How to begin – and what then?
The most important steps in building a community
By Dieter Halbach
The matter is understood and has been judged to be good, the idea takes shape and is about to be put into practice – and suddenly people are standing in each other’s way. Humanness founders on humanity (Erich Mühsam)
Unfortunately, this diagnosis from 1919 on contemporary attempts to achieve a better life is still frequently accurate. Many well-intended community initiatives fail soon after they are started. Actually, everybody wants the same thing – they just want to do it in a different way!
You are sitting together, sometimes with complete strangers, conduct endless discussions – and the common dream is lying there snoozing in the corner. You try to formulate a consensus on your common goals – and end up with non-committal generalities. You develop some concepts on how to implement your ideas and end up with formal plans devoid of any common spirit. These people are just too different…!? Time is pressing and the first enthusiasts are already heading for the exits. “When will we meet again?” (Maybe never?)
Even if it doesn’t have to end up this way, many beginning errors often come back to haunt you in the later stages of your communal life. Once you have set off with the “wrong” people or structures, you can’t change course without causing a lot of hurt feelings (and often material losses).
Luckily there is now considerable knowledge available on community development (see the hints in the following article) and the inner mechanisms of the human soul. This article has collected some experiences and suggestions on the first founding steps, but also on the dynamism of the further steps towards community development. Here are a few suggestions on how to approach the matter intelligently:
Seven first steps towards building a community
1) Clarify your own inner vision and personal motivation
The basis of your group communication must always be clarity on your own goals and competencies. You particularly need an honest analysis of your deficiencies, your hidden motives and the compensatory expectations you place on others. Sadly enough, the group’s beautiful official goals often do not match your personal expectations and self-doubts. Both have to be laid bare from the beginning.
2) Look for a small group of like-minded persons whose motivation and group chemistry are in harmony (no more than 5-12 persons)
If the group is too large it’s very difficult to arrive at a clear consensus. On the other hand, a small family or other symbiotic structures are too small to serve as a sole nucleus. What is important is the inner agreement and mutual recognition within this “core group”. The determination to act together in full awareness of thematic and personal differences is the inner task of this group.
3) Determine the essential principles in common, i.e. formulate the vision clearly but leave the individual paths and open spaces open
Using a powerful vision as a foundation, this group should proceed to develop a basic concept which formulates all essential common goals but which also allows for sufficient individual freedom. If the project’s fundamental goals and focal points are defined clearly enough, it becomes that much easier for interested persons to decide whether or not to join. This also means that there will be fewer rules, and less debate over how to implement them, as the community progresses. Rules on communication, decision-making structures and the necessary steps toward realising the project should be laid out at the beginning.
4) Look for capable core members with good people skills who want to share and realise the goals
This core or start-up group has the right to select further participants and determine the criteria for joining. It is important to develop a sense of one’s own middle – a “healthy” sense of self – in order to take on a certain executive function which doesn’t exclude others or appear arrogant (no more debates on principles).
5) Create a culture of trust through internal group work, appropriate communication methods and rituals
No concept, no structure and no vision can replace our ability to achieve authentic perception and communication. Internal peace work and personal growth are the essence of community formation. If conflict arises, it is worth seeking help from experienced people, e.g. from other communities or group therapies.
6) Get to know each other through shared work in practical projects
Life itself is our greatest teacher. No group should move in together without having experienced one another over an extended period of shared working and living (e.g. in other communities).
7) Define the starting group and create the path as you go
The expanded core group becomes the project’s sponsor when it assumes the risks of direct action and establishes legal and financial commitments (particularly in regard to joining and leaving and between the first residents and sponsors/financiers). Competencies and leadership qualities must be recognised and areas of responsibility defined. A polynomial organism – a social sculpture – emerges in which all the components demand to be seen (e.g. through admission and recognition rituals).
But for all our enthusiasm and earnestness we should never forget our sense of humour and the fact that we are all seekers on an unknown path. All the errors we make are a gift to the group as long as we are prepared to look at them without bias and with courage.
