Ecovillages as Models for Sustainable Development: A Case Study Approach

Ecovillages as Models for Sustainable Development: A Case Study Approach

I invite you take a look at this Case Study written in the form of a thesis by Bhawna Gesota.  The study focuses on the benefits posed by the wide-scale use of ecovillages and why it should be in our best interest to implement ecovillage programs everywhere.  Gesota’s research is focused around the socio-economic trends of our present day being capitalist, and furthermore how said capitalism is not sustainable.  With a seemingly imminent ecological disaster based on the society we have built today, it is in our best interest to change the way we are living.  It is acknowledged that such large-scale consumerism requires resources that are not renewable.  We need people to be on board with a large scale social change and it needs to happen before we use up all the resources we so desperately depend on.  

Gesota lays out a section in his piece titled Mapping the Motivation and he mentions some of the key areas of importance regarding what needs to be done to avoid an ecological crisis, as outlined by an IPCC report:

  1. Reduction in usage of fossil fuel and increase in usage of renewable energy (E.g. hydropower, solar, wind, tidal and wave energy) 
  2. Shifting to public transport systems (rail, buses) and non-motorize transport (cycling, walking), usage of bio-fuels, advanced hybrid or electric vehicles
  3. Usage of energy efficient appliances, improved insulation, active and passive solar designs, usage of natural building materials
  4. Cultivation of degraded lands, efficient use of fertilizers and irrigation
  5. Composting of organic waste and waste minimization
  6. Expanded rain water harvesting, water storage and conservation techniques, water re-use and re-cycling techniques

Gesota says that the models best suitable for responding to these key guidelines are those of ecovillages.  This means supporting local economies with a focus on sustainability through locally grown food, sharing land, and community government.  One of the hinderances ecovillages have is certain speculation around whether each ecovillage is doing as much as they can or as much as the next ecovillage from a sustainability standpoint.  At which point do we give an ecovillage its name?  What classifications make up the specificities of an ecovillage? Gesota figured the best way to figure out similarities between ecovillage infrastructure would be by use of interviews of a convenience random sample.  He would randomly select ecovillage citizens who were close by to get a feel for the general consensus on how a certain ecovillage was run.  This led him to find the concept of sustainability to be somewhat ambiguous.  He came to some general conclusions that sustainability isn’t about the different parts of a system, but rather it is about one system as a whole, and it requires the reworking of our current system.  I think the idea is the sustainability should be everyone’s priority, perhaps as the economy is everybody’s priority right now.  Perhaps economoy should be but a sub-branch in the world focused around sustainability.  

One part of this study I found really interesting was the idea of complexity theory as a way of thinking about sustainability. “Complexity theory suggests that everything is interrelated and is continuously changing that is to say that a complex system is in a sense a system out of control and cannot be predictably managed by any single mind or even by a complicated set of rules. There is too much going on at once, too many linked components, and too much feedback and adaptation. Complex systems can adapt and self-organize in response to cues from the environment particularly when that environment is at the edge of chaos.” (Williams 2000)  So perhaps this concept of sustainability is going to be hard to define and harness to use confidently without being at all worried about the curveballs that could be thrown at us.  The best we can do now is use what we know about our current situation and do what we can to sustain resources for our future generations.  All we can do is try to make the situation easier for our family that will come after us which means implementing sustainability as a complex system ready for the unpredictability of our changing environment.

Gesota talks about the Findhorn Foundation and Community; an ecosystem founded in 1962 by Peter and Eileen Caddy. In order to keep food on the table during unemployment, the couple started planting vegetable gardens that attracted people from all around, eager to hear Peter and Eileen’s story and learn the principles by which they live.  Today the land owned by Peter and Eileen is home to around 450 residents.  They struggled in their beginnings but were able to eventually reach a good level of cooperation between neighboring villages which helped each village grow and learn.  Findhorn has been a leader in ecological building using innovative materials such as stone, straw, and natural materials to create breathable walls and north facing windows.  They have harnessed the capabilities of solar and wind energy to power hot water and heating and to generate electricity.  They have great recycling and composting programs that are run by the citizens of the community.  Findhorn is an all around model in the world of ecovillages and is definitely worth looking into.  They have created a sustainable community that coexists and works as an effective and ever-changing system.  

Gesota goes on to talk about the Ökodorf Sieben Linden; another ecovillage located in Eastern Germany.  He reflects on how the success of the ecovillage seems to be in large part due to the self-governed community and food co-op system which has been feeding the residents for over 15 years.  I do suggest you read further into this case study as the information on working ecovillage systems is rich and informative.  This is all the time I have but thank you everybody for reading and tell your friends about this blog!




