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Lessons in Village Design
by Peter Bane
I live in a new Village called Earthaven. Part art project, part social experiment, part bridge to an unknown future, this place is an endlessly challenging, paradoxical exercise of the imagination. It is also quite real and solid, home to 60 people and a locus of much hope and creativity.
Ten years ago, a dozen of us set out boldly to go where few had gone before: Envisioning a human-scale community designed and built in harmony with the natural world, we wanted to show a healthier way for humans to live with each other while treading lightly on the earth. We thought we could leave behind the greed, selfishness, alienation, and destructive habits of US culture and create a more meaningful life together by living more simply, closer to nature, and by helping other people to make similar changes in their own lives and circumstances.
This is still our vision and to a considerable degree we have succeeded. But we’ve also tempered our idealism with the awareness that we brought human nature with us through the gate, and the laws of gravity work here just as they do in the larger world around us. Rediscovering the laws of gravity was in fact one of the important lessons we learned over the past decade, along with some other basic physical science, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Our community embraced permaculture from the beginning and it has been a crucial element in our development. In keeping with this approach, we have evolved a culture of experiment, of anarchy tempered by cooperation, and of small-scale, individual action. How has all of this come about and how has it worked to shape the village? And most importantly, what lessons have we learned from our development that may be relevant to other communities?
Pioneering in the forest
Earthaven coalesced around a vision of cooperative community in 1991. For the next two years it built up a core of members, shaped a body of agreements, and searched through a long list of potential sites in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, before locating the 320-acre parcel we now own. Then the fun began.
In 1994 we bought this wooded property. It had a road, an old hunting cabin in poor repair, and one phone line. The trees were third-growth poplar, pine, maple, and other mixed hardwoods, mostly 40-60 years old. There were streams, which the road forded, but no bridges. The property had numerous springs, none of which had been tapped. There was evidence of old farm and logging roads, long overgrown, but no cleared land anywhere. And we were to build a village for 150 people or more, here? We spent the next three years figuring out how and where to put ourselves into the landscape.
The encounter with the forest was exhilarating. This was to be our home, and it was beautiful. It was also a slow-motion collision. Like a great wave, our hopes, expectations, and needs broke over the wall of wood all around us. For us to live here, trees had to come down, buildings go up. Sunlight was needed for heating homes, generating electricity, and growing crops. (For more on the trees-to-homes conversion story, see“Seeing the Forest and the Trees” pg.25, by Diana Christian.) We agreed we wanted to leave most of the land in permanent forest, but that we would clear homesites as well as ground for village buildings, for agriculture, and to extend a few connecting roads into the main sections of the land.
Where to build?
The community employed me and Chuck Marsh, both permaculture designers, to develop a plan of neighborhood placement. We set out to identify the areas with good solar access, potential for water supply, and to which a sound road could be built. We were inspired by Max Lindegger’s example of Crystal Waters in Australia (he had been a teacher to us both at different times) which was planned with small clusters of houses (3-8) built on ridges between and around dams in the small intervening valleys. We also borrowed a pattern from Christopher Alexander and colleagues, “Agricultural Valleys,” (1) itself inspired by the work of Ian McHarg (2), which suggested that the bottoms of valleys were too valuable as agricultural land to be covered with buildings, and that therefore houses and settlements should be placed on the slopes above these valleys. Our landscape fit this pattern to a “T.” Steep slopes crowded narrow valley bottoms. Flat farmland in the southern Appalachians is scarce and was being rapidly developed all around the area. We didn’t want to make the same mistake as conventional developers.
In late 1997 Chuck and I presented our conclusions and our maps to the community council. We had found 15 areas we felt would be suitable for building clusters of homes or public buildings. Some were small (only three homes were envisioned), others had room for 10 or more dwellings. We called these housing cluster areas “neighborhoods,” in the suburban sense of the word, meaning a few homes together at the end of a cul-de- sac, rather than in the urban sense of a block or two occupied by hundreds of homes. The council accepted the plan in its broad strokes, but elected to exclude two areas, one because it was on a ridge, the other because it was a uniquely isolated and very special valley within the property which seemed to have special qualities we wanted to preserve. There were disagreements about a third, more remote area, but we decided that if a suitable road route could be found to the “East End,” that a neighborhood could be built there.
