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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Clean Living

Air Date: Week of November 7, 1997

A community in Ithaca, New York has tried to model sustainable living in their new housing development. A year after the first residents moved in, they are finding that turning an ecological dream to reality is tricky business.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Utne Reader Magazine named Ithaca, New York, one of the most progressive towns in the nation, one of the reasons cited was EcoVillage, an alternative model for development. EcoVillage was designed as a set of housing clusters that exemplify sustainable living. It's been a year now since EcoVillage's first residents moved in, and as Tatiana Schreiber reports, they're finding that turning a set of ecological dreams into reality is proving to be a challenge.

SCHREIBER: Things got off to a shaky start last November, just 2 months before the first neighborhood would have been completed. A fire ripped through the unfinished buildings, including the community's common house and Jay Jacobsen's home.

JACOBSEN: I happened to be driving here for, just past dinner, and got here about, before the fire engines did, and so I saw the whole thing. It was, oh, man, incredible.

SCHREIBER: An investigation concluded that the fire was a freak accident, and none of the residents were deterred from moving in. Jay Jacobsen, who's a retired plant physiologist, says the EcoVillage experiment in solving both social and environmental problems was compelling.

JACOBSEN: And here was an opportunity to start a community from scratch, to be a part of the planning process right from the beginning. Where the houses are going to go, how are we going to govern ourselves, what is our relationship to the land going to be? All of these things in a community of people that were going to work together cooperatively, and it was just fascinating to me.

SCHREIBER: Mr. Jacobsen had to double up with another family until his own house was rebuilt, and then had to contend with fumes coming from the new kitchen cabinets.

(Bird song)

SCHREIBER: Yet like everyone I talked to at EcoVillage, he's still excited about the long-term vision.

WALKER: I thought I'd start out by talking a little bit about land use.

SCHREIBER: Liz Walker, the group's one paid staff person, shows me a big colorful map with lots of green and blue areas pencilled in.

WALKER: This conserves 80% of the land as agricultural open space, as wetlands, as woodlands. We would like to develop the water on-site, slow it down, recharge the aquifer, cleanse it through biological action. So this is what I call our 50-year dream plan. (Laughs)

SCHREIBER: The 2 most significant ways that EcoVillage challenges conventional notions about housing development, Liz Walker says, are its tight clustering of 150 homes on only a fraction of the land, and its integration of agriculture into the community.

(Footfalls)

SCHREIBER: We're touring the 175-acre site on Ithaca's West Hill, about 2 miles from downtown.

WALKER: I love being in the country and yet being so close to the city. It's just perfect. It's a really good location.

SCHREIBER: But some neighbors aren't so sure. They question the need for such a large development in what had been a rural area. But it's great for farmers Jen and John Bokaer-Smith, who lease about 3 acres from EcoVillage for an intensive organic vegetable farm.

JEN BOKAER-SMITH: This is definitely the best soil in the county for agriculture. It's a fantastic soil. And if you turn around, you can see the fantastic view we've got here from the garden, and I think without this group there would be tract houses on this farm, for sure.

(Footfalls)

JEN BOKAER-SMITH: This block is fallow for this year. This is clover that we planted, there was squash here, and we planted the clover into the squash in the mid-summer. And then when the squash was done in the fall, the cover crop was already established. This is a red clover. We're going to plow it and let it sit bare for a couple of weeks while we try to get the wheats to germinate, and then cultivate them so that we reduce the weed seed load in the soil. And then we're going to plant buckwheat, which is a great smother crop and also helps pull up some micro-nutrients.

SCHREIBER: As the community takes shape, the farm will provide about half the vegetables used in EcoVillage's common house.

WALKER: So this is our community building, our common house, which is still under construction. And it's really the center, the heart of the community itself.

SCHREIBER: With shared cooking, there'll be prepared dinners 3 or 4 nights a week.

(Radio music in the background)

WALKER: Rather than air conditioning, we're using pond water cooling. We'll be bringing in water, cold water from the pond and then running it through a heat exchanger and circulating the cool water.

SCHREIBER: But there are some problems with the long-term plans for Eco- Village. A Cornell grad student recently studied the site and found there's a lot less water than would be needed for the cleansing marsh, aquiculture pond, and network of little lakes that were envisioned. And, though composting toilets and reusing gray water were considered, it turns out a project of this size within city limits runs into strict health regulations. So for now, Eco- Village is hooked up to town water and sewer.

WALKER: We've really tried to design this whole community in a very flexible way. We can't afford all the environmental features we'd like at the moment. But we've designed in the possibility for very easy retrofit.

SCHREIBER: EcoVillage director Liz Walker says there's a dual piping system so that gray water can be treated and reused in the future. The houses are super-insulated and have 14-foot windows built for maximum solar gain. But solar panels will have to wait because the group needed to keep costs down. Even so, the houses came in at $89,000 for a one-bedroom, up to $155,000 for a five-bedroom. That includes access to the common house with a guest room and laundry facilities, the pond, all the open space, and amenities like a shared wood shop.

(Wood being cut. Man: "You want it like that." Woman: "Like that? Yeah, like that, that's good." Man: "That's good?")

SCHREIBER: The social experiment at EcoVillage--living closely together and sharing resources--has a lot of support in Ithaca. But some conservationists in the community point out ecological contradictions. For one thing, the houses are at the center of the site, breaking up the open land and requiring a long access road.

HARRISON: The concepts that EcoVillage espouses are the kind of developments where people can actually walk to their jobs and walk to stores. And the reality is they can't even easily walk to the end of their driveway.

SCHREIBER: Ellen Harrison is on Ithaca's town board. She says the half-mile road to the first neighborhood had to cut through a small wetland. It will have to be paved, sanded, and salted, and required an extension of town services like water, sewer, and electricity.

HARRISON: So, one of the ironies was the fact that this development is really pushing that kind of infrastructure further out into the countryside. And so in fact, then, it ends up putting development pressure on neighboring properties.

SCHREIBER: A number of family farmers still hold the neighboring land. Once the infrastructure is there, some fear they'll be forced to sell out to other developers. And in that sense, EcoVillage will be contributing to sprawl. But, Ellen Harrison says, if the EcoVillage concept was combined with a comprehensive town plan and regional thinking, it could help to limit sprawl.

HARRISON: There are people who believe that the current owners have the right to do what they want with their piece of land. And there are others, like myself, who basically view the job of the town board as keeping in mind people who live here 100 years from now and several hundred years from now. And that it's our responsibility to think through how the land needs to be managed to accommodate that kind of long-term thinking.

SCHREIBER: The town has adopted rules to limit density in ecologically-sensitive areas. And following the EcoVillage example, they may require cluster development in some places. They're also trying to preserve the agricultural land around EcoVillage. Meanwhile, EcoVillagers are considering building 2 or 3 clusters instead of 5. They're trying to carpool more, and get a bus to serve the community. For now the first EcoVillage residents are focusing on reclaiming their land from the devastation wrought by construction.

MAN 1: Most of these things were planted with pick-axes.

MAN 2: Really?

MAN 1: Literally. I mean, people just, like they're hitting cement with a pick.

SCHREIBER: They're layering cardboard and various mulches to build up the soil, and planting fruit trees, perennials, and native grasses. They've planted clover all around the pond, and are enjoying the wildlife that's moving in.

(Bird calls)

SCHREIBER: For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Ithaca, New York.

 

 

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