Guidelines For Eco-Village Development

Eight steps to creating your own sustainable community

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 60
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute


You might think that guidelines for eco-village development would mostly have to do with their "eco" aspect – that is, how to handle the biosystem and built environment. These are certainly important, but in researching this issue – and interviewing many people with extensive community experience – we have learned that the physical systems are the easiest part. They are also the most variable, since the details depend so strongly on the specifics of the community: its location, purpose, and composition.

These guidelines focus, instead, on where we perceive the need to be greatest – the process of eco-village development:

1. Recognize it will be a journey – and enjoy it! * If you have an "eco-village dream," and focus too strongly on the desired end result, you set yourself and others up for frustration and disappointment. The process of community development takes time – usually many years. Joan Halifax, director of the Ojai Foundation, speaks for many community founders in the following story: "The Dalai Lama told me in an interview that there were three conditions that would make it possible to accomplish my vision for the community here: Great love, great persistence, great patience. Patience is the hardest of all!"

It helps to recognize right from the start that a community is always in process, and it is best to honor and enjoy the process.

2. Develop a vision – and keep developing it * A clear, shared vision is one of the most important kinds of "glue" a group can have. For a vision to work as glue, however, it needs to be more than an intellectual construct. At its best, a vision gives voice to the full essence and deeply-felt purpose of the group. There are many ways of developing a vision (and a vision statement), but however arrived at, the vision will be most effective if each member of the group feels a resounding personal "Yes!" in response to it. Keep the vision alive by revisiting it regularly as a group to see whether it still feels right.

3. Build relationships and bonding * The other fundamental glue for a group comes from the heart. It is vital to build solid interpersonal relationships, mutual understanding, caring, and trust. Building such relationships isn’t necessarily easy, but doing things together – eating, singing, dancing, telling life stories, traveling – facilitates the process much faster than meetings!

4. Make the whole-system challenge explicit * Once the group has begun to clarify its vision and build relationships, get the group oriented to the tasks that need to be accomplished. Personality style conflicts may arise here: some prefer to begin with planning, others would rather plunge in and experiment. The challenge for the group as a whole is to get these two tendencies into a constructive relationship, so that they contribute to each other. You’ll need both.

5. Get help – to become more self-reliant * Knowledge about sustainable community development is growing so quickly that it’s unlikely the founding group will know everything. For some specific topics, such as building details, it may make sense to depend entirely on outside expertise. On many others, however, it makes sense to develop expertise within the group. Include plenty of time and resources in your budget for group learning about how to do things, how to manage tasks, and how to build group process and interpersonal skills. Lack of management or process skills is the number one reason communities fail.

6. Develop clear procedures * Community should be an adventure among friends, not an exercise in bureaucracy. The painful experience of many groups makes it clear, however, that a little bureaucracy is both necessary and helpful. Specifically, it is wise to develop clear, written procedures for decision making, resolving disputes, handling finances, and determining membership. Perhaps even more important is to develop "meta-procedures" for making changes to these (and other) procedures. Groups change, so plan on changing your procedures, too – frequently at first, more slowly later as the group matures.

7. Maintain balance – sustainably * Once the group is formed, there will be many specific tasks required to develop its eco-village or sustainable community, and many important balances to be maintained:

(a) Between "group" and "private" * People need some of each, often in changing quantities.

(b) Between today and tomorrow * If not well paced, the group could either do too much too soon and exhaust itself, or procrastinate and become a debating society.

(c) Between "hardware" and "software"* Some people are drawn to images of solar homes and permaculture gardens, others are most interested in the feeling of community. One aspect or another may need to be emphasized at different times, but the success of the community depends on their balanced development and a shared appreciation for both.

(d) Among love, light, and will * Every community can benefit from cultivating the positive qualities of the heart (bonding, caring, trust), the mind (clarity of understanding, vision, integrity), and the will (the ability to act with courage and effectiveness). The challenge is to integrate them in a balanced way. Affirming the importance of this balance within the vision of the group can be a powerful touchstone for assessing and readjusting group progress.

(e) Among different learning and cognitive styles * We can hardly emphasize enough the importance of developing clear understandings in the group of the many ways that people are different. Most of the disagreements within groups have to do with arguments over learning and cognitive styles, not over matters of substance. For example, some people would rather talk and then act, others would rather act and then talk, still others just want to act, and of course there are always those who just want to talk. Such differences, working in right relationship, can complement each other in ways that will be liberating for each person. In wrong relationship, they lead to endless power struggles.

(f) Among current consumption, investment, and service * Sustainability is fundamentally about fairness and balance across time. One of the most concrete ways to express this is through a balance among expenditures – of time as well as money – on current consumption (from food to entertainment), investment (from building to education), and service to others (which may involve either current consumption or investment). Boundaries may blur, but if the future benefits are high, it is generally an investment. If the benefits are primarily here and now, it is current consumption. Healthy living – and avoiding burn-out – require a balance of both.

The spirit of sustainable service provides a healthy antidote for imbalances in either direction. Service focuses beyond the self and can thus lift one beyond self-centered current consumption. At the same time, sustainable service suggests that some "current consumption" is necessary to nurture today’s server, so that he or she can serve tomorrow as well.

8. Be open and honest * Finally, the evidence is strong that for many community issues – including the always sensitive issues of sex, power, and money – what you do is less important than how openly and honestly you do it. For example, some successful communities are based on celibacy, while others are based on group marriages. These seemingly opposite approaches can both work. What doesn’t work – what gets communities into trouble – is when the public story no longer fits the private behavior, especially if those in leadership positions are the ones breaking the rules.

The issue of power provides another good example. Many communities adopt the ideal of complete equality of power, but in fact such equality essentially never happens in human groups. There is always a "power gradient," with some people having more influence than others. The attempt to maintain the fiction of complete equality can lead to a collective denial of the actual dynamics in the group. The paradox (and tragedy) of such a situation is that it encourages "hidden" abuses of power while at the same time suppressing and discouraging genuinely needed visible leadership.

A healthier approach is to acknowledge what is, while also honoring one’s ideals. The group may also find that it can reformulate its ideals in a way that better honors their deep meaning (for example, equal fairness for all may be more important than equal power) and better fits the complex truth of their experience.

Now take another look at Step 1. You’re on your way!