Ten Stones Community: “A Neighborhood with Soul”

Today, I was lucky enough to get to visit Ten Stones Community, an eco-village in Charlotte, Vermont. While there, I got to speak to Cami Davis (one of the residents) and Ted Montgomery (the last of the community founders still living there). When I first arrived, I met Cami in the garden: her and a few of her neighbors were working on planting tree saplings because they want to add more native plant diversity to the forest on their property. Some of the trees they were included were black cherry, witch hazel, and balsam fir. After working with them for about half-an-hour, Cami took me on a tour of the entire property and gave me the low-down on what the eco-village was all about and the kinds of things that happen there. The Ten Stone’s Community boasts a beautiful, community garden which they have made a CSA program (available to people in and out of the village), they also have people doing beekeeping, large-scale composting, and chicken husbandry among other projects. Each member of the community must work thirty-hours a year to ensure all of the jobs get done, but they get to pick between these projects and many more. After getting the grand tour, Cami invited me into her house for some hot tea-complete with honey harvested from Ten Stones bees! The two of us carried on conversation for a while about what it was like to live in an ecovillage, before I moved on to Ted’s house.

Speaking of, Ted has the most beautiful house I have ever seen. He is an architect, and designed his house and nearly all of his furniture with his wife. As one of the original founders of Ten Stones Community, Ted had a lot of information to share that was new to me. In terms of the origination of the village, it all started when he, his wife, and another couple sat down at his kitchen table and made lists describing their perfect place to live. From there, the idea of the ecovillage evolved, and in the early nineties the plan was put into action (with 13 more families at this point).
Ted commented on the fact that at times, it can be extremely difficult to make an ecovillage work because in practice, creating one takes a lot of effort, trust, and patience. Along the way, a lot of interested people left the project due to conflict, which existed within the community until most of the infrastructure had been built. Cami noted that one of the problems is that some people wanted to make everyone do the same amount of community work, whereas others had a looser perspective and only wanted people to work out of joy. Considering all the work it takes to build a community like this, it is no surprise that conflict would arise time to time.

Because the community owns the land as a single property (with further allotments within), unlike other neighborhoods in Charlotte they are responsible for making sure their power lines work, their roads are always graveled, and often they have to deal with a lot of maintenance stuff that the average neighborhood would leave to the town. In this way, living at Ten Stones requires people to really take pride in their community and accept that in return for the close-knit community and advantages, often a little extra work is expected.

Because of this, Ted believes that Ten Stones, though a wonderful fit for many, is not the best fit for everyone. He doesn’t like calling his site an ecovillage: he prefers “intentional community” or “neighborhood with soul”. In this sense, to be a happy member of the community, your goals and dreams must really coincide with those already living there. Ted mentioned this does not by any means mean that change should not happen (in fact, they are adding new projects all the time), but because they need to problem-solve in a unique way, it is important that everyone agrees with the mission of the area.

A fun-fact about the community is that it was named after the Jimi Hendrix song “Three Stones from the Sun”. When Ted was back in school, he named his ecological-design related thesis “Ten Stones from the Sun”, after that song which reflects upon nature, and that name has stuck through the years! Below, I have included some photos I took during my visit to Ten Stones. Enjoy!


Chickens at Ten Stones

Chickens at Ten Stones

Ten Stones Community Garden

Ten Stones Community Garden

Solar-Panels power the whole house and the electric car pictured here

Solar-Panels power the whole house and the electric car pictured here

Tea Time with Cami - complete with Ten Stones honey!

Tea Time with Cami – complete with Ten Stones honey!

Ted Montgomery's home: the roof addition is a grassy area where you can sit and view the Adirondacks

Ted Montgomery’s home: the roof addition is a grassy area where you can sit and view the Adirondacks

Inside Ted's house he has a "greenhouse room" with a pond and an Ash tree that goes through the ceiling. Outside you can see his outdoor pond as well.

Inside Ted’s house he has a “greenhouse room” with a pond and an Ash tree that goes through the ceiling. Outside you can see his outdoor pond as well.

Ted is working on more ecological design projects: this is actually a model for a solar-paneled community centered around a wind turbine, designed to look like a flower and have cohousing. He hopes to bring this community to the Caribbean.

Ted is working on more ecological design projects: this is actually a model for a solar-paneled community centered around a wind turbine, designed to look like a flower and have cohousing. He hopes to bring this community to the Caribbean.

Because I spent an entire afternoon at Ten Stones, I chose to informally talk to Cami and Ted. Due to this, I do not have an official transcript of our conversations. At the beginning of this post I highlighted some stories I heard from them, and if you would like to know more please comment on this blog post and I will be sure to answer any questions!

