Building Heaven In The City Of Angels

Coming Soon: The Los Angeles Eco-Village will set an urban example that could be imitated everywhere Hollywood reaches

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 41
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Lois Arkin has been organizing within Los Angeles and Southern California for over ten years. Her vision of humane, cooperative living is manifesting as a truly urban eco-village project that is making rapid strides toward realization. Lois also edits a newsletter, L.A. Co-op Networker, that goes out to over 3500 co-operatively minded people throughout the world. Send $10 to the Cooperative Resources and Services Project, 3551 White House Place, Los Angeles, CA 90004 to subscribe. Write Lois (same address) for an eco-village information packet including village performance objectives (include a self-addressed, stamped envelope).

Los Angeles – known for its congestion, smog, concrete, freeways, runaway high-rise development, crime, alienation, homelessness, pop culture, high cost of land and housing and many other more or less awful qualities – is a city in pain, a microcosm of much of the developed world. Urban ecologist Paul Glover wrote in Los Angeles: A History of the Future, "L.A. is an army camped far from its sources of supply, using distant resources faster than nature renews them… Our region today is so dependent, so uninhabitable, yet so inhabited, that it must transform or die. Sooner or later it must generate its own food, fuel, water, wood, and ores. It must use these at the rate that nature provides them. It can."

Los Angeles is also known for its cultural diversity, entrepreneurial spirit, arts, media and entertainment industry, academic institutions, innovation in lifestyles and social experimentation, search for consciousness, social change and community organizations, political and economic diversity, mild climate, ecological diversity, and many other more or less wonderful qualities, depending on your perspective.

Many ecologically-minded people exploit our city no less than those whose purposes they view as the most crass and materialistic. They use L.A. to make friends, expand networks, get an education, make lots of money, then leave for smaller, more conscious, more sustainable communities when they have enough money to make the move.

I feel – as do my colleagues involved with Los Angeles Eco-Village – that we must work for transformation wherever we are and with whatever we have. We want to help build a culture, right here in Los Angeles, in which decisions are based on environmental harmony, and rewards come from a healthy and spontaneous spirit – and practice – of cooperation. We are people with hope and a desire to heal the wounds in ourselves, one another, and the great Gaia. Our city – all cities – beg for this healing.


During the Summer of 1983, the Cooperative Resources and Service Project (CRSP) – a promoter of, and federation for, cooperatives and cooperative networks throughout Southern California – brought together a 20-person volunteer group to create and forge the founding vision of our non-profit "developer" – the Los Angeles Mutual Housing Association (LAMHA). Composed of activists in affordable housing, urban ecology, social change, economic development, and cooperatives, our intention was to bring together all the resources and expertise CRSP had accumulated in the past (and would continue to develop in the coming decade) for the ongoing creation of sustainable urban communities. LAMHA is charged with a commitment to permanent affordability of land, housing, and business spaces; democratic control and on-going member education; broad-based community support; a sustainable approach to development; and a high level of self-reliance among its members.

In 1986 we learned about an 11-acre dump site, located in Northeast Los Angeles about five miles from downtown, filled with sand, rock, gravel, and dirt from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) street construction. DWP owns the site, and it was scheduled to go to public auction as surplus land. We organized quickly and successfully lobbied local politicians to remove the property from public auction so we can have the opportunity to develop it as Los Angeles Eco-Village.

Our major accomplishments, so far, include:

  • Putting together a large, open, skilled, and diverse volunteer Design Team
  • Preparing a detailed exploratory design study and project development schedule
  • Having the project concept incorporated into drafts of the City’s General Plan and Housing Policies
  • Developing a process for obtaining broad-based neighborhood support for the project
  • Annual reporting to the City Council Committee which oversees the DWP (to keep the vision of the Eco-Village alive with elected officials)
  • Developing a brochure and slide show on the project
  • Broadening constituency for the project
  • Coordinating the First Los Angeles Ecological Cities Conference, June 1991, co-sponsored by the Eco-Home Network, the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, the City of Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power, and many other prominent organizations and agencies in Southern California
  • Maintaining and honing vision
  • Preparing a major proposal to the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (a national non-profit) for funding and support

We are now well positioned to obtain the site and to enter into a partnership arrangement with the City of Los Angeles and the Department of Water and Power to develop Eco-Village.