Quote by Susha Wolters (p. 57):
“Standing up for that which you love deep in your heart, for the vision of your own life, for the vision of your own self and the world as you dream it to be – with all your strength, all your intelligence, all your eroticism, all your joy, everyone for him/herself: that’s what I call a vision!” (Susha Wolters, ZEGG)
The 19 Steps: How People Typically Start an Ecovillage
Founders of intentional community-style ecovillages typically do the following things to create their ecovillage projects. Not all ecovillage founders do all these things. Some of these steps, or processes, can be simultaneous, or ongoing, or can occur in a different order. Nevertheless, I hope this list gives you a basic idea of what ecovillage founders typically do.
(1) Choose the general ecovillage location and basic financial structure.
(2) Agree on and write up the group’s shared Mission & Purpose.
(3) Choose and practice a fair, participatory method for decision-making and self-governance. (ongoing).
(4) Organize and make available to ecovillage members all meeting minutes, decisions, policies and agreements. (ongoing).
(5) Promote the group’s Mission and Purpose to others and encourage more people to join. (ongoing).
(6) Create and implement a clear, thorough membership process. (ongoing).
(7) Learn and practice good communication skills and an effective conflict-resolution process. (ongoing).
(8) Find ways to help ecovillage members stay accountable to group agreements. (ongoing)
(9) Choose site criteria for the property they will buy together; begin the land-search process; choose the property.
(10) Decide how they will own the land together.
(11) Choose a legal entity for co-owning the property.
(12) Research zoning regulations and get a zoning variance if necessary, or possible.
(13) Figure out how to finance the property purchase and development; create a land-payment fund; buy the property.
(14) Determine the internal community finances: how the land-purchase and development costs will be paid, how annual recurring costs will be paid, and what labor requirements will be.
(15) Keep track of community finances and set up a bookkeeping system.
(16) Create a Permaculture-based site plan for how the group will develop the property.
(17) Begin developing land according to the Permaculture-based site plan (ongoing).
(18) Organize a work exchange program to help develop the physical infrastructure of the ecovillage.
(19) Build dwellings and move onto the property (ongoing).
The ecovillage is not “finished” with Step 19, of course, but continues through time, as an ever-evolving learning process of creating the physical, economic, and social/cultural/spiritual infrastructure. Here are more details about each step or process:
(1) Choose the general ecovillage location and basic financial structure. The founders of an intentional community-style ecovillage must agree on whether it will be urban, semi-rural, or rural, and its general location, and whether it will be independent-income or income-sharing, or a combination of the two. This should be done first, to save the time and energy of people who might join the group because they like the people and like the purpose for a community but — might want to live somewhere else entirely than the rest of the group does. Or, who might want a completely different kind of economic system: independent-income instead of income-sharing, or the reverse.
(2) Agree on and write up the group’s shared Mission & Purpose. This is crucial, as having a shared Mission & Purpose establishes right from the start what the ecovillage will do, and why.
While a group’s “vision” is how they might like the world to be a better and different place, their “Mission & Purpose” is what activities their ecovillage will specifically be doing to help bring about the better, different world they envision.
It helps to put the ecovillage Mission & Purpose into a short statement: a paragraph, or several paragraphs.
One purpose for a Mission & Purpose statement is that, like a lens, it helps focus the ecovillage founders’ energy. It gives them a touchstone to return to when they have conflict in the decision-making process. If they can agree on what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, they can more easily work out whatever strategy — the “how” — they might use to achieve their goals.
A second purpose for a Mission & Purpose statement is to attract additional cofounders and, later, new members. Equally important, a Mission & Purpose statement
helps deter any potential cofounders or new members who have different intentions or different reasons for living in an ecovillage than the founding group. The idea is to attract people who want to do the same thing, and for the same reasons. So a Mission & Purpose statement is used when people tell others about their community. It’s written on flyers or brochures they may hand out or post in public places, or featured prominently on their website if they have one. Of course details can be added about the kind of property they’re looking for (or already have), the ecovillage members they have so far, and what they hope to accomplish — their goals.
Earthaven’s Mission & Purpose statement: “To create a village which is a living laboratory and educational seed bank for a sustainable human future.” Earthaven’s website also shows these 12 goals, based on this statement:
- To catalyze local and global change through learning, teaching, and networking.
- To shift from wasteful to regenerative use of resources.
- To use and develop ecologically sound technologies for water, waste, energy, construction, and other essential systems.
- To develop and support a thriving local economy.
- To grow, raise, and trade our own food, medicines, and forestry products in an environmentally responsible, bioregional network.
- To practice fair, participatory, and effective self-governance.
