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December 2005/January 2006
Are EcoVillages the Future?

Review by Beth Fiteni


This fall, I decided to make a visit to Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York to refresh my vegetarian spirit. I opted to stay in Ithaca, about an hour away, in a bed and breakfast called Frog’s Way that was listed on an Ithaca B&B website. It described itself as part of an “EcoVillage,” which intrigued my inner environmentalist. It ended up being the highlight of my trip.

This ecovillage, also referred to as a co-housing development, was created by a group of individuals who decided to purchase 175 acres of land communally about one and a half miles from downtown Ithaca, on a hill overlooking a beautiful view of the Cayuga Lake area. There are two groups of houses there now, built in 1997 and 2004 respectively, all energy efficient, with attractive modern architecture, and many of them powered by solar panels. The community is strictly walkable, meaning no cars allowed inside, so instead of a parking lot in between two rows of houses like a typical condominium layout, there is a common green area with gravel paths that is safe for children to play in. Cars are parked under a pavilion just outside the community, and many of them, I noted, are efficient electric-hybrids.

Frog’s Way is a simple but clean B&B consisting of two south-facing double rooms on the bottom floor of one of the eco-homes (the entire house is available for longer-term rentals as well). My host explained that one building is a community center where meetings are held and meals are served several times a week that residents can opt to partake in. Each resident takes a turn with certain duties in making sure the place runs smoothly. They also grow their own organic vegetables and flowers, which they sell at Ithaca’s exceptional farmer’s market, and offer seasonal pick-your-own organic fruits and berries to visitors, adding a source of income for the group. In addition, 55 acres are set aside as a preserve managed by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. Now you must be wondering, are they a bunch of hippies? (Or do I admit, that was my original prejudice?) Actually, no, they are mostly professionals, many of whom work at one of the local universities. And, surprisingly, the homes at the EcoVillage sell for reasonable amounts, in line with real estate prices in the surrounding area.

To me it seemed idyllic as a visitor, and I encourage you to check out the B&B or take one of their monthly tours. If you read the book EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture by co-founder Liz Walker, however, you’ll see that like any group, it has its problems. But this inspiring village, with its residents making choices to reduce the impact of their lives on the earth, is truly a model of modern sustainability. By contrast, typical suburban neighborhoods require huge amounts of energy for electricity and heat, and for transporting food and other needs.

So as energy costs rise, are we all headed the way of the ecovillage? Yes, say the peak-oil theorists. Authors Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency) and Michael Ruppert (Crossing the Rubicon) both featured in the 2004 documentary The End of Suburbia, each point out that our society is in for massive change as oil becomes more rare and more expensive. They say that while renewable energy sources are part of the answer, all the renewables in the world will not be able to sustain our energy-hungry lifestyle, especially in the suburbs. Smaller-scale, local economies and “smart growth” planning will be the most far-reaching solutions for human survival.

Models such as the Ithaca EcoVillage are much needed, indeed. They show that it is possible to have a high quality of life while having a smaller environmental impact. I’m very glad I had the chance to see an example of a sustainable future functioning right before my eyes and see that it is something to look forward to.

Beth Fiteni is the Issues Program Director of the Neighborhood Network, an environmental advocacy organization on Long island. For reservations and more information, contact Frog’s Way B&B at (607) 275-0249 or http://frogsway-bnb.com. For details on the Ithaca EcoVillage see www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us. Explore the Global EcoVillage Network at http://gen.ecovillage.org to learn about other ecovillages in the U.S. and abroad.

 

 


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