Of the remaining 12 areas, one was already being developed as a transitional housing district with a common kitchen, bath, and other services. With tiny huts and a few trailers and yurts, it continues to function as an entry point for members moving to the land, though more options exist today than when we broke ground there in 1996. Another of the 12 was reserved for the village center with a meeting hall, a dining room, and an unspecified section for townhouses and apartments above shops. And a third, relatively central area was seen as suitable primarily for commerce and industrial activity, though not for homes because solar gain in that area was limited by trees in a protected watershed.
That left nine neighborhoods with a green light, and another waiting on yellow for a road route to be found through seemingly impassible terrain. The road was ultimately staked and built, though not without controversy. And as it went in, yet another neighborhood area with five homesites was revealed.
When the neighborhood site plan was approved and members were at last allowed to select lots, the group was amazed to find that there were no conflicts over where to settle: Everyone wanted a different site. Twenty of us chose sites in seven of the ten neighborhoods (we learned about the 11th later). That was our first serious mistake. And we couldn’t agree on how to authorize development of sites within the village center. So we deferred the question. That was our second.
Work outward from a controlled front
Based on a simple precept from physics—that energy radiates outward from a source—a principle well understood in permaculture design, where it directs one to start small and keep one’s efforts contained, this advice should have kept us on a sensible course. We had supposedly understood and embraced it, but the voices of economy and common sense were overwhelmed by the desires of many of us to have our own “piece of the pie,” to live a green version of the American Dream. Maybe with a smaller, more natural house, maybe with more local autonomy than in the suburbs, but still looking to escape from the perceived problems of the city, crowding, discordant neighbors, noise, etc.
Many times in the early years we said to ourselves, “We must become the people we want to be, BEFORE we can create the village we want to live in,” but this turned out to be an impossible task. To become THOSE people, we needed a village in which to transform. Catch-22. We were who we were: a bunch of headstrong, creative, independent thinkers, imprinted on suburbia like so many goslings on a goose. Without a spiritual or charismatic leader, it took the kind of determination we had brought to the project to get Earthaven started and to see it continue, but that same independent, stubborn streak in most of us was a blind spot when it came to rational land use. Paying lip service to compact development we nevertheless scattered to the many corners of a large and diverse property.
Y2K came too soon
None of this might have mattered as much as it did if the year 2000 panic hadn’t come along when it did.
Aware of our suburban propensities and apprised of some of the lessons of other intentional communities, we had made some pretty strong agreements with each other about keeping the center strong. One of those was a commitment to build our common meeting hall before we began building individual homes. Research by Valerie Naiman, one of our founding members, revealed this as a common regret among other communities who hadn’t done so. We also adopted a compact, densely settled pattern for our Neo- Tribal Village, which we now call “The Hut Hamlet.” We did this for three reasons:
1.We needed a place to sleep, eat, and bathe so that we could be more effective at working on our land. Getting to the village site from Asheville, where most of us lived in the early years, and back, took a couple of hours over winding mountain roads. We would obviously get more done if we didn’t have to commute as often.
2.Building meant land-clearing, and that was a lot of work. So we cleared as little as we could, which meant small buildings close together.
3.We wanted to challenge ourselves to live close by our neighbors, sharing facilities and living more simply on our way to becoming better villagers.
So we decided to use a small south-facing hillside near the old hunting cabin (toward which we’d gravitated because of its centrality and the thread of human presence in the woods) to create a neighborhood owned by the community, where any member could erect a small hut for sleeping. Together we would put up a kitchen and bath house, provide a road partway up the hill so that sites could be cleared and accessed, and pipe water, hook up photovoltaic panels, and install a compost toilet and greywater wetland treatment system for group use. This turned out to be one of our first great successes.
Over time the Hut Hamlet has grown to 14 dwellings with several yurts, trailers, and tent platforms mixed in, and has been an invaluable training ground for natural building. It has also helped dozens of members to enter the community. But it was our nursery, and it wasn’t big enough to house our adult selves
If the world had rolled along in its “Let’s Impeach Clinton” sort of vacuity for another four or five years, we might have built our main community center kitchen and started clustering townhouses around the village hall. But history intervened in the form of Y2K. Collectively we were still a young child but we had come face to face with the demand to shoulder adult responsibilities. We had to take care of the people. The big letdown of the century reared its ugly head in late 1998 when the fear of a devilish computer glitch leading to the “ collapse of civilization” hit us like a ton of bricks. Our quixotic group had long been susceptible to this millenial meme, which remains a subtext for all we do, but in 1998 it rode wild and high. Fear gripped the community. And as we have seen demonstrated all too often during the Bush era, fear makes you stupid.
