REVIEW: EcoVillage at Ithaca
Better living through community
An inside history of a pioneering group effort

Reviewed by Andy Rowan


EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture

Liz Walker; New Society Publishers, 2005
ISBN 0-8657-152-46
$17.95 (paper); 256 pp.

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September 1, 2005: EcoVillage at Ithaca is a fascinating book for anyone interested in joining or starting an intentional community with a focus on sustainable living. Liz Walker, the current director of EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) and one of the women who started the community in 1991, offers a personal and introspective view of community life. She explains how and why members have chosen this community as their home and how communal living positively impacts the Earth while also being socially fulfilling.

Walker emphasizes the complex interpersonal relations that exist within the community and frankly admits that they can be challenging as well as rewarding for those involved. EVI requires consensus for all community decision-making, leading to heated debates and high emotions over questions such as whether to allow the city to erect a water tank on the property and how to budget the second EcoVillage neighborhood, known as SONG. At times, consultants have been brought in to promote positive conflict resolution. Community living offers abundant opportunities to come face to face with conflict, both within oneself and with others. For Walker, community members can be roughly categorized as 'planners' (more passive personalities) and 'doers' (ready-to-go personalities), two groups that frequently run into conflicts.

EcoVillage at Ithaca has also faced many financial hurdles, beginning with the purchase of the land on which it sits. Villagers wanted to pay off their collective mortgage as soon as possible, Walker explains, and they worked hard to do so. The community received a series of loans and personal grants, which ultimately helped them achieve a mortgage-free position. At the same time, Walker discusses how she and others felt strongly that their community should be open to people of all economic backgrounds. Although some people have arrived at EVI without employment or a steady income, the purchase of a house is a required, as is the payment of regular dues to sustain the community. Houses range in size and price--the original neighborhood, FROG, is more uniform, whereas the second neighborhood has more customized, individualized houses. Each neighborhood is clustered around a common children's play area. There is one common house and a second one is about to be built so there will be one for each neighborhood.

Although all of EVI is not completely off the grid, there are many environmentally-friendly building and living practices going on. Some houses have composting toilets, some have active solar power and many have passive solar. There is a straw-bale and timber-frame duplex. Many people have been able to give up one if not two family cars, choosing instead to carpool or bicycle for transportation. Villagers lobbied for a bus stop at the main road and got it. One resident couple leases land from the community to operate an organic farm with a CSA. There are also community gardens and many of the homes are surrounded by veggies, fruit trees and herbs. The community continues to add more renewable energy systems and is looking to installing a gray water recycling system.

Education and outreach are other elements EVI hopes to expand in the future. They already work closely with nearby Ithaca College and Cornell University, offering a variety of classes and workshops related to sustainable living. In addition, they are co-creating a standardized introductory training session to be made available to all EcoVillages around the world. A number of researchers have come to study at EVI—some for as long as a year—and the community welcomes all media contacts as a way of promoting its cause.

Sustainable community living can be a deeply enriching experience. This group of 160 villagers has found a way to experience life together, and to share and communicate what they have learned along the way. Their average individual 'ecological footprint’ is lighter than the average American's. Their hope is to point the way so that others, too, can walk a little lighter.

Andy Rowan gardens and gathers with her children on 4 wooded acres in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is about to embark on her own new foray in community, teaching first- and second-grade science in a cooperative home school project nearby.