Mother Earth Living

Simple Ways to Create a Natural Neighborhood

Create an urban utopia by pursuing a natural neighborhood.
By David Pearson
January/February 2003
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It is great to live in a natural home, and it is wonderful to see more and more of them. But what about the context of these natural homes? Are they also located in natural communities or natural neighborhoods? Very few are, I expect. Many of us have a dream of living in a sustainable, healthy community—a “natural community.” What can we do to make the dream a reality?

This desire is not new. Witness the many American utopian communities that have flowered at one time or another. Remember also the new towns of the 1920s. Modeled on the English “garden city” concept, many were actually built—including Radburn, New Jersey, which is famed for its early segregation of cars and pedestrians. New communities in Reston, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., followed similar ideas in the 1970s. Alongside these are “green” planned communities, notably Village Homes in Davis, California.

Often called the “granddaddy of green developments,” Village Homes was completed in 1981. Consisting of single-family homes and apartments (240 units) and 4,000 square feet of commercial space set on 70 acres, the concept and designs of Michael and Judy Corbett have proven a remarkable success story. Using “urban permaculture” principles, they naturally integrated closely clustered solar and energy-saving houses with orchards and vegetable gardens. A network of paths and cycleways reduce reliance on cars and encourage walking and biking. They also facilitate close neighbor contact, as do generous community provisions including meeting rooms, swimming pools, and playing fields. Twenty thousand trees shade houses and roads from the hot sun, making for a pleasant environment and less air-conditioning. These benefits, plus advanced recycling systems, make Village Homes a model sustainable community, where living a little bit lighter on the land and consuming a little bit less make all the difference.

The urban approach

Planned communities—whether green or not—are few and far between, and they evoke mixed resident reactions. Some say they are excellent and the way forward, and some say they are too large, too low in density, and take up too much virgin land. Now, with mounting pressure on open space, it is vital that we concentrate on revitalizing our existing neighborhoods and reusing already developed land to reduce urban sprawl and create compact towns and cities. The answer may be to take a smaller scale, more urban, grassroots approach.

In an attempt to steer Berkeley, California, on an ecological course, Richard Register wrote Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future (North Atlantic Books, 1987). He proposed “integral neigborhoods” that would be like an eco-village within the city. These would allow for close proximity of home, work and leisure facilities. He saw these being created via gradual addition of small projects—tree planting here, creek restoration there, a “slow street” for bicycles elsewhere—all coalescing to transform the neighborhood. But later he admitted, “The pieces never coalesced in the minds of the public. Nowhere do enough ecocity features come together at a single glance.” However, his vision is still very much alive, and Urban Ecology, the education/action organization he started in 1975, continues to inspire Berkeley’s future.

Across the United States, visioning the restoration of existing urban areas is very much in vogue. The recent ten-day Natural Building Convergence in Portland, Oregon, was a case in point. Small demonstration projects built by participants were likened by Joseph Kennedy of Builders Without Borders to “green vines spreading out through the city.” These ranged from cob (a mix of earth, sand, and straw) and stone information kiosks and gateways to a cob memorial with recycled bike parts erected at an intersection where a cyclist was killed by a car. Another interesting group, the Sustainable Communities Network, links citizens to resources to help create sustainable communities. It offers practical advice on creating community and smart growth (development serving the economy, community, and the environment). Sustainable Seattle, with its “what-you-can-do” approach, has served as a model for similar initiatives in more than ninety cities across the United States, as has Environment Canada with its Millennium Eco-Communities program.

Considering cohousing

Cohousing is a further user-friendly route. Based on the successful Danish model, an established participatory process helps would-be cohousers and guides them through all the stages from concept to completion, including finance and approvals. Well-designed private individual homes supported by communal facilities make these extremely attractive projects.

If you want to go the whole hog and live in an ecovillage, contact the Ecovillage Network of the Americas. With strong links to ecovillages in North and South America and Europe, the network promotes sustainable living via workshops, conferences and educational programs. It also offers support for those wanting to start an ecovillage. Of the host of ongoing projects, a pioneering example is The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, which is now home to 163 people who share a commitment to simple living and self-reliance. The Los Angeles Eco-Village, another notable example, demonstrates the ecovillage approach within a city. Its innovative community projects include affordable ecohousing, an electric car co-op, an organic market garden and a water reclamation system.

Permaculture and community

Coined in 1978 by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture (permanent agriculture) integrates human habitats with sustainable food production. It has grown enormously in popularity and is now a worldwide phenomenon. Broadening out from its food and agricultural focus, permaculture has become an overall lifestyle for many who like its practical hands-on approach. Permaculture projects have blossomed into ecovillages, and ecovillages have become surrounded (and covered) by beautiful and productive vines, orchards and vegetables!

So, wherever you are, there are lots of ways and means to find a natural sustainable community for your natural home. Dreams can come true!

David Pearson is an architect and author of The New Natural House Book: Creating a Healthy, Harmonious, and Ecologically Sound Home (Fireside, 1998) and other books. After receiving a master’s degree in city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley, he worked on the new English city of Milton Keynes, a “third-generation new town” planned to house 250,000 people. He has since worked as a community architect in London and Los Angeles.


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