Smart Growth Spotlight: EcoVillage Ithaca


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If you’re involved in the environmental field or environmental issues in any way, chances are pretty good that you have heard of EcoVillage Ithaca.

EcoVillage Ithaca stands as a pioneer and exemplar in the growing field of sustainable development and communal living, and this year is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. EcoVillage is also a leading model of more sustainable suburban development. Situated on 175 acres a mile from the Ithaca city limit, EcoVillage today houses 160 residents living in 60 units clustered in high density on  just six percent of the property. The first phase of the development is called FRoG, or First Residential Group; the second is SoNG, Second Neighborhood Group. The remaining 94 percent of the property has been preserved as open space and two working farms. A third, 40-unit third phase—TREE, or Third Residential EcoVillage Experience—is now in the works and will bring the total number of units to one hundred. TREE will occupy five acres contiguous to FroG and SoNG, and reduce the percentage of open space only a small amount, from 94 to 91 percent. These new homes will also feature passive solar design and photovoltaics, non-toxic building materials, straw bale insulation, water recycling and rainwater storage systems—and will earn the United States Green Building Council’s Gold or Platinum LEED distinction (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

As an intentional community, EcoVillage’s residents share structures and services, meals and more, making it vastly different from most suburban and exurban neighborhoods designed for separation and seclusion. EcoVillage’s units are also much smaller than typical suburban houses, as common buildings are used for community meals and other gatherings, bringing family activities from sequestered into the common space. Cars are parked on the periphery to keep the village as pedestrian-focused as possible. One EcoVillage Board member, David Kay, touts the community as “full of people willing to live in the real world, and not in some kind of self-contained, disconnected utopian community.” Many residents are deeply immersed in the broader Ithaca community.

While EcoVillage is technically suburban and functions as rural, co-founder Liz Walker describes it as “city’s edge.” With this proximity, access to the city’s services and community is easier than for most who live suburban and rural. This proximity also provides its residents the option of walking, cycling, or taking a bus—although the location does make non-auto use quite challenging at times. Being a half-mile from the main road into the city poses challenges for walkers and cyclists—as does a long, steep hill between EcoVillage and the city–and a half-mile walk from the dwellings to the main road is required for bus riders.

These location efficiency challenges, though, are deftly remedied in many cases, thanks to the design and communal nature of EcoVillage. Carpooling and car sharing is common among the tightly knit residents—very few families own more than one car. Van loads of children carpooling to school is common! Electric bikes are becoming popular as well (one resident even makes electric bicycles for interested neighbors).  And EcoVillagers have a solution for the steep hill, a solution that embodies their spirit of self-sufficiency: they ride their bicycles down the hill, and take the bus back!

So EcoVillage can be deemed location-efficient, or location-inefficient, depending on how you look at it. Clearly, though, it is well located for a suburban and rural development—making it an important model.

In addition to the location efficiency it offers compared to other non-urban developments, EcoVillage is energy-efficient—again, largely because of its density and because of its focus on sharing. FroG employs a “mini-district” heating system for the grey Southern Tier days when the passive solar isn’t offering much heat. Each cluster of units, about a half-dozen to eight total, are linked through pipes to an “energy center,” a high efficiency gas boiler that also supplies hot water. This sharing means significant energy savings for all. In addition to the passive solar, FroG will soon have a 50 kilowatt photovoltaic system that will provide 60% of the entire cluster’s electricity. This pricey setup was funded by several investors who will be paid back in the form of utility bills over 12 years.

EcoVillage is superbly location-efficient for a suburban development, and it is remarkably energy-efficient. It is self-sufficient as well, in a very important way: on the 160 undeveloped acres, enough food is cultivated to feed 1,500 people. A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise feeds EcoVillagers– and Ithacans beyond the Village.

Critics of EcoVillage have said that a conventional neighborhood in New York City is more efficient than a suburban/rural neighborhood that has passive and active solar and Energy-Star appliances because of its supreme location-efficiency. Having been posed this question, Ithaca College conducted an environmental footprint study, comparing the SoNG neighborhood at EcoVillage with a downtown Ithaca neighborhood. The study revealed that SoNG consumed 40% less resources, even when transportation was factored in.

City development done green may be the most location efficient, the most energy efficient, and elicit the most ‘social capital.’  The truth, though, is that a slice of humanity will always want to live outside the cities, in suburban or rural settings. Because of this, working models like EcoVillage are essential to the smart growth and sustainable development advocates’ quests to curb sprawl and carbon footprint, and to actualize a reinvention of suburbia that is characterized by efficiency rather than inefficiency.

Critics also point to the fact that 1,000-1,100 square-foot houses cost approximately $200,000. The houses are smaller because the cost of the house includes access to the Common Houses and other shared structures, but the critics express concern that the prices make for a development that can’t be racially/ethnically socioeconomically diverse. The fact is that six of 30 units in SoNG are subsidized through a federal grant and local housing agency; and EcoVillage is exploring other ways to make housing more affordable. Also, several owners rent rooms in their homes to students or single parents—and in some of the houses are self-contained apartment units. These options mean that lower income people do indeed live in EcoVillage; the residents range from those scraping by to very wealthy. What’s more, approximately 15% of EcoVillage’s population is people of color, meaning there is considerable socioeconomic and racial/ethnic diversity in the community.

As a paradigm shift involves moving from one point to another across a wide spectrum, it is always a process and never a single leap. EcoVillage has room for improvement, and its residents would agree: they see EcoVillage as a living laboratory of sustainable development and living. EcoVillage is a bona fide pioneer, a place designed for ecology, social connection, and connection with nature—all while being well connected to the city and the wider community.

Empire State Future thanks EcoVillage for all its information and inspiration. We applaud its twenty years of pioneering smart growth and sustainable development. We look forward to seeing it get even better, and to seeing it replicated across New York.






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