward which
we’d gravitated because of its centrality and the thread
of human presence in the woods) to create a neighborhood owned
by the community, where any member could erect a small hut
for sleeping. Together we would put up a kitchen and bath
house, provide a road partway up the hill so that sites could
be cleared and accessed, and pipe water, hook up photovoltaic
panels, and install a compost toilet and greywater wetland
treatment system for group use. This turned out to be one
of our first great successes.
Over time the Hut Hamlet has
grown to 14 dwellings with several yurts, trailers, and tent
platforms mixed in, and has been an invaluable training ground
for natural building. It has also helped dozens of members
to enter the community. But it was our nursery, and it wasn’t
big enough to house our adult selves
If the world had rolled along
in its “Let’s Impeach Clinton” sort of vacuity
for another four or five years, we might have built our main
community center kitchen and started clustering townhouses
around the village hall. But history intervened in the form
of Y2K. Collectively we were still a young child but we had
come face to face with the demand to shoulder adult responsibilities.
We had to take care of the people. The big letdown of the
century reared its ugly head in late 1998 when the fear of
a devilish computer glitch leading to the “ collapse
of civilization” hit us like a ton of bricks. Our quixotic
group had long been susceptible to this millenial meme, which
remains a subtext for all we do, but in 1998 it rode wild
and high. Fear gripped the community. And as we have seen
demonstrated all too often during the Bush era, fear makes
We dove for the trenches. Cooperation
started looking like group purchases of survival food and
less like common-wall housing. Neighborhood groups coalesced
with plans for development here and there. New roads got built
and old ones were improved. Members borrowed money, drew plans,
and broke ground for buildings in their neighborhoods. Work
on the common meeting hall continued in a desultory way until
it was closed in just before the end of the world as we know
it, December, 1999. But the damage was done. Large private
endeavors had been launched in half a dozen directions and
a lot of money poured into projects that would take years
to complete. A rash of hustling inquiries for membership raised
our guard against strangers and we shut down membership recruitment,
squeezing off the lifeblood of community growth and guaranteeing
that no more investment would go into the commonwealth for
At the time we couldn’t
see this very well. Somewhat panicked, we were doing our best
to move the village along its trajectory of growth in the
face of a perceived threat. What we didn’t realize was
the cost of scattering. Our little group of 12 founding members,
which grew to 22 in a few early months, had a lot of heat.
We spent the first two to three years learning to love each
other and solving problems as a group. We visioned, we dreamed,
we wrote agreements, we solemnly worked out the mysterious
business of consensus, and we built a magnetic container for
the community’s growth. In the run-up to Y2K we turned
away from the center, setting centrifugal forces in motion.
The hot cauldron cooled. Some intimacy was lost, especially
as the year 1998 saw many new, mostly younger members join
and the community found itself socially off balance. Momentum
in turning forest into village was lost as we expanded our
working front ten-fold without a commensurate increase in
energy input from members.
The new millenium rolled in
with nary a hiccup. We began to poke our heads up and look
around. Life wasn’t going to change dramatically. Whew!
But we had created a whole new dynamic within the community
that would now affect our growth for some years to come.
The pull of gravity
With the opening of new neighborhoods
to development, the community found itself in several camps,
literally. Growth of membership to over 40 had stretched the
bonds that previously kept us in good social health. A new
tone of divisiveness began to emerge in discussions over the
use of limited community funds and other resources. The building
of common infrastructure had also reached a plateau: We had
a meeting hall, unfinished but somewhat useable; we had a
kitchen, not big enough for all of us but somewhat functional;
we had most of our roads built or improved. Much more needed
to be done, but we had enabled ourselves to turn attention
to the growth of outlying areas.
A couple of neighborhoods began
to take shape. One, called Benchmark, where I have a lot and
where our publishing office is now located, was near the center
of the community. It attracted a half dozen founding members
and their partners. Another, which the community site planners
had labelled “Middle Rosy Branch” for its location
in one of our side valleys, attracted a handful of younger,
family-oriented members in their 30s who renamed it “
Loving Acres.” This latter was a small but sweet plateau
high on a hillside with a microclimate that we sometimes referred
to as “ the Banana Belt.”
Both neighborhoods had plans
for common kitchen and bath buildings and for cooperation
around agriculture. The Loving Acres families also had a special
focus on children as they expected to raise several in the
coming years. Each group gave a lot of attention to thoughtful
site design. The community’s values seemed to be manifesting
in a good way. No one felt there was anything wrong with these
moves, and we did a great deal to applaud the progress of
the neighborhoods, giving time in our council meetings for
announcements of the latest projects completed. Over the next
several years Benchmark built a common building which now
houses studios, offices, and apartments (though not yet a
kitchen or bath), while L.A. built a bath house and a water
system. Members there lived in yurts and trailers.
But time and other realities
began to have their effect. Following a community revisioning,
a number of persuasive voices began to question why we were
spreading ourselves so thinly when we didn’t seem to
have enough collective energy to develop the village center.