- To encourage an atmosphere in which diverse spiritual practices, conscious connection to all beings, and progressive social action can thrive.
- To nurture personal growth, interpersonal understanding, and mutual trust as the foundation for a deeply connected human community.
- To practice healthy, holistic lifestyles that balance self-care with care for others.
- To create a culture of celebration, beauty, and pleasure.
- To use capital and labor resources to provide common infrastructure and meet our collective needs.
- To promote and ensure the long-term structural integrity of the community.
Here’s the Mission and Purpose statement of Dancing Rabbit, another ecovillage in the US: “To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.”
Dancing Rabbit then defines “sustainability” on their website as, “In such a manner that, within the defined area, no resources are consumed faster than their natural replenishment, and the enclosed system can continue indefinitely without degradation of its natural resource base or the standard of living of the people and the rest of the ecosystem within it, and without contributing to the non-sustainability of ecosystems outside.
(3) Choose and practice a fair, participatory method for decision-making and self-governance. Most intentional community-style ecovillages make decisions with all full members having equal say. There usually isn’t a leader or boss or small group of rulers who decide things; rather, the group uses a decision-making method such as consensus, like Earthaven uses, or consensus backed-up by super-majority voting. (In super-majority voting, proposals are discussed and modified by the whole group just in consensus — but when it’s time to decide, they vote. A super-majority of the people present, such as 75%, 80%, 85%, etc. must say Yes to pass a proposal.) Recently some ecovillages, including Sydney Coastal Ecovillage in Australia, have begun using a method developed in The Netherlands in the 1970s called Sociocracy or Dynamic Governance. It is similar to consensus, and also includes a method of governance involving meetings of the whole group and smaller committee meetings.
Most ecovillages have a governance process involving periodic whole-group meetings to decide larger matters of policy, approve budgets, and approve new members, and have smaller committees and/or managers to carry out tasks. Committees usually focus on specific areas such as land use, repair and maintenance, clerical and administrative work, agriculture, promotions, visitors, new-member orientation, and so on.
Decision-making and self-governance are ongoing processes which continue throughout the life of the ecovillage.
(4) Organize and make accessible to ecovillage members all meeting minutes, decisions, policies and agreements. Having clear records about decisions and policies that any ecovillage member can look up anytime — in 3-ring binders or online — helps support the governance and decision-making of the ecovillage, and helps the ecovillage function smoothly. Without records that anyone can look up anytime, there can be conflict as some ecovillage members have access to important information but others do not.
Another kind of conflict can occur if agreements and decisions are not written down, or they are written down but can’t be found. When this happens different people are forced to use their memories to remember various ecovillage decisions and agreements, and people often tend to remember the same thing quite differently, causing significant conflict. It would be so much easier to simply look it up!
Keeping decisions and policies organized and accessible to everyone is also an ongoing function of ecovillage life.
(5) Promote the group’s Mission and Purpose to others and encourage more people to join. This often involves creating flyers, posters, or brochures, and/or a website that describe the ecovillage Mission & Purpose, goals, values, and lifestyle: in order to let neighbors, journalists, and others know what the group is doing — and to attract additional members. Sometimes ecovillage websites also include information about the group’s financial obligations, decision-making method, membership policy, and how people can visit. Promoting the ecovillage to others is an ongoing activity.
(6) Create and implement a clear, thorough membership process. Founders of intentional community-style ecovillages must choose new members who thoroughly understand and support their Mission & Purpose — the new members want to do what the ecovillage intends to do, and for the same reasons (the same “what” and the same “why”).
A membership process should be clear — meaning easily understood and available to interested potential members. And it should be thorough — meaning it has criteria for membership, a period of time in which new people live in the ecovillage as prospective members (often 6 to 18 months), and a helpful orientation process so they will understand the ecovillage values, lifestyle, activities, culture, financial or labor obligations, and decision-making method. New people should be willing and able to abide by the ecovillage agreements, willing to be trained in its decision-making method, and generally liked by most people in the group. Unless the ecovillage is formed specifically to care for people with problems, is best that they don’t choose new members with addictions, a history of financial irresponsibility, a criminal record, emotional disturbances which could too-often negatively affect the group, or mental illness. In other words, the membership process ideally is designed to attract healthy people who will wholeheartedly join in the work of the ecovillage.
