(This is the first of two stories looking at the EcoVillage at Ithaca, NY)
By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
About 20 years ago, when many greenly inclined people were thinking about switching to a more natural shampoo or growing herbs on window sills, a small group of naturalists in Ithaca, NY, was planning more sweeping life changes.
They were crafting an ecologically sensitive village where people would live more cooperatively, compactly and gently on the land. Over time, their dream evolved into one of the most prosperous and advanced communities known as “ecovillages.” At the end of the summer, we had a chance to stay at the EcoVillage at Ithaca to sample life there and see the energy, land and food efficiencies that sustain the residents and the wildlife around them.
Our self-guided tour began as we turned onto Rachel Carson Way, where the junction with Highway 79 is marked by an enclosed bus stop for residents to wait for the Ithaca city or school buses. The small building with its Southern exposure and insulating green roof was our first hint that this community misses few opportunities to save energy and work with nature.
Although the city bus comes several times a day, most families at the village also travel other ways. Many have a car — getting to all points in the Ithaca area requires it. The vehicles share a parking area, so as to not intrude on the walking paths that connect houses. Priuses predominate but one 1970s vintage vehicle has been converted to electricity. Bikes are everywhere, and represent a reasonable way to get to around in the warm months, even to downtown, which is just 3.5 miles away.
And as we rounded a corner heading for our rooms, we got an eyeful of how this EcoVillage maximizes the land. Every home has extensive gardens, with flowers to attract pollinators, kitchen herbs, fruit trees and vegetables. These are true kitchen gardens, where residents can step outside and pluck a cabbage, a bit of basil or a plum. Here’s it’s not just farm-to-fork, it’s yard-to-fork.
Our bed and breakfast, The Swallow’s Nest, featured an amazing old farm sink, reclaimed doors and wood work. It was divinely cool inside thanks to the use of thick walls of durisol block and concrete floors that are naturally cool in the summer and heated with radiant heat in the winter. And the kitchen was stocked with an embarrassing bounty of local edibles, free-range eggs, breads, berries, peaches, jam and granola.
Owned by Joe and Michelle Nolan, the Swallow’s Nest is a bedroom/living/kitchen suite tucked under a two-story duplex where the couple lives with their two sons.
The innovation continues throughout the Nolans’ home on the first and second floors. The home is insulated with straw bale walls and heated by a massive masonry stove, an old, but efficient technology that converts into heat 90 percent of the small amount of wood used. The house also derives energy from rooftop photovoltaics, producing an overage of electricity, putting the surplus back on the grid.
The Nolans and their architect also built in reclaimed wood throughout, using it in cabinets and on floors. Vintage touches include salvaged farm house sinks and old window frames. And for all that, the home’s strongest feature may still be its Southern vista, which takes in the gardens and fields behind the Song neighborhood.
The three-bedroom home is compact and efficient, with a computer desk tucked at the end of the kitchen, a narrow stairway to the second floor and a shared bath. The plaster walls are rich shades of matte gold and sienna, thanks to natural colorants, some built into the plaster, Joe tells us.
The next day, we enjoyed a walk around the grounds, meandering by the chicken coop, shared vegetable garden (which fenced against deer and bunny marauders) compost piles, and the front and back yards that are devoted to herb beds, fruit trees and patios.
Song is one of three communities at the EcoVillage at Ithaca. The first community built at the village, the Frog neighborhood lies just to the east, and northeast is the newest section, called Tree, which is expected to be completed in 2014. When Tree is completed, the EcoVillage at Ithaca will have about 230 to 250 residents.
All three neighborhoods are connected by footpaths, making for a quiet, child-friendly living spaces indoors and outdoors.
Our walk was peaceful and calming, but it was nothing compared with the grand journey that led to the vision for this ecovillage. In 1990 Liz Walker, a community organizer from Vermont who’d been working in San Francisco, participated in a walk across the U.S., from San Francisco to New York, called the “Global Walk for a Livable World.” Along the way, the group stopped to launch recycling programs, plant trees and meet with communities.
“It was a transformative experience,” says Walker, who recalls they traveled 15 to 20 miles a day. The mission impressed everyone with the idea that “we are each powerful in our own way, and if you just keep walking forward you can eventually get to where you’re going,” she said. “Anything is possible.”
Inspired, Walker and a fellow traveler, Joan Bokaer, an Ithaca schoolteacher, began planning an ecovillage that would follow the concept of “co-housing” a movement then gaining attention in Europe in which residents live more economically and sustainably.