An Ecovillage, Anywhere?: Part IV

For my final section of “An Ecovillage: Anywhere?” I thought it would be interesting to compile the words used to describe ecovillages, as written by those who took my poll into a word cloud map, which will be attached to this post. I like this mapping style because it takes information and presents it in a visually-appealing way that also shares the weight that each word holds. Additionally, I thought it necessary to comment on my conclusions from my data collection: can an ecovillage exist at UVM? Can an ecovillage exist anywhere?

In regards to whether or not an ecovillage can exist at UVM, I would like to vaguely answer by saying yes, and no. From my interviews with Walt and Leila, I think it is safe to say that both the GreenHouse and Slade share common goals with many eco-village communities, and in that sense, there is definitely the spirit of an eco-village on campus. Moreover, because eco-villages come in so many different styles (as you can see from some of the examples referenced on our blog), each community has its own features that make it similar to an ecovillage. Nevertheless, neither of my interviewees considered their programs to be ecovillages perse.  In Walt’s case, there seemed to be a more distinct line between the GreenHouse and ecovillages than with Slade. Interestingly, for the same reason that Leila deemed Slade similar to an ecovillage, she saw it as different: in one sense, UVM acts as an overarching beaurocratic system that they must live with, but at the same time, the university provides them so much assistance that they may not have the same self-sufficiency as other intentional communities. Keeping this in mind, since an ecovillage mindset, and a partial ecovillage structure already exist here, I would argue that an ecovillage can exist at UVM from direct proof. The level to which these programs can grow is debatable, however it seems obvious that in some shape or form, this school does have the ability to maintain intentional living.

As for whether or not an ecovillage can exist anywhere, I would say it depends on your definition of an ecovillage. If using Robert Gilman’s famous definition (which will be included at the bottom of this post), I would say no, because there are quite a few requirements that need to be met, and even if Slade and Greenhouse meet some of the criteria, they may not meet them all. However, if we consider an ecovillage to be something different, like “a community of people with trade skills”, “a group working towards self-sufficiency”, or “a group of people living with respect for the environment” (all answers in my poll), then I would argue that yes, an ecovillage can develop anywhere.

Because my data is so limited, it is hard for me to draw major conclusions. Regardless, since a Public University is a very rigidly-maintained environment, the fact that multiple communities that resemble ecovillages exist there is quite an accomplishment that leaves me optimistic with the future and possibility ecovillages hold. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment on this post.


Word Cloud: People describing eco-villages

Ecovillages Around the World

Here is a really awesome article about ten beautiful ecovillages around the world. Some of these we have written about in more detail (see below), but if you are interested in exploring ecovillages or just looking at beautiful pictures of ecovillages, this article is for you! Although they all differ, they have the common theme of caring about sustainability and community.

Some ecovillages are based around specific themes, such as yoga or art, yet some are simply based around gardening or permaculture. I would definitely recommend reading this article, it sparks my interest to travel the world and meet people who are also interested in sustainable living. Enjoy!

Below are a few pictures from the article, but in order to fully explore the ecovillages in all their beauty, I would recommend reading the whole article and looking through all the pictures:






Ecosalon. “Eco Villages and Beyond: 10 Communities Across the World – Ecorazzi.” Ecorazzi. Ecorazzi, 19 May 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Sustainable Living Project- Tampa, Florida

“Working to end hunger in our community.”

The Sustainable Living Project is happening in Tampa, Florida, where a group is working to provide fresh food to local food pantries. The project is run by the organization Tampa Bay Harvest. The organization has started a garden that provides fresh vegetables to the Salvation Army downtown. The project has been active for just over a year, and produces hundreds of pounds of fresh food for the needy in the neighborhood.

The garden has an aquaculture component, and is a closed loop system, making it very sustainable and a model for any ecovillage. It is a community based project located in an urban environment, demonstrating that ecovillages can occur anywhere. Neighbors close to the project often bring their food scraps to provide compost for the garden. By creating a community initiative, the garden has created a strong neighborhood bonded through a sense of purpose. Furthermore, the Tampa Bay Harvest organization has started to teach classes about sustainable garden practices and is using education to spread sustainable living ideals.

This effort is a great example for ecovillages throughout the world. Through education and creating a strong community, sustainable living practices are demonstrated through the Sustainable Living Project.


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To learn more about the project, read this news article:

or visit their website:



Hammett, Yvette C. “Sustainable Living Project Marks One-year Anniversary on Earth Day.” Tampa Media Group, 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

Tampa Bay Harvest. “Tampa Bay Harvest.” Tampa Bay Harvest. Tampa Bay Harvest, 2013. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.