If it is an independent-income ecovillage with a joining fee or membership fee, annual dues and fees, and/or labor contribution requirements for able-bodied adults, the incoming member, family, or household must be able to afford the required fees and do the required work.
And if it’s an income-sharing ecovillage, the able-bodied adults in the family or household must be able to do the required work.
A clear, thorough membership process is an ongoing feature of ecovillage life.
(7) Learn and practice good communication skills and an effective
conflict-resolution process. Sometimes ecovillages experience conflict between individual members; other times it involves two or more factions within the group who advocate very different strategies for achieving the same ecovillage goal. Other times it can involve two ecovillage values in conflict with one another, such as ecological sustainability vs. affordability. For example, some ecovillage members might want the group to buy a larger photovoltaic system or create a constructed wetlands — and others may not want to spend the money for these projects so that the community can continue to offer a lower joining fee for new people.
Conflict can be reduced when ecovillage members learn and consistently practice effective ways to talk to each other in kindly, open-hearted, transparent ways — which is often called having “good communication skills.” One communication technique which many ecovillages use is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication process. It’s a way to address conflict by using neutral language, focusing on people’s feelings and the underlying basic human needs that give rise to those feelings, and making specific requests for talking about the issue or for changes in people’s behavior.
It also helps reduce conflict to have an agreed-upon conflict resolution method in place. Ecovillages use many different kinds of conflict-resolution methods, however, usually the people involved in a conflict meet with someone who takes the role of kindly, neutral mediator. Assisted by the mediator, the people involved in the dispute parties tell each other what they appreciate about each other, and what they may have recently done that they didn’t enjoy, and request a change in that behavior. Another method, which comes from Native American tradition and which is widely used in North America and Europe, is for everyone to sit on a circle. One person at a time picks up “the talking stick” — an object the group has agreed upon ahead of time (a beautiful rock, a decorated stick, or some other small attractive object that is used by the group for this purpose) — and says what they’re feeling and how they see the situation. The idea is for each person to speak until they’re finished, with no interruptions, and then pass the object to the next person in the circle who wishes to speak. This discussion continues until everyone has had a chance to speak, and then they may go around the circle a second or third time, until everyone has been heard.
Practicing good communication skills, and using effective conflict resolution methods are also ongoing activities in ecovillages.
(8) Find ways to help ecovillage members stay accountable to group agreements. Helping people stay accountable to their agreements helps reduce and prevent conflict. This can occur when an ecovillage member doesn’t pay the money or work the amount of labor hours everyone owes to the ecovillage, or doesn’t complete the task others are counting on them to complete, or violates other ecovillage agreements. Mainstream culture often deals with this kind of infraction by fines and jail terms, but ecovillagers typically use more friendly and inclusive methods to remind the person of their responsibilities and induce them to comply with ecovillage agreements.
One method involves having people agree ahead of time to remind each other about tasks they’ve agreed to take on.
Another method involves publicly displaying the record of people’s payments or labor hours contributed to the ecovillage, so everyone can see who is caught up in payments and labor hours and who is not. This kind of subtle peer pressure tends to induce people to do what they should, as it plays on the common desire to have a good reputation with one’s peers.
Another method, “a graduated series of consequences,” is sometimes used when it’s not just a one-time thing, but someone who chronically violates agreements — not paying ecovillage dues, not contributing their required labor hours, or not keeping other ecovillage agreements. The graduated series of consequences usually involves four or five steps that the group agrees on ahead of time as a policy to request that the person once again complies with group agreements. The first step may be something as gentle as one person going to talk with the person who’s violating the agreements (for example, to ask them if everything is all right, has something happened that others don’t know about, do they need help or assistance, and what would they need in order to pay the fees, or contribute the labor, or otherwise comply with agreements). If that doesn’t work, the next steps could involve increasingly “public” (within the ecovillage) requests for the person to comply, including a small group going to see the person. If that doesn’t work, a whole-group meeting may be called to talk about the problem. The last step — the last resort — could be asking the person to leave the ecovillage for a period of time (or to leave permanently). Fortunately, when an ecovillage uses the “graduated series of consequences” method, usually the person complies after the first or second step.
Helping people stay accountable to group agreements can also be an ongoing activity, depending on the group and how it functions.
