EcoVillage at Ithaca has been called an earth-friendly community. Like a growing number of new communities across the United States, this village in central New York State is guided by principles of sustainable development.
Every week visitors come to EcoVillage for a tour. They want to see how the 100 adults and 60 children who live here put their commitment to the environment into practice.
The first stop is always the Common House where residents meet and relax, do laundry, take classes and eat dinner together several times a week. The Common House is also where EcoVillage co-founder Liz Walker has her office. She directs the non-profit educational arm of the community, and moved in when the first homes were built nine years ago. She explains that so-called 'Green architecture' is a central design concept.
"All of our buildings here are passive solar," she says. "We have a beautiful glass window wall on the south side, and we are overlooking a pond, which we created, which is full of fish and frogs, and we swim in it in the summer and ice skate on it in the winter. And it is quite beautiful and reflects light into the Common House."
Vines are growing on the dropped ceiling overhead. Liz Walker says the inside greenery serves beyond the esthetics. It also helps reduce sound in the Common House because if you have meals with 60 to 80 people it can get a little noisy. The plants help to deaden the sound.
Pedestrian walkways lead from the Common House to two neighborhoods of tightly clustered wood homes. Cars are restricted to an area beyond the homes, so the neighborhoods are a safe place for children to play. And, Liz Walker says, getting people out of their cars allows them to meet and mingle. "The pedestrian street is more like a pathway and it is curvilinear so it has got these beautiful sensuous curves and it has fruit trees and flowers in front of people's homes," she says and adds, "There is a sandbox area and it has a homemade trellis over it with grape vines and it is a very popular area on a warm day, not so much on a snowy day like today."
The 60 houses in the community were built close together to conserve land and they share a common exterior wall to save energy. In addition, a variety of strategies - from passive solar design to an innovative hot water system - make the homes more energy efficient. Energy consumption in EcoVillage homes is 40 percent less than a typical American household and residents want to reduce their ecological footprint even further.
That shared value is why people live here. They also come in search of a deeper sense of community. While residents own village property, manage their own households and hold jobs, everyone is also expected to take part in EcoVillage life. They serve on committees, plan community events, work on the EcoVillage farm, keep the Common House clean and --like Sara Pines-- cook shared meals.
Standing over a bubbling pot of minestrone, Ms. Pines says she gave up a big house in nearby Ithaca nine years ago and never looked back.
"When I am away and I come back, there are a hundred voices welcoming me back. Well, that never happened to me before," she says. "That is really nice and for a person who is getting older - I'm 69 - it's great to know that I unlike many of my friends will not be eating alone, will not be living my life in a very lonely, isolated, alienated way in what years I have left. That is a good secure feeling."
Linda Glaser is also in the Common House kitchen, slicing bread and making salad dressing. She discovered EcoVillage on the Internet and says she and her husband moved their family here three years ago to get away from the isolation they felt in a New Jersey suburb.
"We wanted a place where our kids could run around safely, that was committed to environmental values, that would enable us to really know our neighbors and to cooperate with them. We just wanted a place where we could be intentional about our lifestyle and really live what we cared about." Although she says it is tricky to balance her private and public lives, "Sometimes I walk a fine line in being over involved," she says. "But it is hard not to be because I care about the place and I really enjoy doing things with the people that are here," and confides, "Don't tell anybody that I said this, but I like going to meetings because I get to hang out with people that I like."
EcoVillage is not utopia. Decisions are made by consensus and not everyone is happy with the outcome. But, EcoVillage co-founder Liz Walker says, the community is taking positive steps toward building a culture that values cooperation among diverse peoples and with nature. She hopes that can be a model for other communities… and a healthier planet.