Green Acres: Communities Reduce Ecological Footprints

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Municipal leaders from San Francisco to Melbourne are engaging in sustainability actions from banning plastic bags and water bottles to making commitments to address climate change. But within and beyond cities, growing numbers of local communities are also going green, according to a new Vital Signs Update from the Worldwatch Institute. Worldwide, the 379 “ecovillages” currently registered with the Global Ecovillage Network are sharing innovative solutions that connect residents socially while collectively lowering their ecological footprints— including local food co-ops, community-supported agriculture programs, and carpooling.

“Planned communities tend to evoke over-developed suburban neighborhoods and mini-malls,” says Erik Assadourian, Worldwatch Research Associate and author of the Update. “But increasingly, planned communities will come to mean neighbors living with a purpose beyond consumerism, embracing a sustainable lifestyle and forging meaningful connections with their neighbors.”

Europe leads the world in the number of registered ecovillages, with 138, followed by North America (110), Latin America (58), Asia/Oceania (52), and Africa/Middle East (21).

Many ecovillages are reducing energy use, localizing farming, and creating more sustainable local businesses. Other environmentally minded communities, including the more than 450 “co-housing” projects found in North America and Europe, focus primarily on improving the quality of life of residents. Co-housing typically includes clusters of smaller houses with shared dining halls and other spaces, facilitating stronger social ties while reducing the material and energy needs of the community.

Even mainstream developers are pioneering green principals in their ventures. The Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED), an 82-unit housing complex in London, aims to produce as much energy as it uses through a combination of passive solar design, energy efficiency, and greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. A resident living at BedZED—or at the Findhorn ecovillage to the north in Scotland—has just 60 percent of the ecological footprint of an average individual in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, in Germany’s Sieben Linden ecovillage, per capita carbon dioxide emissions are just 28 percent the national average.

While all ecovillages and other environmentally minded communities strive toward a similar goal, the diversity among them is striking. They can be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and in industrialized and developing countries. Ecovillages in Mbam, Senegal; Porto Alegre, Brazil; and Munksøgård, Denmark, all contribute to the growing global movement.

These community-initiated sustainable development efforts are supported by a range of international agencies and networks. The Global Environment Facility’s COMPACT program (Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation) provides grants to communities in World Heritage Sites to improve lives and reduce ecological impacts, while The Relocalization Network supports 159 groups in 12 countries in their shift toward more local production of food, energy, and goods. In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement helps some 15,000 villages develop under the “no poverty, no affluence” model, based on addressing basic needs while also maintaining the importance of a clean environment, well-rounded education, and spiritual sustenance.

“Many people think living in an ecovillage would be a life of sacrifice. But research shows that residents have lowered their ecological footprints and financial costs, and maintain closer bonds with their neighbors, all of which translates to a less stressed, more fulfilling lifestyle,” says Assadourian.