We dove for the trenches. Cooperation started looking like group purchases of survival food and less like common-wall housing. Neighborhood groups coalesced with plans for development here and there. New roads got built and old ones were improved. Members borrowed money, drew plans, and broke ground for buildings in their neighborhoods. Work on the common meeting hall continued in a desultory way until it was closed in just before the end of the world as we know it, December, 1999. But the damage was done. Large private endeavors had been launched in half a dozen directions and a lot of money poured into projects that would take years to complete. A rash of hustling inquiries for membership raised our guard against strangers and we shut down membership recruitment, squeezing off the lifeblood of community growth and guaranteeing that no more investment would go into the commonwealth for several years.
At the time we couldn’t see this very well. Somewhat panicked, we were doing our best to move the village along its trajectory of growth in the face of a perceived threat. What we didn’t realize was the cost of scattering. Our little group of 12 founding members, which grew to 22 in a few early months, had a lot of heat. We spent the first two to three years learning to love each other and solving problems as a group. We visioned, we dreamed, we wrote agreements, we solemnly worked out the mysterious business of consensus, and we built a magnetic container for the community’s growth. In the run-up to Y2K we turned away from the center, setting centrifugal forces in motion. The hot cauldron cooled. Some intimacy was lost, especially as the year 1998 saw many new, mostly younger members join and the community found itself socially off balance. Momentum in turning forest into village was lost as we expanded our working front ten-fold without a commensurate increase in energy input from members.
The new millenium rolled in with nary a hiccup. We began to poke our heads up and look around. Life wasn’t going to change dramatically. Whew! But we had created a whole new dynamic within the community that would now affect our growth for some years to come.
The pull of gravity
With the opening of new neighborhoods to development, the community found itself in several camps, literally. Growth of membership to over 40 had stretched the bonds that previously kept us in good social health. A new tone of divisiveness began to emerge in discussions over the use of limited community funds and other resources. The building of common infrastructure had also reached a plateau: We had a meeting hall, unfinished but somewhat useable; we had a kitchen, not big enough for all of us but somewhat functional; we had most of our roads built or improved. Much more needed to be done, but we had enabled ourselves to turn attention to the growth of outlying areas.
A couple of neighborhoods began to take shape. One, called Benchmark, where I have a lot and where our publishing office is now located, was near the center of the community. It attracted a half dozen founding members and their partners. Another, which the community site planners had labelled “Middle Rosy Branch” for its location in one of our side valleys, attracted a handful of younger, family-oriented members in their 30s who renamed it “ Loving Acres.” This latter was a small but sweet plateau high on a hillside with a microclimate that we sometimes referred to as “ the Banana Belt.”
Both neighborhoods had plans for common kitchen and bath buildings and for cooperation around agriculture. The Loving Acres families also had a special focus on children as they expected to raise several in the coming years. Each group gave a lot of attention to thoughtful site design. The community’s values seemed to be manifesting in a good way. No one felt there was anything wrong with these moves, and we did a great deal to applaud the progress of the neighborhoods, giving time in our council meetings for announcements of the latest projects completed. Over the next several years Benchmark built a common building which now houses studios, offices, and apartments (though not yet a kitchen or bath), while L.A. built a bath house and a water system. Members there lived in yurts and trailers.
But time and other realities began to have their effect. Following a community revisioning, a number of persuasive voices began to question why we were spreading ourselves so thinly when we didn’t seem to have enough collective energy to develop the village center. One of the L.A. families had a growing child who began to need to play with other children. Distance from the main hub of village population and the elevation difference between L.A. and the more populated main valley discouraged casual visiting. The Benchmark neighbors, though they were more centrally located, found they had the same difficulties as L.A. folks in raising money and marshalling labor to get their neighborhood projects moved forward. We had learned that five or six people in a neighborhood wasn’t enough mass and hadn’t enough wealth to support the kind of infrastructure we hoped to enjoy: kitchens, water reservoirs, energy systems, etc. Nor were a few families enough to provide a critical level of kid connection. It was going to take a village.