The Ecovillage at Currumbin – An Ecological Success in Landscape Design – Plus: Maps!


John Mongard Landscape Design, located in Queensland, Australia, specializes in sustainable and ecologically conscious landscaping. The company’s designs are focused on everything from urban commons to a “living classroom”. But while browsing their website, the design that caught my eye the most was what they did for the Ecovillage at Currumbin. This award winning sustainable community, nestled in 271 acres the rolling hills of south-east Queensland, barely inland from beautiful beaches, houses over 200 people. Currumbin is a relatively new ecovillage, founded in the late 1990s, but not settled until 2006.

The residents came to the community from diverse backgrounds, for their own reasons, yet they all agree that living a sustainable life is very important. The people aren’t connected in any other way, as in they aren’t religiously motivated, a cult, or anything like that. When they build their houses, the building must be up to a strict code to ensure the lowest amount of waste and emissions. There is almost no electricity. Currumbin is also very focused on restoring natural habitats and ecosystems. There is a no dog or cat policy, as to protect local animal and plant populations. The area itself has some incredible biological diversity, for example residents have spotted over 160 different species of birds alone.

A large reason for the large number of bird species is Currumbin itself. The land it is located on used to be a large farm, which wiped out any indigenous plants, forcing animals to look elsewhere to get their grub on. Because of the restoration and preservation of the natural plants by the Ecovillage, the return of animal populations has been observed over the past few years. To me, the fact that a community of people can directly influence animal and plant populations in a positive way shows how incredible ecovillages actually are. When living at an ecovillage like Currumbin, not only are you lowering your emissions, living sustainably, and becoming a healthier person, you are also helping the wildlife around you. It is amazing what happens when humans can live in harmony with an ecosystem.

Now back to John Mongard Landscape Design. Below I am posting a group of photos from their website of the maps and designs created for Currumbin. The maps include the concept, as well as “open space strategy” plans, along with two blueprints with corresponding pictures of the areas today. From the pictures you can tell how beautiful the area is, and how smartly they were able to work the buildings and structures into the landscape. By utilizing the creek and ponds for sustainable agriculture, and equipping the residents with open spaces, housing, as well as multipurpose buildings, they really have created a beautiful, natural working community.




Ecovillage at Currumbin website:

John Mongard Landscape Design Currumbin Photos:

BONUS: Cool video about the Ecovillage at Currumbin



A Q&A With the Sustainability Focused Yestermorrow Design/Build School


Yestermorrow Design/Build School, established in 1980, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit located in Warren, Vermont.  Their focus is on education and hands-on learning experiences in the fields of design, construction, woodworking and architectural craft.  In each of their students they instill a passion for both aesthetically beautiful, as well as sustainable, and ecologically conscious designs.  These are the types of buildings that would ideally be found in an ecovillage.  If people can live and survive in gorgeously built structures, that are also sustainable, it could be a great image booster to ecological living communities.  Instead of the stigma being that you are living in dirty, unkempt, “natural” communities, Yestermorrow shows that sustainability can be attractive, and even modern or chic.  Their ideas and designs should be the template for any further building in this country.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to Kate Stephenson, the Executive Director of Yestermorrow, and ask her a few questions I had about the school.

David Jaeger: How does having a building and design school in rural Vermont affect the types of students, teachers, and products that come out of the school?

Kate Stephenson: We attract both local Vermonters as well as more urban and suburban students who love to escape the city and come to Vermont. The landscape and the rural nature of the school is definitely part of the appeal. In terms of the products that are designed and built at the school, they vary widely, but I would say they are influenced somewhat by our location- we try to use locally harvested and milled wood for example, so you won’t see any tropical hardwoods in our projects.

DJ: How diverse are the backgrounds of your faculty and do they all work solely at Yestermorrow or do they continue their practices out in the professional world as well?

KS: None of our faculty are employed full time at Yestermorrow. They all have businesses and day jobs in the professional world and then teach a few days to a month per year depending on their specialty, availability and our curriculum schedule. The faculty is really a diverse mix of architects and builders, but also farmers, stained glass artists, welders, permaculturists, cabinetmakers, and much more. And a big part of our teaching philosophy is emphasizing team teaching where we can partner a builder and architect together on one class so the students get two complementary perspectives.

DJ: How has the interest in the work done at Yestermorrow changed since its development in 1980?  With the rise in interest in eco-living these days I would expect that more and more people are looking for the kinds of skills taught at your school, is this true?