(9) Choose site criteria for the property they will buy together; conduct the land-search process; choose the property. After the founders of an intentional community-style ecovillage have decided the general area where they’d like to live (Step 1, above), they need to make a list of the characteristics of their ideal property. Earthaven’s founders made a list that included many streams and springs, and location in a county free from onerous zoning regulations — and that’s exactly what they bought.
The land-search process can take several years. For example, Earthaven’s founders spent four years looking at various properties in Western North Carolina before buying their property in 1994. The founders of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage traveled across the country looking for counties with no zoning regulations or limited regulation, and that’s what they found, in a county in the northeastern part of the state of Missouri.
Of course the founders of some ecovillage projects don’t buy property at all, and so this step and all other steps relating to property purchase don’t apply. Some ecovillage founders are given property for free. The founders of Kitezh Children’s Village in Russia were given former communal farmland by the Russian government after the collapse of the
communal farming movement in the former USSR. And while the founders of Konohana Family in Japan purchased several large shared houses in the rural farming area of Fujinomiya, most of their small non-adjacent farming plots are being loaned to them at no charge by their owners, elderly people who can no longer farm.
(10) Decide how they will own the land together. Members of intentional community-style ecovillages can own their shared property in several ways.
They can all own all of the property and grant leases or siteholding agreements to individual members, families, and households for smaller individual homesites or “building footprints.” Earthaven owns its property this way.
They can all own some of the property and subdivide the rest of it into individual land parcels or lots, or housing units on individual building footprints, which they sell, with a deed, to individuals, families, or households who join the ecovillage. Crystal Waters in Australia and EcoVillage at Ithaca in the US own their properties this way.
The founders can create a land trust with nonprofit ownership, so that the land trust owns the property. The ecovillage members help give direction to the land trust by serving on its board of directors, and live on the property, but they don’t own it. Findhorn in Scotland, Dancing Rabbit in the US, and Tamera in Portugal have done this.
One person, or a group of people, can own the property and lease homesites or building footprints to individual members, families, or households who join. Port Townsend Ecovillage in the US does it this way.
One person or several individuals can own the property, or several adjacent or nearby properties. And while the properties are legally owned by various individuals, all the property is considered everyone’s shared property. Konohana Family in Japan functions this way.
Everyone can rent or lease apartments in an urban neighborhood, and designate one of the apartments as the meeting room or common space. Los Angeles Eco-Village in the US operates like this.
(11) Choose a legal entity for co-owning the property. When a group of people buy land together, they have better liability protection for their individual assets if they buy it through a legal entity they’ve established, rather than just buying the property as a group of individuals with many names on the deed. Also, they need a legal entity or entities that supports the form of ownership they’ve chosen (as in Step 10, above). Some ecovillages own their shared ecovillage property through a corporation, a nonprofit corporation, or a co-op form of ownership, depending upon which legal entities are recognized by the Court system in their country. Some ecovillages have a second, nonprofit legal entity for operating their educational program.
(12) Research zoning regulations and get a zoning variance if necessary, or possible. Many cities, towns, or counties (also called districts or regions) have zoning regulations. These regulations dictate “population density” (how many people can live on X
number of hectares or acres), how far buildings must be from property lines, and other aspects of inhabiting property in that county, city, town, etc.
In rural areas of some Western states in the US, for example, no more than one house can be built on 35 acres; in rural areas of some Northeastern states in the US, no more than one house can built for every 100 feet of road frontage. Yet clustering houses close together is important in ecological site planning. And many people sharing land ownership helps make the property purchase and development more affordable. While not all counties and municipalities have zoning regulations, and not all zoning regulations dictate such low population density, counties and municipalities that do have these regulations work against the values and goals of ecovillage founders and make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to start an ecovillage.
So for counties or municipalities with restrictive zoning like this, ecovillage founders must request a zoning variance — a waiver from the regulations. Ideally this is done before they buy the property. It requires filling out forms to request a zoning variance for the specific property they hope to buy, paying any required processing fees, giving the zoning board a site map and any other documents that show the group’s intentions for the property, and attending one or more public hearings where people living in neighboring properties say what they think about the requested variance. The zoning board may grant a variance. They may grant one with certain stipulations (for example, that the ecovillage founders must create a public trail or park on their property). Or they may say No to the request. So seeking a zoning variance is not a sure thing. For this reason, two ecovillages in the US, Dancing Rabbit and Earthaven, bought property in rural counties that didn’t have zoning regulations.
