Heading west from Vermont (Cobb-Hill Co-Housing) through the endless forests and hills and mountains (the Appalachian mountains) into the lakes district of Upstate New York, the Fingerlake region (long glacial lakes, each of them dozens of kilometers long and very deep, but of course they pale in size of the Great Lakes (Lake Ontario) just a bit further to the north. Just a couple of kilometres outside of the small, leafy and progressive city of Ithaca – site of elite Cornell University, lies the interesting and well-known ecovillage/co-housing project with the name Ecovillage at Ithaca, where I spent some days living and exploring of what makes this community tick and prosper.
The ecovillage (or rather three separate villages or also called co-housing developments) are located within 170 acres of partially wooded and largely overgrown pasture of former farmland near the eastern fringe of the City of Ithaca some 100m elevation above the lake. The idea for an ecovillage started in 1991 with a small group of people, which was followed by years of preparatory work in order to get a community established and together, agree on a vision and development, the planning and design and permitting process and of course financing and eventually contracting and construction process. The first of the currently three developments of houses (called FROG neighbourhood) started in 1996 and was completed in 1997 (the first co-housing development in upstate NY), utilising one architect and a few available standard designs, with some 30 very closely spaces dwellings of double storey construction using passive solar design principles, high-efficiency insulation, triple glazing, south-facing windows, pergolas with vines for shading in summer, common gas-fired boilers for hot water and heating and a nearby 50kW solar PV array, all of which represents sustainable technology and design at the time of construction. The houses have only pedestrian access with parking away in separate parking area. A large common house was built as part of the development, including common kitchen for community meals, space for presentations, events space, laundry facilities and multipurpose spaces for community use and the community mail distribution centre.
The second village development (called SONG) which was completed in 2002 with another 30 houses, was designed differently with more opportunity for design input and change by residents, so the type of buildings not only reflects sustainable design at that time, but also includes other options like a few strawbale buildings amongst others. Generally buildings were designed further apart as compared from first village, with more common space for personal and community gardens and play and meeting areas. Features of SONG include passive solar design, much insulation, triple glazed windows, solar hot water, solar PV, still with gas furnaces for heating and hot water generation. SONG also has its own common house with community facilities.
The newest development, which was built between 2012 and 2015 is called TREE, was designed in accordance with PASSIVE HAUS design standards (the first in NY state) and are LEED platinum certified with 40 units/dwellings, and the development also includes a 4 level apartment block, which houses the common facilities for TREE as well as 15 – 1 to 3 bedroom apartments. The TREE development and individual buildings are largely zero energy or net energy positive and only need a small energy demand for room ventilation and air exchange and of course includes passive solar design, latest highly air tights triple glazed windows (produced in Europe because not available in US or CAN), solar PV etc. The construction of latest development was somewhat more expensive than anticipated due to new type of design and build for the area. The value of any house within the community seems to range between $250 to $350k, hence targeting a fairly upmarket clientelle (mostly white educated middle class).
All common houses have shared children’s play areas, laundry facilities, offices, guest rooms, beautiful dining areas and community kitchens. A community woodshop, work-out room, sauna and swimming ponds are available to residents as well. A tractor and several mowers are owned by the Village for everyone’s use. Community houses provide a place to gather for optional shared dinners, parties, meetings, laundry, yoga classes, kids
playrooms, and more, with community events several times a week.
The evolving village culture includes neighborly support for families in need,
various annual celebrations to mark the seasons, and frequent ad hoc parties, music jams, and talent shows. We spend lots of time outdoors, particularly in summer using the open spaces for gardening, playing, running, hiking, biking and stopping to chat along the paths.
Overall research has found that Ithaca ecovillage uses between 67 and 80% less resources (including land) than average American homes, even though there is no special emphasis on water use or treatment (i.e. very little rainwater catchment and waste water goes down the sewer and use of normal flush toilets), and village is connected also to town water, gas and electricity. If there is ever another development (initially 5 were planned) there appears to be ample room for improvement in ecological design and performance of buildings in some aspects (e.g. water).
The neighborhoods could be considered as co-housing developments where the residents own the houses (but not the land which is owned by a community land trust/ Coop), who can also sell or rent the places (with a process and approval by the community needed) and some shared facilities, and communal consensus based decision-making (in sub-communities) on matters relating to running of the place, as well as requirement for 2-4 hours per week of community work by each resident, approximately $200 per household per month of coop tax and services fee (which only leaves phone and internet to pay by each household). However, much of the land surrounding the villages is left for nature, but some is used for a couple of CSA, one producing veggies for the village (on 10 acres) and external market for sale, one berry farm (5 acres) for village and external market as well as a farming incubator area/business (GROUNDSWELL), training up future farmers as part of the communities training/education and outreach program but also have office spaces for entrepreneurs, a neighborhood root cellar, community gardens, and meadows, ponds and woodlands. The community also runs a number of coops, including for food, cars, veggies and about 45% of residents run their work/businesses from home (but are individually owned) and includes a wide range of businesses from accounting, law and IT to permaculture and sustainable design, with currently around 160 adults and 80 children living in the villages.
The community’s day-to-day operation is run by a number of committees organised through consensus decision-making, with a well-developed conflict resolution and mediation system even though not all residents are trained in NVC or dynamic decision making or other tools used, which is due to flux of residents it is hard for community to keep training up for all. Also community appears to experience that much community work rests on older (semi-retired or retired) residents, putting some burden on them, with the added questions of if and how older members can be supported through old age in the community (25% of residents are retired), a question common to all communities I have visited, but none of them was able to find really workable solutions so far.
Even though I consider Ecovillage at Ithaca as a larger scale ecovillage/co-housing development, which appears to have been designed and implemented very professionally and in some way comprehensively (i.e. also including some good training, education and outreach program – Learn@EcoVillageIthaca and GROUNDSWELL). It is designed with the main-stream middle class buyers in mind who have a green or sustainable streak and desire for improved community living, which by itself is a great achievement and case example of how alternative land development could occur with current technology at comparable cost. However, such a development remains a niche, unaffordable to most, lack diversity and most of all will not be capable “to save us”, but can at best only be a step in the right direction of more overall systemic and paradigmatic change. Recognising this, Ecovillage at Ithaca sees itself as an important part of creating such developments not as islands of refuges but as examples and laboratories and demonstration site for all to see, learn and access on how sustainable living can look like and could work for all, hence educational and outreach programs are and integral part of the village operations.
Publications on Ecovillage Ithaca (great resource and research stuff)