Eco-Cities and Eco-villages

When people think of “green”, they think of forests and grasslands with few people. But for a given number of people, it is more green to all live in one small space rather than spread out. High population density leads to many efficiencies: resources and wastes only have to be transported to one location rather than many; distances to work, school, and stores are shorter; electrical power is transmitted shorter distances, meaning less line loss and greater efficiency. Water and sewage pipes, cable, phone, and power lines all become shorter per capita as housing density increases, making basic services more affordable and less resource-intensive. High-density housing in mixed-use developments also makes sustainable living easier because public transportation becomes feasible, and people can walk and bike to work and school. In fact, residents of Manhattan use less energy and fewer resources than anywhere else in America ([1], pp. 228-9). And if people take up less space by living in cities, that leaves more space for ecosystem services and preservation of biodiversity. Finally, because more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, it makes sense to focus on making cities more sustainable.

Some cities in North America have been at the forefront of planning for sustainability. One of the greenest cities in the world is Vancouver, British Columbia. I was there in summer of 2008 and was truly impressed by the beauty of the natural setting but also by the forward-thinking policies of the government and developers. The majority of Vancouver’s residents live downtown in high-rises and compact communities [1], p. 231). The city is designed for pedestrians and bicycles, and many residents have given up their cars. I rode all over the city in buses and found it remarkable easy and enjoyable. By avoiding urban sprawl, Vancouver has become one of the world’s most livable cities. Preparations for the 2010 Olympic Games that it is hosting are making Vancouver even more impressive.

Not everyone can live in the city. How can we make smaller communities sustainable? Enter the concept of the eco-village. Just by coincidence I live very close to one of the most widely publicized eco-communities in the world, The Farm, located in Summertown, TN ( It includes the Farm Ecovillage Training Center, which offers regular courses on sustainable living. The Farm was founded in 1971 when a group of hippies left San Francisco looking for the right place to start their experiment in communal living. The right place was the area with the cheapest land, and that’s why they ended up in middle Tennessee.

I went there for a tour one day, during which they briefly described the history of the farm. It started as a socialist society, but eventually the practice became unsustainable because there were too many freeloaders. So in the mid-1980’s they abandoned socialism, causing a large segment of the residents to leave. They now have a cooperative system in which they work together to develop shared resources and pay dues. It now seems to operate as a sustainable capitalist community, with many of the residents operating businesses that manufacture radiation detectors, publish books, sell mushroom growing kits, produce video, and offer midwife services and classes. The residents regularly offer classes on mushroom farming, yoga, organic gardening, and other topics. But touring the Farm was somewhat disappointing to me. The residents are good at self-promotion on the web, but the Farm itself is a small collection of run-down buildings and unused fields. As a farm it is a dismal failure, with most of the land left to pasture but no animals (they are all vegetarians) and only one commercial crop, soybeans, which they make into soy milk and ice cream (which is quite delicious). I think the reason is that though they were idealistic, the hippies were ignorant about farming practices, and also many/most of them do not like manual labor. I wanted a demonstration of how they managed to live sustainably, but I never got a glimpse, making me suspect that their community isn’t truly sustainable. Even the mushroom growing demonstration was simply a slideshow accompanied by partially coherent, rambling pronouncements on politics by someone who seemed to have partaken of too many mushrooms in his lifetime (I fell asleep). We never even saw where they grow the mushrooms! I could view a slideshow on my computer without driving 40 miles. But to their credit, the residents of The Farm live more simply and have much smaller ecological footprints than most Americans. They understand that you don’t have to have a lot of money and “stuff” to be happy.

Perhaps a more successful eco-village is Gaviotas, located in the llanos (grasslands) of Colombia and well-described by Alan Weisman in his book “Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World” [2]. Like The Farm, it was founded in 1971, but it seems they made greater progress because the founder, Paolo Lugari, had the foresight to bring a team of scientists and engineers to tackle the problems of sustainable living. This team came up with many novel solutions, including a special water pump that could extract groundwater from greater depths and with less effort than with traditional pumps. This pump was connected to a see-saw to put the energy of children’s play to good use. They also developed solar water heaters, the sale of which became a major source of income. Finally, the planting of 1.5 million trees returned part of the llanos back to its preexisting state of tropical jungle by trapping the moisture in a microclimate [2]. The villagers of Gaviotas tap the trees and sell the resin. The genius of the residents of Gaviotas enabled them to succeed in a harsh climate in a country bordering on anarchy.

So when choosing a place to live, you should seriously consider the city. Your ecological footprint will be smaller if you live there.  And when gas prices and transportation costs skyrocket, you’ll be glad that you moved there.

1. Steffen, A., ed. World Changing: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. 2006, Abrams: New York, NY. 596.

2. Weisman, A., Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. 1999: Chelsea Green Publishing Company 1-890132-28-4.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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