(13) Figure out how to finance the property purchase and development; create a land-payment fund; buy the property. Sometimes founders of an intentional
community-style ecovillage may pay the full purchase price of their property in one lump sum. However, usually ecovillage founders pay a down payment of 20 percent or more, and pay the rest in monthly or quarterly payments, with interest, to owner-financers, or to friends who’ve loaned them money for the property purchase, or, more rarely, to a bank. Ecovillage founders need to raise money from whatever source: their own savings, their savings plus loans from family or friends, a loan from one of their own group members, or from a bank.
Ecovillage founders need to raise money for three kinds of funds: (1) the amount of down payment for the property, (2) a fund for making land payments, and (3) a land-development fund.
The land-payment fund is like a “cushion” or “insurance” fund: they use it to make land payments if they should ever not have enough money from their planned source of annual income, which might be joining fees and site lease fees of incoming members, or income from one or more ecovillage-owned businesses.
The land-development fund is used for the initial development of the property: building roads, bridges, the group’s community building or meeting hall, etc.
(14) Determine the internal community finances: how the land-purchase and development costs will be paid, how annual recurring costs will be paid, and what labor requirements will be.
Founders of intentional community-style ecovillages need to know the amount of money and labor that will flow into and out of their project, both annually and over the years. This includes the total amount of their one-time expenses over the years, and how
they will pay these one-time expenses. It includes the amount of their annual recurring expenses, and how they will pay them.
One-time expenses include land payments (even though they are multiple payments, they are paying off the one-time property purchase), and land development costs (roads, buildings, etc.).
In ecovillages using the independent-income model, land payments and property development costs are usually paid with one-time income from joining fees, site lease fees, and/or lot-purchase fees from incoming members. Ecovillages using the income-sharing model normally pay these one-time expenses from their common treasury, which typically comes from profits of community-owned businesses.
* Recurring annual expenses include repair and maintenance of buildings and land, property taxes, property insurance (liability insurance, fire insurance, etc.), and the cost of utilities if the group purchases any power, water, sewage services, telephone, etc. from local companies or the local town or city.
Ecovillages using the independent-income model generally get funds for these recurring expenses from ecovillage members paying annual dues and fees; like a kind of internal “tax” the ecovillage creates for itself. Ecovillages using the income-sharing model usually pay recurring expenses from their common treasury — which again, typically comes from profits of community-owned businesses.
* Labor contributions. Often ecovillages — both independent income and income-sharing — require their members to contribute a certain amount of labor per month, per year, or sometimes a total amount of labor hours over a certain number of years.
* Determining joining fees, etc. Most ecovillage founders try to spread the cost of property purchase and development fairly among all members. So first they decide their total number of adult members (or member-households or member families). This is determined by the amount of property the ecovillage founders acquire, the ecological carrying capacity of the land, any local zoning regulations they may be subject to, and how many people the founders would ideally like to have, given these limitations. This total number of members is divided into the anticipated total cost for property purchase and development, and the result helps determine the joining fee, or site lease fee, and/or cost of buying a lot with a deed. The goal here is fairness and consistency.
However, to be truly fair, and to honor the founders and earlier members — who do the most work and take the most risk — many ecovillages create a staggered series of
joining fees, site lease fees, and/or lot-purchase fees that gradually increase over the years. This way founders pay the least share of the whole, early members pay slightly more, and so on over the years — so those who join the ecovillage much later pay more than the ecovillage members who joined earlier.
Arranging joining fees, etc. so that they gradually increase over the years recognizes the fact that each year the ecovillage is slightly more developed, thus more valuable, than it was the year before, both in terms of physical infrastructure (more roads, bridges, buildings, etc), and a more developed social/culture infrastructure.
It also honors the courage of the founders, who pay the least, since they purchased property and began the development process (and often, borrowed money to do it), with no guarantee that the ecovillage project would succeed. But people who join a few years later are taking less of a risk — as they’re joining something much more physically visible and substantial.
(15) Keep track of community finances and set up a bookkeeping system.
Once all this has been determined, the ecovillage needs an effective bookkeeping system to keep track of one-time expenses and income, as well as recurring expenses and income. Additionally, it needs an effective system for keeping track of people’s labor contributions. This bookkeeping is an ongoing process.
