A Vision of a Sustainable Society

 

The adjective ‘sustainable’ is used widely and loosely today. In this article, we paint a clear, coherent vision of a sustainable society based on a network of ecovillages.

For 12 years Christine and I lived in an ecovillage at Findhorn in Scotland, part of the vibrant Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). Ecovillages are relatively small communities that seek to create a way of life that is sustainable ecologically, economically, socially, culturally and spiritually. They are very diverse. At one end of the spectrum are traditional villages in the majority world such as the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka and Eco Yoff in Senegal. In rich western countries, many are small rural communities with just a few families and enough land to grow most of their own food. But others, such as Los Angeles Ecovillage, are transforming inner city areas.

 

THE ECOVILLAGE MOVEMENT

A decade ago, GEN was small and almost invisible. Today, with growing concerns about climate change and sustainability, the world is starting to take notice of what ecovillages have to offer. For example, the Findhorn Community is an NGO accredited at the UN, and host to one of 12 CIFAL training centres set up by the UN Institute for Training and Research. Each CIFAL Centre is “a hub for capacity building and knowledge sharing between local authorities, national governments, international organizations, the private sector and civil society.” Findhorn also offers trainings in all aspects and levels of ecovillage design. The month-long Ecovillage Design Education is a training for trainers developed by GEN and an official contribution to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. By contrast, the Ecovillage Training, which also lasts a month, is more of an introduction based on Findhorn’s experience.

The energy of the ecovillage movement is focused on creating model small-scale sustainable settlements. However, valuable as these are, the vision needs to expand beyond individual ecovillages if this approach is to make a significant contribution to the future of an over-populated and increasingly urban world. My vision of the future is of a sustainable society and economy with a high quality of life and advanced culture based on networks of ecovillages which capture the economies of scale and diversity of large populations without losing the advantages of a smaller ecological footprint, local autonomy, neighbourly and cooperative relationships, slower rhythms of life, and vibrant community arts, crafts and entertainment. Following is a brief sketch, little more than a verbal cartoon, of what this might look.

 

A VISION OF A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY

When they think about sustainable futures, many people focus on technologies for energy and water supply, building construction, transport, food production and so on. These are hugely important, because without appropriate technologies a sustainable community is impossible. But the experience of aspiring ecovillages reveals that technology is the easy part. There are lots of brilliant technologies and creative ideas already available, and more are being developed all the time. In the long term, people are far trickier. It has proved very challenging to create settlements and social structures that work economically, socially and culturally. These challenges include:

  • Generating a sustainable, if modest, income;
  • Building community relationships;
  • Creating decision-making and conflict management systems that work;
  • Finding time and energy for socialising, celebrations, art and creativity.

The answers developed by ecovillages are as diverse as the technologies they use, and detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article. What I want to do here is focus primarily on the role of settlement design in facilitating the emergence of sustainable communities. The way we lay out our villages and towns, or restructure urban areas over time, has a big impact on the kinds of social relationships that emerge. For instance, it is almost impossible to provide efficient public transport in suburbia, locking such areas into high-energy, high-cost private transport. They discourage neighbourliness and community, and encourage isolation of nuclear families. And there is no alternative to commuting to work for most bread-winners. So how might things be different?

Imagine in place of your city, a network of autonomous, inter-connected small towns, separated by land set aside for nature conservation, recreation, water supply, food production and similar purposes. The actual size, shape, distribution and spacing of these towns varies, both to provide diverse living environments and to fit harmoniously into the landscape. However, some idea of how such settlements might work can be gained from an idealised model.

Each town has a population of a few thousand people, living around a central area containing schools, shops, offices, service industries, the public transport terminus, and civic, entertainment, sporting and recreation facilities. This core occupies an area of no more than 80ha – corresponding to a circle 1 km in diameter. Most buildings here are underground to save energy, and to leave the surface free for parks and sports grounds. However, there is ducted natural light inside, including ‘windows’ through which the outside world can be seen, including the night sky.

Residential areas are located in a ring around the core, no more than 0.75 km wide, with open space beyond. Dwellings are arranged in clusters of 5 to 50, with a range of shared facilities such as common dining and recreation rooms, child play spaces, workshops, laundry, and shared guest facilities, all of which cut the need for private space and encourage development of a cooperative community. In this way the ecological footprint and cost of dwellings is reduced. Workshops, storage and parking facilities are often located below the dwellings to save land. Buildings are low-rise, no more than 3 or 4 stories high, and of mixed size and density to suit different lifestyles and stages of life. Private gardens are small, and most land is owned and managed in common. Dwelling clusters are very energy efficient and use advanced technologies that make them generally self-sufficient in energy, water and wastewater services.

The dwelling clusters are connected with each other and the central core by a network of paths for cyclists, pedestrians and electric buggies that run through linear parks, and are segregated from the narrow roads used by delivery vehicles, taxis and the few private cars. Due to the layout, no-one lives more than 1.25 km from the town centre, or more than 2.5 km from any other house – easy walking or cycling distance for most, and accessible by electric buggy for others. Similarly, no-one is more than 0.75 km from the open space surrounding the town.

