Starting a Successful Urban Ecovillage
By Diana Leafe Christian (article in Hopedance Magazine Issue #51)

I’ve been fascinated by ecovillages ever since I become editor of Communities magazine, 11 years ago. Then I wrote a book about how to start successful new ones. And now I live in one: Earthaven, in the mountains of North Carolina.
My favorite definition of ecovillages is that ecovillages are “human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that supports healthy human development, and which can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” (Robert and Diane Gilman, 1991). “Human-scale” means you know everyone in the ecovillage and can feel that your voice counts in the group’s decision-making. Maybe this is 20 people; maybe 120. “Full-featured settlement” means you live there; work there; grow or otherwise get your food there; and your social, cultural, and spiritual life is there. Urban ecovillage activists point out that in a city, your work, and social, cultural, and spiritual life may not be on-site but nearby, accessible by bicycle or public transportation..
Ecovillages can be intentional communities, educational centers, or traditional indigenous villages, depending on how ecologically sustainable their vision and purpose. Do any real ecovillages exist, given that we don’t yet know “the indefinite future.” I don’t know, however, I believe there are “aspiring ecovillages.” I’m aware of four urban ones in the U.S.: Los Angeles Eco-Village, EcoCity Cleveland, Cincinnati Ecovillage, and Ecovillage Detroit.
I also believe it’s a whole lot easier to create an ecovillage in an urban setting than a rural one. First, unlike their country cousins, urban ecovillagers aren’t challenged by where they’ll find decent-paying jobs to pay off loans for purchasing and developing their ecovillage property-they’ll probably keep the urban-based jobs they have. And while their urban property will probably be far more expensive than that of their rural counterparts, they’ll most likely get permission for a higher population density, and thus divide their loan payments between more people, making their property relatively more affordable. Further, urban ecovillages are more likely to buy property with existing utilities and buildings, which, because of rising construction costs, can be less costly to retrofit than the new construction and new utilities required when buying undeveloped rural land. For the same reason urban ecovillage residents can often live on-site sooner, and more comfortably, than if they had to deal with clearing brush, building roads, and starting buildings from scratch.
I also believe urban ecovillages can make a bigger difference in our ailing culture. For example, living more densely in cities helps preserve farmland and wilderness from human development. Living in cities also conserves resources, since it’s cities and towns, not the countryside, that offer large-scale cooperative ventures such as public transportation, shops within walking distance, food co-ops, various other kinds of worker-owned co-ops, and apartment buildings with central utilities, which waste lots less natural resources than individual single-family homes. Urban ecovillages can also influence far more people, and provide green and appealing alternatives to the painful realities of blighted neighborhoods and dead downtowns While people travel across the country to see what we’re doing at Earthaven, we would have a lot more impact if our natural buildings, off-grid power, organic gardens, and constructed wetlands were smack in the heart of downtown Asheville, where thousands of people saw us daily.
Since the early 1990s I wanted to know what it takes for newly forming intentional communities and ecovillages to succeed. So I began interviewing founders of communities that succeeded and those that failed. The major steps seem to be establishing a core group with a particular vision and purpose, choosing a decision-making process, creating agreements and policies, creating a membership policy, choosing a legal structure, finding and financing property, and moving in and renovating (or developing) that property..
Yet I also learned that no matter how inspired and visionary the founders, only about one out of ten new communities and ecovillages actually seemed to get built. The other 90 percent usually floundered around, sometimes from lack of money or not finding the right property, but more often because of gut-wrenching conflict, and, occasionally even lawsuits.
I began to see a pattern. Most new-community failures-rural or urban-seemed to result from what I call “structural” conflict: problems that occurred because founders didn’t explicitly put certain processes in place or make certain important decisions at the beginning. creating one or more omissions in their organizational structure. Several weeks, months, or even years later the group would erupt in major conflict that could have been largely prevented if they had handled these issues early on. Naturally, this sets off a great deal of interpersonal conflict too, making the initial “structural” conflict even worse.
While a normal amount of interpersonal conflict can be expected, I believe that much of the structural conflict in failed communities could have been prevented, or at least greatly reduced, if the founders had paid attention to at least six crucial elements in the beginning. Each of these, if not addressed in the beginning can generate structural conflict later on. Here’s what I found:

1. Identify your ecovillage vision and create vision documents. One exhausting source of structural conflict is when various members have different visions beliefs about why you’re doing the project in the first place. This can erupt into all kinds of arguments about what seem like ordinary topics-how much time the group works on a particular task, or how much money you allocate for a particular project. It’s really a matter of underlying differences (perhaps not always conscious) about what the ecovillage is for. All ecovillage members need to be on the same page from the beginning, and must know what your shared vision is, and know you all support it. Your shared vision should be thoroughly discussed, agreed upon, and written down from the outset.