KS: While the school has had a sustainability focus since the very beginning, it has come more to the forefront in the past ten years. Whereas previously we focused more on the owner-builder process, and DIY mentality, and sort of “snuck in” the solar design and green components, now it is more explicitly what students are looking for and asking for, both for their own personal knowledge and also to enhance their career skills. I would say though that our focus is less on “sustainable living and lifestyle” and more on the skills and inspiration needed to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable world. It’s about how you live your own life to some extent, but also about how you can positively impact the community and place around you.

DJ: People often like to talk about the idea of “simplifying” lifestyles when it comes to ecologically sustainable living.  However sometimes the technology needed to become more sustainable can be quite complex. So how would you characterize sustainable buildings and designs, are they simple, complicated, or possibly a mix of both?

KS: Sustainable buildings can be radically simple, or they can be drastically complex. This depends on the design, the client’s intent, as well as the scope of the project. It’s challenging to build a 50 story skyscraper without getting in to some pretty complex systems, but at the residential scale there are certainly opportunities to keep things simple. Right now we are definitely seeing an interest in smaller or tiny houses, which I think is a reaction to “too much stuff”.

DJ: How much of a crutch is the commitment to ecological sustainability when it comes to how attractive or aesthetically pleasing building and landscape designs become? Or is it no crutch at all?

KS: The aesthetics of a building or site should not be compromised in any way by an intention to build sustainably. In fact, beauty is one of the key elements of sustainability- if a structure is not beautiful, then it is unlikely to last a long time because people won’t put the same effort into maintaining and preserving it over time.

DJ: On your website you state that your philosophy as a school is to teach students to both design and build, rather than the general “either or” approach given to architects and construction workers.  Why do you think this is such an important idea to have as a driving philosophy?

KS: One of the key concepts behind “design/build” is empowerment. The design/build method empowers architects to understand how their designs are actually implemented, it empowers builders to understand they can influence design and not just build what is presented to them on a piece of paper. And for laypeople and homeowners design/build really allows them to understand that they can influence the places where they live and work; they do not need to accept what is delivered to them as-is.

If you want to see more pictures of the kinds of things Yestermorrow students have created, I urge you to check out their photo gallery.


An Ecovillage, Anywhere?: Part III

For part three of my blog series “An Ecovillage, Anywhere?”, I decided to talk to Leila Rezvani, one of my fellow classmates and a resident of Slade. After all, Slade is the other sustainably-focused resident hall on campus, and in our interview Walter Poleman equated this living format closely to that of an ecovillage. Like my previous interview, I first asked Leila to give me a little background on Slade, followed by connections between the environment, the larger UVM community, and ecovillages. Many of the questions I asked Walt I also chose to ask Leila, hoping to see a new perspective on some of the same sorts of issues to draw direct comparisions. Our correspondence began on April 14, 2014 and continued for a few more days via email. (Leila’s words are designated by “LR”, and mine by “SF”)


SF: Can you give me a little background information on Slade? Who lives there, what it is all about?

LR: Slade is UVM’s environmental co-op. we currently have 24 residents including the RA. we have all sorts of different kinds of people, lots of envs majors but also folks study engineering, social work, art, biology, geography etc. more girls than boys i think but it’s almost even. we call ourselves a cooperative because everyone came to live here with the intention to create a stronger community than you find in an average college dorm. “intention” and “community” are vague terms, its that sort of thing where you know it when you feel it. but basically it means we all have a responsibility to each other in terms of attending meetings, cooking on your designated night, keeping the house clean, confronting and resolving conflict when it arises. we’re the “environmental” co-op because we compost all our food waste, use a grey water system, and order all of our food in bulk from local farmers or companies that we have thoroughly researched and found to be socially/environmentally responsible. we also have a garden/greenhouse and try to grow a lot of our food (when the winter doesn’t last the entire school year)

SF: What does Slade provide community members with, that they might not get from the average dorm or downtown living experience?

LR: Slade provides a family, simply put. The relationships I’ve formed here are truly indescribable, and they all arise from sharing this space and philosophy. it can be really chaotic and intense, but that’s what makes it so good. I;m having trouble articulating what exactly Slade is like… I hope my answers aren’t too vague. Slade also provides an open accepting space for people no matter what their backgrounds or views or lifestyles. i also love that I’ve been able to build relationships with local farmers- they deliver food weekly to our house and being able to meet the person who grew your kale or milked their cow for you is incredible. The multi-generational aspect of Slade is great too- because it’s been around for so long, there are “sladers” who are now into their 50s, and we have a lot of sladers who are recent UVM graduates and are still in Burlington come hang out or make dinner with us. it feels like having a huge extended family network that stretches out across the country but is also firmly grounded in Burlington/VT.

SF: Do you think the type of environment and community there can be emulated or re-created elsewhere? And what types of things do you think are necessary in creating and maintaining an intentional community such as Slade?