We knew from the beginning, of course, that we had to start with the people. Our 50-member, all volunteer Design Team stewards the vision of Eco-Village and moves the work forward. Among them is Berkeley-based community architect Harry Jordan, who prepared an exploratory design study for the site. The study has been enormously helpful in introducing people to the possibilities for the site. Other members include the retired Planning Director for the City of Los Angeles, Cal Hamilton, who is guiding us through the process of lining up support from key representatives of all the City’s agencies that will be affected by Eco-Village. By garnering such support now, assuming that our political work continues to be successful, the various City agencies will not feel that the Eco-Village project is being forced upon them. They, too, along with politicians, existing neighborhood residents, future residents, and the whole spectrum of sustainability advocates, become stakeholders in the success of Eco-Village.

Design Team members also include planning and architecture faculty from local universities, ecological designers, and alternative energy experts, as well as activists in affordable housing and other community organizers, gardeners, engineers, secretaries, carpenters, lawyers, librarians, artists, bookkeepers, photographers, and doctors.

The Design Team has four working committees: The Architecture and Design Committee has been working on site analysis and the beginning of an Environmental Impact Report. The Neighborhood Relations Committee has been meeting with individuals (in a two year door-to-door campaign) and with groups throughout the areas neighboring our site. They also have been circulating a petition of support. Participation in the Cohousing Process Group is required for the nearly half of Design Team members who intend to be future residents of Eco-Village. (Future residents must also begin saving money cooperatively in the Ecological Revolving Loan Fund or other approved depository, and join the Local Exchange Trading System, a third-party computerized barter system). The Administration and Coordination Committee keeps everything knit together. All Eco-Village organizers have also been soliciting political and financial support for the project, of course! We anticipate that other committees will grow out of these as organizing and coordinating energy expands.


Our stewardship of the Eco-Village vision has served the purpose of promoting sustainable urban communities well. We’ve received a deluge of written requests for more information on Eco-Village, both from people interested in living in such a neighborhood and from those who are in various stages of planning for their own eco-villages. Eco-Villages are rapidly beginning to learn of one another and share information in a way that accelerates the learning curve for all of us.

One of our major goals is to empower people with the vision that we can do this sort of thing again and again, in our city, and in cities everywhere. We have worked at making our constituency diverse – intergenerational, multicultural, mixed income, multiskilled – and non-adversarial. We are a consensus-seeking group. I believe that members of the Design Team are working as much in the public interest as in their own personal interest. The non-profit Mutual Housing Association is committed to the on-going development of Eco-Villages, so that the learning will not be lost after the first project, and anyone who wants to live in an Eco-Village can be accommodated.

Another major goal is to create a neighborhood model in such a way so as to convince leaders in the developing world to bypass the unsustainable development patterns of American cities and suburbs, and perhaps to modify their unquenching thirst for the "good life" depicted in the pop culture exported from right here – Los Angeles.

If we prove that friendly, healthy, sustainable neighborhoods can be built in Los Angeles, that in itself might change the world! When our friends and colleagues who work in the media become enamored with the visionary Eco-Village – some may even live there themselves – they will begin to produce the media that can help reshape values worldwide.

We constantly remind one another to manifest the ecological and cooperative values in our planning and development process that we want to happen in Eco-Village. Simply, we have to practice what we preach. We must be willing to remind one another in gentle and caring ways when we feel that any of us is straying from those values, and work at not becoming self righteous.

When working on a vision, it’s been said, one has to build in the methods or processes for achieving the vision. Ultimately, Eco-Village is an on-going process, like all of life. We are midwives, who fully expect to be transformed by the process of birthing such a child.

Density And Sustainability

The Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research is finding that increased density in urban development provides environmental benefits over continued urban sprawl. And new development plans for many of Norway’s municipalities, or communes, are taking that research into account as they work to comply with the fundamental principles of the 1987 report issued by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norway’s Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

For example, in Borre/Norten, one of three study areas, a 60% increase in the number of housing units could be accomplished by 2020 while decreasing the average distance from home to work by 5%. In contrast, continued urban spread following present trends would increase commuting distances by an average of nearly 80% over current figures.

Some of the "gray" areas – streets and parking lots – would be converted to "green lungs" by planting trees. And even exposure to traffic noise would decrease by 65% in the high density developments – compared with a 45% increase if current trends persist.

The higher-density, environmentally friendly development gives higher scores than the present trend on 24 of 32 goals based onthe Brundtland Commission’s objectives. The trend alternative is better on only two, and the two options scored equally on the other six goals.

For more information, contact Petter Næss, Research Manager, Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, Gaustadalléen 21, PO Box 44 Blindern, N-0313 Oslo 3, Norway; or Chris Canfield, Cerro Gordo Community, Dorena Lake Box 569, Cottage Grove, OR 97424.

– Duane Fickeisen