One of the L.A. families had a growing child who began to
need to play with other children. Distance from the main hub
of village population and the elevation difference between
L.A. and the more populated main valley discouraged casual
visiting. The Benchmark neighbors, though they were more centrally
located, found they had the same difficulties as L.A. folks
in raising money and marshalling labor to get their neighborhood
projects moved forward. We had learned that five or six people
in a neighborhood wasn’t enough mass and hadn’t
enough wealth to support the kind of infrastructure we hoped
to enjoy: kitchens, water reservoirs, energy systems, etc.
Nor were a few families enough to provide a critical level
of kid connection. It was going to take a village.
An historic turning point
About three years ago these
pressures came to a head. The L.A. neighbors approached the
community with a dramatic plan to re-organize our settlement
policy. Their approach was two-fold: We needed agreements
to create a new kind of siteholding that would enable common-wall
dwellings to be constructed and occupied by members. And,
they wanted to swap locations, trading in their L.A. lots
for a tiny, undeveloped, mostly overlooked, north-facing hillside
neighborhood very near the village center. Village Terraces,
as the site planners had named it, already had an access road
and was within easy walking distance of all the main settlements,
but thick rhododendron cover and the odd topography (about
a 10% northwest-aspected slope) had discouraged other members
from exploring its possibilities.
Within a year the community
had hammered out new policies to permit lower-cost common-wall
site leases on a variety of flexible building formats. It
also agreed to allow the L.A. neighbors to trade in their
old lots for these new small- footprint lots at Village Terraces
and to take several years to build and make the physical move
while still living partly at L.A. This took a lot of patience
on everyone’s part as we labored through long meetings
to create new agreements, phrase by phrase. It required a
lot of vision on the part of the L.A./VT families to imagine
their way out of a situation that didn’t work for them,
and it required a fair bit of wise generosity on the part
of the community to open a way for this completely unexpected
development. I think we’ve all been rewarded handsomely
for our willingness to be flexible and to take risks, though
the cost has been high, both financially and emotionally.
Breaking ground in the winter
of fall of 2002, the first cohousing unit at Village Terraces
went up during the following year and was occupied early in
2004. It is now home to 14 people, the five adult members
of the original neighborhood, their two resident children,
and five other adults and two kids who are renting spaces
while creating other niches for themselves in the community.
A second unit is being planned now and should begin construction
later this year (2005).
Lessons we learned
1. Village reflects an important
scale in human settlement. We need more people living here
to achieve our goals. While there are limits, both physical
and social, to the rate at which we can grow, many of the
aspects of community we hope to realize here depend on our
reaching a size we haven’t yet attained.
2. Social capital is a scarce
resource and we need to hold onto it and build it up carefully
and deliberately. The bonds we built in our early years were
more valuable than we realized, AND we needed to continue
feeding that pool of invisible wealth in order to afford to
expand the community.
3. Real transformations in culture
and daily life depended on being able to walk to our neighbors’
homes and to village meetings and events. When we couldn’t
easily visit our friends on foot, we lost cohesion. In our
up-and-down mountain landscape that adds a special pressure
on development planning that flatlanders might not have to
deal with. We had to accept higher densities in order to have
the contact we wanted.
4. Higher density living is
actually more fun and rewarding, provided the density is of
people and not of cars and concrete. Living in a rural area
on a large property bounded by even larger undeveloped areas,
we enjoy a rich bounty of natural beauty and access to wildlife,
but as humans we thrive on connection with other humans. This
gets much easier when there are more choices, and that means
more people within easy reach.
5. The power of cultural patterning
is difficult to overestimate. We thought we understood and
had made the case to ourselves for most of the above. But
we underestimated the force of unconscious centrifugal energies
in the culture. These are reinforced daily by the auto-based
transport system upon which we still depend, a system that
distorts our perceptions of distance, time, and human limitations.
Earthaven is enjoying an era
of good feeling as I write. More people are better housed
this year than ever before and we have a new community gathering
place in the White Owl Cafe that is making a big difference
in our sense of our common life. Several nights a week the
tavern is filled with pleasant dinner conversation, acoustic
music, or the clink of glasses sampling home-made meads and
other brews. We also have in place a community care team to
pay closer attention to the well-being of members under stress.
The creation of several larger buildings, the VT house among
them, has opened a window on an era of modest surplus: We
can contemplate as never before, a spare room here or the
possibility of an office there, making space for visitors
and newcomers. We’ve certainly not solved all of our
problems as human beings, nor have we overcome all the challenges
of growing a village from scratch, but it feels as though
we are again on the mainline of our best intentions.
A sign of this new health is
the prominent discussion being given now to creating a large
village center building to house kitchen, offices, and a school.
The most important, overarching
lesson in village design that we may have learned from our
development detour is one that applies across many fields
of challenging endeavor: Keep the main thing, the main thing.
A village is about people - several hundred of them - and
the connections they can make with each other.
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