LR: I definitely think this environment could be recreated anywhere, as long as the group of people are willing to put in the time and effort and self-reflection necessary to make it into a real community. love and respect for the people you’re living with are definitely required to create an intentional community. open-mindedness and a willingness to admit that you are wrong and to think critically about your place in the world and your opinions. optimism, idealism, a drive to change things.

SF: Would you consider Slade to be an ecovillage (under your personal definition) or at least fill the space of an “ecovillage” on UVM’s campus?

LR: I think Slade is an interesting example of an intentional community because it exists within the context of a huge, bureaucratic university. I feel like we’re constantly battling against that but we also don’t realize how much support we get from the instituion in terms of people cleaning our house, fixing our plumbing when it breaks etc. in that sense I don’t think we qualify as an ecovillage. Although we try to be really self reliant, by nature we are plugged into this incredible input/resource-intensive system that renders us pretty dependent.

SF: How do you think the presence of Slade affects other dorms on UVM’s campus, and people who don’t live there? 

LR: I hope that Slade has a positive impact on people who don’t live here. We host lots of events, mostly things centered around music/art like open mic and slestival and concerts. Lots of the same people come to these things so we have a kind of extended family within the university. People really love Slade as far as i can tell, but I guess if they didn’t they wouldn’t tell me, haha.

Last comment- for me, the magic of Slade comes from the feeling of mutual aid and support i get from the people I live with. In our society, and especially in a university, it’s so easy to become isolated and to lack meaningful personal interaction. but the ability to be completely yourself (weird, sad, angry, silly, cynical, optimistic etc) and to change your mind and still know that you are accepted is truly amazing. and intention- that word is so hard to describe, but being deliberate about your place in the world and thinking about the ways in which you affect others is so important. Slade makes space for that, or we try to. there is a real revolution that needs to happen if we are to learn to live in harmony with each other and with the earth. living in community is the first step in that direction.

all in all- I wouldnt still be at school without Slade, I;m pretty sure. It’s not all good, and there’s always work to be done, but we’re trying and that’s what makes it worthwhile.


An Ecovillage, Anywhere?: Part II

For part two of my examination of the possibility of an ecovillage at the University of Vermont, I thought it would be fitting to talk to some of the people already participating in the school’s residential programs centered about sustainability. On April 11th, I had the pleasure of talking with Walter Poleman, the Director of UVM’s GreenHouse Residential Community. Having previously taken an ecological design course with Poleman, I was well aware of his interests in ecological design and place-based learning, and was eager to learn more about the role of these within the Greenhouse program. Moreover, I wanted to understand GreenHouse’s role in the larger UVM community, and see if Poleman either recognized the community as an ecovillage, or saw potential for growth into that community form. Below is the transcript, copied from my audio notes (Poleman is designated by W.P., and I am designated by S.F.). The beginning of our interview focused on the Greenhouse Program itself, and the latter part on the relationship between the program and ecovillages.

SF: Okay, so my first question is just can you give me a little history on the UVM Greenhouse?

WP: Yes, the building itself was built in 2006. I remember when the vision kind of came out that they were going to build new resident halls on campus for the first time in 30 years, the president at the time Dan Vogel was interested that they be themed residential colleges. And actually the honors college liked that, and now over there it is like a college existing next door. Then a group of faculty and others said “what about if we had themed housing: broad big themes that any students from any major could get excited about being a part of” so the initial ones that started were global village, which is over in L&L… That was the idea that they could unite together the existing houses. Greenhouse was a new concept. There was already Slade, which was already a themed communal housing where people came together, the greenhouse was meant to fill the ideas of “how could a community of people think of how to live sustainably”. The amazing thing, as they were building this LEED certified place, is that we asked ourselves could we design a program to go along to this housing. So, we launched the greenhouse program in 2006 and it has evolved from there. That was the beginning with making a big program available to our students, providing them with an enriching learning environment. So, that is how it began and eight years later it has evolved quite a bit (although a lot of the same structures are still in place) due to student feedback and new faculty and experimenting with new things. Now, ecological design is one of the main themes over here.

SF: Could you tell me a little bit about the specific infrastructure of the greenhouse and what makes it sustainable?