Ideally, in densely settled areas such towns are spaced at about 5 km intervals, although the actual spacing and layout varies greatly. Thus, typically there are 2.5 km of open space between the edges of adjacent towns, and the built-over area occupies less than 25% of the landscape. The open space supports a mixture of conservation reserves, natural parks, urban forests, quarries, intensive organic agriculture and aquaculture, and ‘allotments’ used for growing food by residents without private gardens. As much of the town’s food as possible is produced in this area, thus minimising transport and maximising freshness, although the actual percentage depends on the landform, soils and climate. Other farm products include raw materials for plastics and biofuels as well as timber and paper pulp. The open area is interlaced with walking and cycle paths as well as narrow service roads that are used for leisure, access to neighbouring towns, and transport of produce. The open space  is also crossed by transport corridors which connect the towns by high-speed rail and road for both goods and passenger transport.

In its pure form this vision is applicable only to ‘green fields’ developments, or regeneration of extensive derelict industrial areas. But over time whole cities could be restructured into more self-sufficient communities. Natural models for this exist in many older cities such as London which long ago engulfed neighbouring villages which have somehow retained their identity over intervening centuries. On a smaller scale, there are already examples of suburban streets that have been converted to cluster housing by removing land boundaries, and apartment blocks and disused warehouses that have been turned into urban communities. Such evolution requires vision, imaginative planning and appropriate incentives rather than wholesale demolition and reconstruction.

Each cluster of dwellings becomes the basis for a cohousing or ecovillage community that is responsible for its own internal management. The town and its surrounding area is governed by an elected council responsible for all functions which cannot be adequately managed at the community level. This includes some aspects of energy, food and water supply, waste recycling, local environmental management, transport, education, welfare, health, cultural and recreational facilities, and development control. A relatively novel, but key, function is employment of trained facilitators whose job it is to help the residents of housing clusters to build community and overcome relationship difficulties. Towns coordinate and standardise their activities where necessary through regional and State assemblies with representation from each town. State agencies and utility companies act as consultants and contractors, facilitating coordination and establishment of uniform technical standards where necessary, and providing expert planning, design, installation, maintenance and management services. However, their role as regulators and central service providers is much reduced.

As each town is responsible for its own development within an agreed coordinating structure, a high degree of diversity evolves in social and economic systems, settlement patterns, architectural styles and so on. The emphasis is on economic self-reliance, with most people working within their own town in order to reduce unnecessary transport. Thus each town needs a diversity of skills ranging from food production and processing, through maintenance of buildings, equipment and open space, to office, education and health services, and leisure and cultural pursuits.

This economic structure, with most people working and living in the one town, fosters a sense of community beyond the dwelling cluster, so that most people choose to use town recreational and cultural facilities for much of their leisure. Local theatre, music, sports and other cultural activities flourish. People also choose to have retired relatives and children living in the same town where possible. As community identity grows, it naturally comes to take responsibility for those who are unemployed, aged or disabled. Each town tends to have a mixture of ages, abilities and incomes, and develops an appropriate mix of housing. In this way, the new economic structure and settlement pattern reduce the problem of inequality.

Beyond common economic needs, each town tends to specialise in a particular type of economic activity. Some produce manufactured goods such as tools, appliances or vehicles. Others focus on higher education, research, or specialist medical and hospital services. A third group is based on arts and crafts such as furniture making, textiles, pottery or painting. Yet others concentrate on specialist retail facilities, while some become home to professional cultural groups such as orchestras or theatre, ballet and opera companies, or to museums and art galleries.

These towns are not closed societies, although the populations are relatively stable, and their growth is constrained by the availability of land and resources, and the lifestyle adopted. Thus, people can only move into an area when others move out or die. Stagnation and parochialism are minimised by the transport and communications links to other towns, and the world as a whole. People are able to visit other villages easily, and indeed need to do so to buy certain goods, to get certain services, to participate in some sporting competitions, or to visit a museum or professional theatre. People have access to information and entertainment in libraries and databases around the world from their home computers, and have videophone links to other towns.

In some areas, recreational access to natural areas has to be limited to avoid degradation from the relatively high local population. Each town works out appropriate ways of controlling use. These range from encouraging leisure activities away from natural areas towards the landscaped central parks, to tradeable permits for a number of days a year for each person, to ‘on’ and ‘off’ days, or pay for use. Similar mechanisms are used for regional facilities such as beaches, fisheries and national parks, based on access rights by each town as a whole. Overall, however, the impact of such constraints is not severe because the vibrant and rewarding community life reduces the need to ‘get away from it all’.

 

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

In many respects, this scenario is similar to utopian anarchism – a return to an idealised past when simple folk lived a non-industrialised rural idyll. However, there are critical differences. This is not a vision of a society that has turned its back on science and technology, or which has magically got rid of most of the human population. This is a vision of a society which makes maximum use of advanced knowledge to create a world in which large numbers can have a high quality of life without destroying the natural resources on which they depend; a society of human scale, which values each individual, and in which people can achieve their potentials as human beings.

There are few if any technical barriers to this future. The challenges lie in the reluctance of ordinary men and women, the reluctance of ourselves above all, to contemplate radically changing our lifestyles and values to embrace a more community-focused way of life; in our reluctance to devote time and energy to developing community relationships. But we may soon be forced by climate change and other limits to choose between radical change with the hope of a better long term future, or hanging onto our current way of life as its quality declines.

We hope this vision of a sustainable society will inspire action.

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