An historic turning point
About three years ago these pressures came to a head. The L.A. neighbors approached the community with a dramatic plan to re-organize our settlement policy. Their approach was two-fold: We needed agreements to create a new kind of siteholding that would enable common-wall dwellings to be constructed and occupied by members. And, they wanted to swap locations, trading in their L.A. lots for a tiny, undeveloped, mostly overlooked, north-facing hillside neighborhood very near the village center. Village Terraces, as the site planners had named it, already had an access road and was within easy walking distance of all the main settlements, but thick rhododendron cover and the odd topography (about a 10% northwest-aspected slope) had discouraged other members from exploring its possibilities.
Within a year the community had hammered out new policies to permit lower-cost common-wall site leases on a variety of flexible building formats. It also agreed to allow the L.A. neighbors to trade in their old lots for these new small- footprint lots at Village Terraces and to take several years to build and make the physical move while still living partly at L.A. This took a lot of patience on everyone’s part as we labored through long meetings to create new agreements, phrase by phrase. It required a lot of vision on the part of the L.A./VT families to imagine their way out of a situation that didn’t work for them, and it required a fair bit of wise generosity on the part of the community to open a way for this completely unexpected development. I think we’ve all been rewarded handsomely for our willingness to be flexible and to take risks, though the cost has been high, both financially and emotionally.
Breaking ground in the winter of fall of 2002, the first cohousing unit at Village Terraces went up during the following year and was occupied early in 2004. It is now home to 14 people, the five adult members of the original neighborhood, their two resident children, and five other adults and two kids who are renting spaces while creating other niches for themselves in the community. A second unit is being planned now and should begin construction later this year (2005).
Lessons we learned
1. Village reflects an important scale in human settlement. We need more people living here to achieve our goals. While there are limits, both physical and social, to the rate at which we can grow, many of the aspects of community we hope to realize here depend on our reaching a size we haven’t yet attained.
2. Social capital is a scarce resource and we need to hold onto it and build it up carefully and deliberately. The bonds we built in our early years were more valuable than we realized, AND we needed to continue feeding that pool of invisible wealth in order to afford to expand the community.
3. Real transformations in culture and daily life depended on being able to walk to our neighbors’ homes and to village meetings and events. When we couldn’t easily visit our friends on foot, we lost cohesion. In our up-and-down mountain landscape that adds a special pressure on development planning that flatlanders might not have to deal with. We had to accept higher densities in order to have the contact we wanted.
4. Higher density living is actually more fun and rewarding, provided the density is of people and not of cars and concrete. Living in a rural area on a large property bounded by even larger undeveloped areas, we enjoy a rich bounty of natural beauty and access to wildlife, but as humans we thrive on connection with other humans. This gets much easier when there are more choices, and that means more people within easy reach.
5. The power of cultural patterning is difficult to overestimate. We thought we understood and had made the case to ourselves for most of the above. But we underestimated the force of unconscious centrifugal energies in the culture. These are reinforced daily by the auto-based transport system upon which we still depend, a system that distorts our perceptions of distance, time, and human limitations.
Earthaven is enjoying an era of good feeling as I write. More people are better housed this year than ever before and we have a new community gathering place in the White Owl Cafe that is making a big difference in our sense of our common life. Several nights a week the tavern is filled with pleasant dinner conversation, acoustic music, or the clink of glasses sampling home-made meads and other brews. We also have in place a community care team to pay closer attention to the well-being of members under stress. The creation of several larger buildings, the VT house among them, has opened a window on an era of modest surplus: We can contemplate as never before, a spare room here or the possibility of an office there, making space for visitors and newcomers. We’ve certainly not solved all of our problems as human beings, nor have we overcome all the challenges of growing a village from scratch, but it feels as though we are again on the mainline of our best intentions.
A sign of this new health is the prominent discussion being given now to creating a large village center building to house kitchen, offices, and a school.
The most important, overarching lesson in village design that we may have learned from our development detour is one that applies across many fields of challenging endeavor: Keep the main thing, the main thing. A village is about people - several hundred of them - and the connections they can make with each other.