WP: Yea, well the facility itself… the sustainability thinking that has gone into it is energy efficiency so there is a lot of air-exchange type of stuff. Even though it is air conditioned because they wanted to use it for summer housing (a multi-use vision), they wanted to make it very efficient. I can’t tell you exactly what it is but the energy usage for heating and cooling is efficient. The materials, like this table, the doors, a lot of the rock, are sourced locally. The paints and the carpeting (though you can’t tell so much) are low emission kind of materials. There’s a lot of light in general the way that the windows were done, to maximize the use of outdoor lighting too. That’s the building itself, it’s LEED certified so it has gone through all the environmental design criteria. The program itself is (as you’ll know from class with me) designed to feature the place where it is located, and so we look at the community. It is important to be intimate with the building but also with the Burlington landscape and larger landscape so that when you live here the town is your classroom. So we promote that with field trips, lectures, meals from local farms, and other integrated opportunities. That local piece is definitely a part of the sustainability. We try to showcase local sustainability efforts; the other day people from Carshare VT were here trying to get the students to sign up. Again, different speakers related to social justice through sustainability, environmental art, and anything else connected to place have been featured. So, there are two parts to the sustainability: programming and then the facility’s structure.

SF: As for the social environment that is developed within the greenhouse, could you talk about the role of collaboration and living together in creating a sustainable environment?

WP: The idea is to bring together people who are interested in this theme, into a community. But… not let it stop there but look at “what are the community structures”? We have villages embedded within the larger community, guilds which are interest groups around themes, classes, and the hope is that through the application process we will develop as diverse a group as possible. Diversity of majors, race and ethnicity, background: it is partially about “how can we engage with people with other cultures?”

So it is really about embracing cultural diversity, and then how do you bring that together in thinking about “what does it mean to live sustainably”? We aspire to have a community that is very inclusive where difference is celebrated. The reality is that Vermont is not a very diverse place, but that being said we try to make the most of what we do have. For instance, next Wednesday all the housekeepers and other staff are bringing food from some place we feel connected so we will have Korean food, Bosnian food, rural Vermont food too. One guy is going to make bear stew. So, it is really trying to celebrate a diversity and as we talked about in our class, the idea is “what happens when you go to a different culture and landscape? How do you design things that fit there?” And so that is kind of the vision. So we try to create a community where a diversity of people and ideas is engaged.

SF: Do you think it is easier for students to live “sustainably” or take on sustainable practices in an environment where the people around them are doing the same thing?

WP: I think so, a lot of people who come here say “I was the only one in the family, or in school that cared”. They often felt like a minority in some way, and when they come here they think, ‘ wow there are so many people here interested in this stuff’. They share with each other and grow off each other. So I think it is easier. It is kind of interesting to intentionally form a community with a common interest, but once the community is together you try to go throughout the diversity within that community.

SF: Do you think that in any way the greenhouse has an effect on the other dorms on campus? Either negative because students interested in sustainability may be concentrated here, or positive in that maybe other people may be prompted to be involved?

WP: There is a little bit of a tension. We aspire to have the ideas that happen here radiate out into the campus. The idea is that we want our place to be a strong a point of service in the community. We want to serve the greater UVM and Burlington community. But, it would be interesting to ask people that. Anytime you sort of designate something it can become sort of exclusive feeling, which is sometimes the danger, and I think that your question is a really good one. If there were no greenhouse all these people would be living elsewhere and maybe they would be having positive impacts on other locations.

SF: It is kind of hard to gauge because the learning they gain here and the growth they gain here working with other people they may not get if they were dispersed in the larger environment, but by being dispersed they could perhaps pass their knowledge to different demographics.

WP: And this is only a 2-year program so our hope is that students can learn here and form good friendships, and then when they move on, they can bring those lessons with them. I’d like to think these ideas radiate outward over time.

SF: Do you think the high turnover of people in the dorms every year really adds rejuvenation and a new face to the project as time goes on?

WP: Definitely, I think it is healthy. In fact we try to model the program like an ecosystem: there are always new people and ideas regenerating. That is really healthy. But, some programs are all new students every year –a freshman program- but here we try to have a two-year experience. As a second year student in the greenhouse you often get the opportunity to act as a mentor to first year students. Our understanding is this does happen: the place develops, and second years really feel they have an opportunity to give back.

SF: On the opposite side of the spectrum, I know last year there was a “yo-guild” (yoga guild), and I saw a sign for it right outside today, so obviously it is still here. Is it hard to maintain stability in the program when the people are constantly changing?

WP: That is a perfect question for today because I just talked to the yo-guild leader today, Jackie. She has identified a new person who will take her place next year. That is the beauty of the overlap here, if you have a healthy program in place there is that combination of getting to play a leadership role when new people come in, but also take advantage of their ideas.

SF: As I mentioned my project is on eco-villages, so I am just curious how you would define an ecovillage, and if you believe the greenhouse could be considered an ecovillage of sorts.

