It Takes an Eco-Village

Green Communities are Spreading—With Growing Pains

Arcosanti"s arch© Yuki Yanagimoto

In 1981, when 22-year-old David Tollas moved from Michigan to live in the middle of the Arizona desert as part of the Arcosanti community, his friends and family looked at him as a radical idealist. Located 65 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti was born in 1970 out of the vision of one man, Italian architect Paolo Soleri.

Soleri proposed to build a laboratory for an ecologically sensitive, compact, high-density community where people could live and work car-free, growing their own food—a "lean alternative" to urban sprawl and hyper consumption. "What attracted me to live there was the idea of building something for the future," says Tollas, who is now 47 and still works as an architect at Arcosanti with his wife and two children.

The project, inspired by Soleri’s "arcology" theory, which combines ecology and architecture, was meant to house 5,000 residents on 25 acres. But nearly 40 years later, that dream has failed to materialize, partly because it could not attract sufficient capital to finance the prototype community.

Today, Arcosanti is three percent complete, and only 60 residents have committed to live there permanently. The current site has housing, a café, a bakery, a convenience store, a small agricultural area and a theater, built mostly through volunteer labor. About 6,000 students have come from all over the world to attend workshops at Arcosanti and help complete the buildings since the project started.

"We thought we would build the whole thing in five years and then go around the world building these great compact urban centers," says Mary Hoadley who has been involved in the project since the 1970s and serves as Arcosanti’s site coordinator. "The fact that we haven’t been able to build out more of it makes it harder to convince people that it is a good way to go." To Soleri, now 88, Arcosanti’s limited success can be attributed to the powerful and pervasive culture of materialism which prevents society from considering alternative lifestyles.

Aerial view of Arcosanti, 40 years in progress© Brendan Scott

Arcosanti could be viewed as a failed experiment. Yet Soleri’s ideas have inspired a generation of architects, and his lifelong work is now being revisited by groups around the world who see Arcosanti as a model for building sustainable communities. Between 30,000 and 50,000 visitors come to Arcosanti every year. "It is a symbol of the ability to do something different," says Tollas.

Soleri’s ideas are making their way into the mainstream as people, concerned about the environment, look for ways to live more sustainably, a trend clarified in a report released last year by the Worldwatch Institute.

According to the study, the 379 "eco-villages" registered with the Global Eco-Village Network (110 of them in North America) are proof of changing attitudes. Eco-villages are defined by Worldwatch as "human scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy hu-man development, and can be successfully con-tinued into the indefinite future." The commun-ities can be urban, suburban or rural, and incorporate green buildings, local food production, solar energy, carpooling, and community building efforts. "More and more people are engaged in the idea of local sustainability," says Erik Assadourian, author of the study and a Worldwatch research associate.

Some eco-villages take a decade or longer to develop. Even though more mainstream developers are incorporating community sustainability principles into their projects, the upfront investment required for a truly sustainable eco-village can be a deterrent. But according to Albert Bates, the director of the Eco-Village Training Center in Summertown, Tennessee, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of community glue. "Many fail in the first five years because they don’t have the people skills to live together in harmony," Bates says.

More fundamentally, it’s still unclear how far eco-villages can go in terms of minimizing environmental impact. Lois Arkin, the executive director of CRSP Institute for Urban Eco-Villages, a nonprofit that sponsors the Los Angeles Eco-Village, says that the existing cooperatives are not "fully fledged and fully manifested," but are instead "aspiring eco-villages." She cites as evidence the fact that some residents still own cars.

A community course at the LA Eco-Village© Lois Arkin

The Los Angeles Eco-Village was started in 1993 in a two-block mixed-use, low-to-moderate income neighborhood three miles west of downtown, within walking distance of bus lines and two subway stops. Some of the accomplishments to date include the rehabilitation and the ecological retrofitting of two buildings, outreach and education in the neighborhood, the creation of a local food cooperative, and closing down a street to develop the Bimini Slough Ecology Park.

But LA’s eco-village still struggles with defining appropriate goals. It is set up as an intentional community of 40 members who have to demonstrate a continued commitment to live more ecologically and cooperatively within the larger neighborhood, which comprises 500 residents. "Our criteria for accepting new members have gotten tighter and tighter," says Arkin.

The Cleveland Eco-Village has taken a different approach. Started in 1996 in a neighborhood near a transit stop on the west side of Cleveland, the project seeks to revitalize an urban neighborhood while incorporating sustainability principles such as green building design, solar panels, community gardening, green spaces, pedestrian-oriented development and sustainable living workshops.

The Cleveland experiment has not set specific requirements for ecological living, but it is inclusive of the existing neighborhood and undertakes projects that attempt to benefit the 3,000 residents in the area. As a result, convincing people to adopt an ecologically friendly lifestyle has been a challenge.

"Our expectation was that if we built a green development then green people would come," says Mandy Metcalf, Cleveland Eco-Village project director for the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization. "We have attracted some people who have been excited about the eco-village concept," she says. "But people bought into the project because they just like living near downtown or living in an energy-efficient townhouse. They have not necessarily embraced every aspect of the eco-village vision."

To Erik Assadourian, the demonstration, education, and training components that some eco-villages include in their approach is the most significant success indicator. "If they are not spreading the word showing how individuals and communities can reduce their ecological impact and be more sustainable, then they are not true eco-villages," he says.