2. Choose a shared decision-making process, and if it’s consensus, get trained in it. Most people resent power imbalances, and such imbalances can become an enormous source of conflict in an forming ecovillage. Decision-making is the most obvious point of power, and the more it is shared and participatory, the less this particular kind of power imbalance will come up. Shared decision-making means everyone in the group has a voice in decisions that will affect his or her life in the ecovillage. The way your decision-making method works must be well-understood by everyone in the group.
A more specific source of community conflict is using the consensus decision-making process without thoroughly understanding it first. What often passes for consensus in many groups is merely “pseudo-consensus”-which exhausts people, drains their energy and good will, and generates a great deal of resentment. So if your group plans to use consensus, you’ll prevent a great deal of structural conflict by getting trained in it first.

3. Make clear agreements-in writing. People remember things differently. Your agreements-from the most mundane to the most significant-should be written down. Then if later you all remember things differently you can always look it up. The alternative-“I’m right but you’re wrong (and maybe you’re even trying to cheat me)”-can break up an ecovillage faster than you can say, “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

4. Learn good communication and group process skills and resolving conflicts a priority. My definition of “good communication skills” is being able to talk with each other about sensitive subjects and still feel connected. This includes methods for holding each other accountable for agreements. I consider it a set-up for structural conflict if a forming ecovillage group doesn’t address these skills right from the beginning.

5. In choosing cofounders and new ecovillage members, select for emotional maturity. An often-devastating source of conflict is allowing someone to join your group who is not aligned with your vision and values. Or someone whose emotional pain-which might come up weeks or months later as disruptive attitudes or behaviors-can end up costing you hours and hours of meeting time and draining your group of energy and well-being. A well-designed process for selecting and integrating new people into your group, and screening for those who resonate with your values, vision, and behavioral norms, can save repeated rounds of stress and conflict in the weeks and years ahead.

6. Learn the head skills and heart skills you need to know. Forming a new ecovillage requires many of the same planning and financial skills as launching a successful business, and the same capacities for trust, good will, and honest communication as building a successful marriage. Founders of successful new communities and ecovillages seem to know this, and those that get mired in wrenching conflict usually do not. So the sixth major way to reduce structural conflict is to take the time to learn what you’ll need to know.

Not everyone in your forming ecovillage group needs to be equally skilled in these ways, nor must you possess all these skills and areas of expertise among yourselves when you begin. You can always hire training or expertise in whatever you need-from consensus to permaculture design.
“Forming a new community,” says community activist Zev Paiss, “is the longest, most expensive, personal growth workshop you will ever take.” I agree. But with the right tools and skills- and a the burning intention to make the world a more cooperative and sustainable place-it’s totally worth it.

Diana Leafe Christian is editor of Communities magazine and author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities (New Society Publishers, 2003) . Her articles have appeared in Communities magazine, Permaculture Activist, and Mother Earth News. She has been interviewed about the growing trend towards community living by the BBC, NPR, New Dimensions Radio, Canada’s This Magazine. the AARP Bulletin, and the Los Angeles Times. She lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina.
For more information, see Urban Ecovillage Network:

Public Talks with Diana Leafe Christian Donations $5- $10
FRI Aug 19 7:30 7:30 pm: Public talk and overview $15 LA Ecovillage 117 Bimini Pl. LA 90004 Lois Arkin 213/738-1254
Sat/Sun, Aug. 20-21, 2 day workshop: How to Start a Successful Urban Ecovillage, 10 am - 6 pm, $150, LA Eco-Village, 117 Bimini Pl., Lois Arkin, reservations required,
TUES Aug 23 ldyllwild , 7:30 pm Idyllwild Park Nature Center Auditorium, 25225 Hwy. 243, Idyllwild, CA 92549 "Scott Horton" <> phone 951-659-5362
WED Aug 24 7pm Ojai Kent Hall Help of Ojai 111 W Santa Ana St, Ojai 805-962-2571
THUR Aug 25 7pm Santa Barbara Downtown Library 805-962-2571
FRI Aug 26 7pm San Luis Obispo Downtown Library Bob Banner 1-866-749-7819,805 544 9663
Monday Aug 29 7pm Alameda Point Collaborative 677 W. Ranger Ave. Alameda, CA 94501 Douglas Biggs <> 510.898.7849
?TUES Aug 30 San Francisco Commonwealth Club 595 Market Street SF ( Eric Corey Freed <> (415) 474.7777