WP: Well, I have certainly encountered some ecovillages. There are some in VT and Ithaca where I am from (it is actually called “ecovillage”) and the idea really I think is that people can inhabit a place and within the community there is a higher degree of self-sufficiency. It is very community intentional and community engaged. In terms of the higher self-sufficiency, it might have to do with growing your own food, generating your own energy…etc. We don’t really do that at all here. We could, some college dorms definitely do it. So I would say that the intentionality of the programming (being mindful about food consumption, waste, opportunities to teach and learn) matches the mind of an ecovillage: we are an ecologically designed village. It is as much about community as it is about sustainability.

SF: Do you think the greenhouse fits the “mold” of an ecovillage within the restraints of the university community?

WP: You mean how far could we go down the line to create a village? I think slade is a lot closer in that they are more community-scale, whereas we are still really dorm based. Moreover they are actively looking at cooking, feeding, sourcing their food together –that is a huge, huge step in the right direction-, and I know right now they are not going to be in their building next year but from what I understand (from Deane Wong and a bunch of other design forces), the students are getting an opportunity to play a role in the re-design. So, anyway, they are closer to that than us, because of their relationship with self-sufficiency. Many of our students move onto there though, so we are kind of a nice feeder place for that.

SF: What is your role?

WP: A lot of cross-departmental things, as a faculty member is needed and I am in charge more or less of the curriculum. I manage a lot of different things, there is large staff, a program coordinator, then there is a program specialist, then there are students with leadership roles… So I am kind of directly responsible for all of those folks.

SF: Could you tell me a little about the current projects that are going on in the greenhouse?

WP: The big one, from my perspective is the ecological design collaboratory. Greenhouse is at the center of that. How do we grow this idea of the collaboratory, is the main thing for me. We will be doing a lot of courses in the summer; there is lots of community education… so that is a big example of a project. Related to that is another program called ecological citizenship which all the second-year students enroll in. it isn’t a big class, rather it includes small classes with skill-based education. With me, they make maple sugar (tapping trees, inventorying the forest…) that is a typical one. There’s also photography, bike repair, woodcarving, furniture building, very hands-on things. They are all related to ecological design.

SF: What do you think makes the greenhouse program so successful?

WP: I think it is adding something of value to UVM. I think the theme, what makes it successful it is open to anybody. It is not just for people in environmental studies, it is meant for engineers, historians, business majors… you name it! This theme of place is really about the whole picture: everyone is related to it. The question is how can we live well in this place and how can we bring our interests and background experience –particularly our academic learning- to this place. That kind of vision fosters success. But the students who come to UVM are what make this program really cool. There is an unpredictable aspect, a lot of the things we get out of the program come right from the students and that is the beauty of it.


An Ecovillage, Anywhere? : Part I

Naturally, I am fascinated by the idea of living in ecovillage, but does everyone feel the same? Sure, these communities may be in vogue today, but will they ever be commonplace? In a previous post, I discussed Russ Purvis’ article on the affordability of ecovillages; keeping his article in mind, it seems obvious that ecovillages are better situated in some places than others. This begs the question: can ecovillages thrive anywhere? In order to figure this out, I decided to set my own parameters and see what would happen.

A current student at the University of Vermont, I thought, what better place to study than my home? If an eco-village could take root within the parameters of a public university, my faith in the accessibility of ecovillages would surely be restored.

My first step in exploring this possibility was to poll UVM students, and ask them a few questions about ecovillages. The poll included these multiple-choice and write-in questions:


1)    What is an ecovillage?

2)    Would you consider living in an ecovillage?

3)    Where is an ecovillage best located?

4)    Can an ecovillage be successful in any location and at any scale?

5)    Can anyone live in an ecovillage?

6)    Who lives in ecovillages?

7)    Will ecovillages ever become commonplace?

Only half the respondents (30 people) were able to give a description of an ecovillage, the other half answered with some form of “I don’t know”, or an incorrect response. Because the definition of an ecovillage is somewhat subjective, in my analysis I accepted multiple answers as correct, so long as they reflected a basic knowledge of what an ecovillage might be.

In regards to the other write-in question, “who lives in ecovillages?”, common answers included “anyone who wants to” and some form of “people who care about the environment”. Approximately a quarter of the respondants failed to answer the question, or included a negative remark like “dirty hippies” or “smelly hippies”. Some of the most interesting responses included “people with a trade”, “people who understand that the world isn’t ours for the taking”, and a rant about capitalism.

As for the other questions, I have included graphical analyses of them below. Feel free to scroll through and check out what UVM students think about ecovillages!

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data compiled online using the surveymonkey platorm 

Note: as this data was not collected in a perfectly random scenario, and because the sample size is very small, even though one can look at the trends, this data cannot be recognized as fact about what students at UVM and should be taken with a grain of salt.