Ecovillages are communities where people aim to live in harmony with each other and with nature.
This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.
General introduction to approach
Ecovillages are communities where people aim to live in harmony with each other and with nature. The Global Ecovillage Network defines an ecovillage as an “intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability (social, culture, ecology and economy) to regenerate its social and natural environments” (Website GEN 2017). While this definition explicitly includes traditional villages, we in this Wiki-page focus on the intentional community version of ecovillages in both (peri-)urban and rural areas. The Foundation for Intentional Community defines an intentional community as “a group of people who live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values”, which includes ecovillages, but also cohousing, cooperative houses, communes and other shared living arrangements.
While there are many fundamental differences between all hundreds/ thousands of specific ecovillage projects across the world, there is an overall shared approach that can be characterised as living in community with several connected households, engaging in collective life-style change striving for (more) socio-ecological justice and participation, and very often the collective ownership of land and (some of the) houses. The TRANSIT research project includes a number of case-studies on ecovillages and the Global Ecovillage Network as manifestations of social innovation in the sense that they explicitly engage with changing social relations, involving new ways of doing, thinking and organising (Kunze & Avelino 2015).
The Pathways project includes a case-study of Bromarf ecovillage in Finland as an example of alternative “transition pathways as patterns of changes in socio-technical systems unfolding over time that lead to a fundamental reconfiguration of technologies, business models and production systems, as well as the preferences and behaviour of consumers”.
The Transformative Cities initiative features Cloughjordan ecovillage in its Atlas of Utopias as an example of “inspiring stories of communities challenging entrenched power and boldly developing alternatives” and “cases [that] show how public solutions, based on principles of cooperation and solidarity rather than competition and private profit, have been more successful in meeting people’s basic needs - and, perhaps just as importantly, in creating a spirit of confidence and empowerment that strengthen communities for many other challenges”.
Shapes, sizes and applications
Estimations on how many ecovillages exist in the world today highly depend on (self-appropriated) definitions and vary from 4.000 to 15.000 ecovillages (Jackson 2004, Kasper & Schyndel 2008). The Global Ecovillage Network mentions over 1.000 ecovillages across the world. The Eurotopia directory (1998-2014) indicate a high fluctuation and increase in projects who call themselves ecovillage. 90% of these new community attempts are reported to fail in the first 5 years, due to the challenges of finding affordable land and planning permissions, and to maintain self-sustaining economies (Dawson 2006, Avelino & Kunze 2009).
Ecovillages often function as ‘experimental gardens’ (Kunze 2012) to experiment with a diversity of approaches to tackle ecological sustainability and/or social justice, ranging from permaculture, ecological construction of houses (e.g. strawbale houses , earthships , and low-tech technological innovation in e.g. renewable energy), to experiment with alternative decision-making formats such as sociocracy (see e.g. TRANSIT case-study on Ecovillage Bergen) or alternative modes of (non-violent) communication and community-building.
Ecovillages come in many shapes, sizes and sorts. If we exclude traditional villages (which are often much larger), the size of intentional ecovillage communities range anywhere between 8 to 250 residents. More importantly, however, are the many visitors that temporarily visit and work in ecovillages. Most ecovillages have an explicit aim to contribute to the transferability of their approaches and “act as centres of research, demonstration and (in most cases) training” (Dawson, 2006). Many ecovillages are a member of the Global Ecovillage Network, which was founded in 1995 as a bottom up network for education, exchange of experiences and political lobby work and has branches on each continent and many national networks. Within these international, regional and national networks, ecovillages share the insights from their ecological, technological, economic and social experiments at events and through the open source Solution Library.
Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice
While there are several ecovillages that are integrated in urban contexts, the majority are located in peri-urban or rural areas (Moore & Wight 2007). Although many ecovillages would like to be (more) integrated in and connected to urban contexts, they tend to be impeded from that by high land prices and tight zoning regulations (Kasper/Schyndel 2008).There are however many developments in the urban context that can be related or even traced back to the ecovillage movement, such as the Transition Towns movement or eco-city projects such as the BedZed project(Avelino & Kunze 2009). The global ecovillage movements has widened its orientation from merely ‘creating more ecovillages’ to transfer and translate ecovillage learnings to mainstream society through e.g. retrofitting urban contexts or diffusing ecological designs and lifestyles such as e.g. the Tiny House movement (ibid).
A particular feature of the ecovillage movement is its holistic emphasis on connecting ecological, economic, social and cultural dimensions of sustainability. The Global Ecovillage Network and many individual ecovillages explicitly claim to not only tackle ecological challenges, but also social issues, by “reacting to the alienation of the individual due to institutionalisation of traditional support functions, the breakdown of the family, and the marginalisation of the weaker members of society” (Jackson, in Avelino & Kunze 2009). As formulated by a member of the European Global Ecovillage Network office: “The ecovillage movement is the most radical approach amongst the alternative movements because it touches all areas of life. […] The ecovillage concept is very complex, not many people can agree to it when they first hear about it.” (quoted in TRANSIT ecovillage case-study report Kunze & Avelino 2015).