They envisioned a village of maybe 500 people who wanted to live “more in balance with the natural world and with each other,” Walker said
“If we had any idea of how much time, effort and blood, sweat and tears it would take, it would have been extremely daunting to start,” Walker says. But she, Bokaer and the small group they assembled were very supportive of each other, she said, and they pushed ahead, buying the land and democratically hashing out the blueprints and the details.
The 175-acre land the group bought sits atop a hill just outside Ithaca. At one point, a traditional suburban development had been designed for the land. That plan provided for 150 households to occupy 90 percent of the land with 10 percent left for open space. The EcoVillage at Ithaca group flipped that vision on its head. The village housing and private yards, including the community parking area, are clustered on about 17 acres, or about 10 percent of the land, leaving 90 percent of the property for open space and small agriculture.
That has meant that residents have ample space to garden, and still leave vast acres untouched for wildlife. “Because our land is pledged to be completely organic, it’s a very attractive place for wildlife,” says Walker, noting that the property hosts classes in conjunction with the ornithology lab at nearby Cornell University.
Respect for the land also helps the Frog neighborhood, where Walker lives with her husband, live up to its name. Five species of frogs have been identified in the neighborhood pond.
Three farms, taking up 25 acres together, also operate on the property: Kestrel’s Perch berry Farm operates a you-pick operation and a CSA; West Haven Farm, owned by members of the Bokaer family, leases 10 acres from the village and operates a CSA serving 250 shareholders with veggies and herbs; Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming opened this year as an incubator, providing land for new Americans to get reestablished in agriculture.
Food, wildlife, but ultimately, people make the village hum. “Visitors to our community often ask what it is like to live here. I think what we have, this village is really recreating what goes on in a traditional village. We’re drawing from traditional village culture in which people really know each other well. Kids know each other. That’s a key factor in the healthfulness of the community.”
“I see the children around here forming friendships that will last the rest of their lives,” she said. “They build forts together and play at each other’s houses. . . There’s a sense of safety and belonging for the kids, which is irreplaceable.”
Sure, Walker says, there are conflicts. Community members have spent many hours developing ground rules for outdoor cats and dogs, for instance. “But largely we’re successful in encouraging people to talk to each other directly. It seems like such a simple thing, and yet it’s a hard thing to do…”
“But we find that amazing things happen when people really talk to each other in depth,” says Walker, who’s written a book about the village, EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneerng a Sustainable Culture and a later guide, Choosing a Sustainable Future: Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca New York.
We were hungry after our walk, so we joined some of the good folks of Song for a meal of tacos, quinoa, summer squash and black beans, much of which was hyper-local, having been plucked from gardens at the village.
Afterward, we talked with Joe Nolan about his experiences over 17 years at the ecovillage, which is one among hundreds of similar “intentional” communities around the world. When he and Michelle moved here, he was intrigued by the opportunities to build a “compostable” house that would be powered by solar power, insulated with straw and finished with clay plaster. Being a “nerdy sort of person,” he also was fascinated by the energy equations — the BTU’s that could be produced and saved, the calculus of efficiency. He remains in touch with the techie side of green living through the store he owns and operates in Ithaca, Home Green Home; though the biggest sellers there are the low-tech, natural latex mattresses.
“But in retrospect that [the technology] is not what we’ve pioneered here so much,” he says, relaxing after a post-dinner run. “The thing that’s radical about ecovillage is ‘Let’s cooperate and share some stuff as neighbors. Let’s own lawnmowers and a laundry room and a commercial kitchen and a deer-fenced garden.”
“Let’s be forced to talk together and make decisions together. That’s really the radical part about ecovillage.”
Learning to live together is the social part of sustainability, Liz Walker explains in our later interview. It requires “retraining our social conditioning to — rather than thinking ‘me first’ — thinking what is best for the common good.”
“In order to live in a close knit community like this you have to be willing to work things out with your neighbors. You don’t have to love everyone as a dear friend, but you have to be willing to work things out with them,” she says. It’s a lesson that will be vital for living differently in the 21st Century, she adds.
And how has the human interaction part of the ecovillage experiment gone?
“It takes a good bit of time,” Nolan says, pausing thoughtfully.
“You have to learn to value the time you spend with people, even though it might not be productive in a boardroom kind of way. You can’t sit down and make six decisions in one hour. It’s more like six meetings to make one decision.”
Of course it’s been worth it, he adds, and when there are rough patches, you cope with it, just as you would in an extended family with its inevitable mixed bag of personalities.
That family might have a “crazy uncle” or two. “But they’re still lovable,” Nolan says.
After all, it takes a village.
Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network