Ecovillages are particularly interesting in their collective ownership models (see Co-living, co-housing & intentional communities) and community land trusts, which they experiment with in many forms. Moreover, there is an interesting intersectional work on ecological justice, relating ecovillage approaches to peace activism and conflict areas. An interesting example to illustrate their international work at the intersection of ecological sustainability and social justice is the Global Campus Palestine (GCP) initiative, with experiments in e.g. Farkha village and the Hakoritna farm, regarding “traditional stone terracing and swales for rainwater retention, mixed-culture permaculture, composting toilet and a small biogas digestor”. The idea is that increasing self-sufficiency regarding water, food and energy can be a “power resistance tool” for marginalised communities is disenfranchised communities and conflict regions, which is an interesting example of how ecological and social justice can be combined. As formulated by Fayez Taneeb, the owner of the farm since 1984: “From Tamera I received the message that water, food, and energy are available to all humanity if we work with the laws of nature (...) That’s a powerful resistance tool, because water, food and energy are things that Israel does not want us to control.”
However, as the development of ecovillages implies large scale mobilizations of capital and material resources and often faces significant regulatory and institutional barriers they tend to reproduce, within their internal dynamics, hierarchies and exclusionary tendencies existing in wider society. All these factors underlie the tendency for ecovillages to be ‘susceptible to self-selective homogeneity, dogmatic purity, and assuming away cultural differences’, as well as become ‘habitats for demagogues’, vulnerable to cultic deviations, and experience high rates of attrition and failure.
Narrative of change
Given the rich diversity of ecovillages across the world, It is impossible to generalise one narrative of change for all ecovillages. There is however a shared narrative used by the Global Ecovillage Network, which e.g. on its website claims to “envision a world of empowered citizens and communities, designing and implementing pathways to a regenerative future, while building bridges of hope and international solidarity”. The core goal of the ecovillages movement is to promote a ‘global transition from large, fragmented and centrally governed societal systems, to smaller, integrated and self-governed systems’ based on an institutional design that enables the management of common pool resources through direct democracy at the grassroots level. This vision of social transformation is based on a cosmopolitan, non-essentialist vision of community and culture, in which rootedness in territories and ecosystems takes precedence over identity concerns and arbitrary political boundaries (Esteves 2019). This narrative has been further analysed and unpacked as a ‘narrative of change’ in the TRANSIT research project (e.g. Kunze & Avelino 2015, Wittmayer et al. 2019, Avelino et al. 2019, Avelino & Wittmayer 2019). The problem addressed by ecovillages is described as “current developments, such as climate change, demographic change, technological change and inequalities, are grounded in a fundamental alienation and disconnectedness from nature, others and ourselves. The desired future includes the reconciliation of different cultures, an integration of individual needs and community, reclaiming of real estate and land and, to some degree, self-sufficiency and ecological responsibility” (Wittmayer et al. 2019, p.7).
Each ecovillage has its own narrative of change. Tamera ecovillage, for instance, describes itself as a ‘healing biotope’ and a ‘peace research centre for a future without war’. It strongly emphasises that it wants to create a new world, a ‘Realistic Utopia’. The Tamera Manifesto for a New Generation on Planet Earth, for instance, argues that “the world is in transition towards a new way to live on Earth”, that “we are experiencing the collapse of the mega-systems”, and that “the new planetary community is making a fundamental system-change” . A central feature that distinguishes Tamera from other ecovillages and communities, is its focus on social issues regarding community, love, sexuality and partnership. Their belief is that all/most societal challenges in contemporary society (war, violence, ecological destruction, inequality, etc.) originate in difficulties within human relations, and that it is necessary to deal with these human relations first, in order to solve these societal challenges (Kunze & Avelino 2015).
While many ecovillage residents have been involved in antagonistic power dynamics manifested in contentious protest movements, the predominant approach of the Global Ecovillage Network seems to be one of cooperation and synergy. This is illustrated by e.g. co-founding the meta-network ECOLISE , the organisation of the European Day of Sustainable Communities which aims to inform and engage a wider audience in community-led sustainability, and the collaboration with the European Economic and Social Council to co-organise a ‘learning-conference’ on Citizens and municipalities – Building sustainability through collaboration. The overall tone is that of communities and citizens being ‘equal’ partners for (local) governments, together challenging the power of multinational companies or (inter)national policies that are seen to be ecologically and socially harmful. At the same time, however, at the local level, the relation between ecovillages and municipalities is often a particularly challenging one, with considerably conflicts over land use planning, construction regulations or other issues (see for instance the TRANSIT case-study on Ecovillage Bergen’s development and its challenges with local government around land-use and construction regulations).
Ecovillages have transformative potential in the sense that they “empower communities of people to live alternative lifestyles according to their own values, despite many structural barriers in the mainstream societal context. Not only does the ecovillage movement provide residents with increased access to existing resources, they also empower them to create and invent new resources, such as new technologies, new currencies (e.g. interest free currency) and new natural resources. Rather than having to ‘buy’ or ‘compete’ over existing resources, ecovillage residents develop and create their own. By doing so, they fundamentally change existing power relations in that the one-sides dependency on existing industries or governments for having access to such resources, is replaced by a situation of independence” (Avelino & Kunze 2015).
On the one hand, ecovillages can be seen as standing outside mainstream society and supplementing dominant structures & institutions, rather than challenging, altering or replacing them. Many ecovillage “create an entire new social context by forming new communities from which new structures and institutions emerge; as the community develops in time, new norms, new rules and new traditions are established” (Avelino & Kunze 2009).
On the other hand, these innovations can also be seen as challenging existing structures in the sense that these different ecovillage experiments are being spread and shared across the world and used to create new approaches and standards and to reconsider existing ones, be it in construction, energy, land-use, community-planning, agriculture or financing. By demonstrating that alternative forms of living are not only possible but already happening, they are challenging existing structures and power relations in current energy, food, water and housing systems. Moreover, they do not only challenge existing regimes in specific functional systems, but also underlying dominant landscape trends in the broader societal context, such as a neo-liberal paradigm, a drive for economic growth, individualism, materialism, consumerism, acceleration, privatization, formalization, centralisation, and so on. As argued by Lara Monticelli (2018), the ecovillage movement is focused on ‘prefiguring’ their future vision, i.e. “embody their ultimate goals and their vision of a future society through their ongoing social practices, social relations, decision-making philosophy and culture” and “not only opposing capitalism but also prefiguring post-capitalist societies. These movements are re-thinking and re-politicising conventional modes of production, consumption and living by defending, restoring and creating spaces of resistance and experimentation” (Monticelli 2018: 509-515).
At a closer look, besides the many activist and grassroots alternatives, ecovillages also do more explicit ‘institutional work’ in the sense that many/most ecovillages face conflicts with local governments or other authorities regarding zoning regulations, construction rules, collective ownership and (home)schooling. These struggles, and the resulting escalations, concessions and/or resolutions thereof, set important precedents and for future eco-community initiatives. By doing so, the ecovillage movement has a transformative potential to empower community-led initiatives by challenging the dominance of the formalised and centralised structures of both market and state-led organisations (Avelino & Wittmayer 2019).
Cloughjordan ecovillage is based in Ireland. Its first houses were built in 2009 and it currently includes “55 low-carbon homes, Ireland's lowest ecological footprint, a carbon-neutral district heating system, a community farm, green enterprise centre, and a planned reed bed treatment plant”.
Tamera ecovillage was founded in 1995 and is now inhabited by 170 people who live and work on a site of 330 acres/ 134 located 20kms off the west coast in the Alentejo region in southern Portugal. In addition to the permanent community, there are hundreds of guests who temporarily live and work in Tamera.
Ecovillage Schloss Tempelhof which was started in 2007, has located in the Jagstregion, a rural area in Southern Germany, state of Baden-Württemberg, and has grown from 20 to 140 inhabitants in only three years with a site of 32ha (4ha Buildings, 27ha agrarian land incl. 1ha forest). The Tempelhof foundation owns the property and all residents are voting members.
Findhorn Foundation started rather unintened in 1962 in Scotland and grew out to be one of the founding members of the Global Ecovillage Network. At the moment the Findhorn Foundation consists of two sites where about 120 people work and live. Findhorn can also be visited for events, workshops or participation in the life of the community.
- Global Ecovillage Network: https://ecovillage.org/
- GEN Research Working Group: https://ecovillage.org/our-work/research-ecovillages/
- Community research website Dr. Iris Kunze: https://iriskunze.wordpress.com/
- Eurotopia: https://eurotopia.de/enindex.html
- ECOVILLAGE: 1001 Ways to Heal the Planet, Edited by: Kosha Joubert and Leila Dregger: https://ecovillage.org/1ecovillage-1001-ways-heal-planet/
- Creating a Life Together. Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, by Diana Leafe Christian: https://www.newsociety.com/Books/C/Creating-a-Life-Together
- Ecovillages. Lessons for Sustainable Community, by Karin Liftin: https://ecovillagebook.org/
- Ecovillages. New Frontiers for Sustainability, By Jonathan Dawson: https://transformativecities.org/atlas-of-utopias/atlas-49/