(16) Create a Permaculture-based site plan for how the group will develop the property. This means using Permaculture design principles, or hiring an outside Permaculture designer (perhaps with money from the development fund) to (1) determine how the land will be used, and (2) create a site plan (map) of the property that shows this development.
Permaculture, a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” is a design system for productive homesteads and farms based on the way nature actually functions rather than designing by going against nature, like most developers do. Permaculture was developed in the mid-1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Now, some 35 years later, it has significantly influenced the environmental movement worldwide, including ecovillages.
Permaculture can be described as, “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people, providing
their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” —British Permaculture designer Graham Bell
Some specifics: “Within a Permaculture designed system (1) wastes become resources, (2) productivity and yields increase, (3) work is minimized, and (4) the Some specifics: “Within a Permaculture designed system (1) wastes become resources, (2) productivity and yields increase, (3) work is minimized, and (4) the environment is restored.” —Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison
Permaculture design isn’t just some activities one does, however. It’s actually a basic philosophy of respect. American permaculture designer Bill Wilson calls it “a creative and artful way of living where people and nature are all preserved and enhanced by thoughtful planning, the careful use of resources, and a respectful approach to life.”
Bill Wilson also calls it “a design system whereby we find ways of living to allow for permanent cultures to exist, where all humans can live abundantly and well while leaving the planet in better condition than . . . we found it.”
So, for raw land, ecovillage founders use permaculture principles to determine where on the property to locate roads, paths, and, if needed, bridges and footbridges; ponds or waterways (if new ones will be dug); woodlands for harvesting firewood or lumber; protected woodlands, wetlands, riparian zones, and/or wildlife trails; homesites; community building or buildings; areas for small businesses or light industry; agricultural areas such as gardens, pasture, orchards, farmland; sacred or ceremonial spaces; and other areas designated for specific uses.
If the ecovillage founders buy already developed or partially developed land, they can still use permaculture design principles to create a site plan to determine all of the above features that may be relevant, as well as any changes to existing structures, roads, sheds, ponds, fields, etc.
(17) Begin developing the property according to the permaculture-based site plan. If the founders bought raw land, this means constructing roads, paths, and buildings. If they purchased already-developed land, it may mean adding new roads, paths, buildings, etc. as well as making any necessary repairs to (or remodeling) existing buildings. The property development process can take many years, as ecovillage members earn the money and find the time and labor to build the physical infrastructure of the ecovillage. Often one of the first things ecovillage founders build on their property is facilities to house work exchangers.
(18) Organize a work exchange program to help develop physical infrastructure. Most ecovillages have a work trade or work exchange program, where young people or skilled older people live onsite, often camping in tents, for a few weeks or a few months in order to exchange labor for food and shelter and experience of ecovillage life.
Work exchangers often help with construction, since there is typically so much to build or remodel when the project is new. But work exchangers can also be cooks (cooking for the work exchange crew, or for the whole ecovillage), artists who create beauty and art for the ecovillage, or people with clerical or bookkeeping skills who help support the administrative aspects of the ecovillage. Typically ecovillage founders provide campsites, tent platforms, or small dormitory rooms, composting toilets, outdoor kitchens, and/or outdoor shower facilities for their work exchangers.
Often work exchange programs continue for years, if not continuously, because ecovillages can always use extra help, and many young people, as well as others, would like the opportunity to experience ecovillage life first-hand.
(19) Build dwellings and move onto the property. Part of the development process, of course, is building homes for members. Sometimes the members themselves build their own homes; sometimes they hire other ecovillagers with construction skills to build them; sometimes the ecovillage itself hires a professional building crew to build everyone’s homes. The homes can be small single-family dwellings, duplexes, two-and three-story multi-family residences, or large shared group households. Work exchangers often help with building construction. Sometimes ecovillage founders move onto the property and live in tents or other temporary shelters until their homes are built. The home-building process can continue for years, as the membership expands.
Although these are the typical steps or processes intentional community-style ecovillages use to get started, the process of creating a sustainable human settlement is ongoing and continuous, so it never really ends.
This is a handout from Diana Leafe Christian’s workshop on starting successful new ecovillages and intentional communities. She is editor/publisher of Ecovillages online newsletter (EcovillageNews.org) and author of Creating a Life together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community (New Society Publishers, 2003 and 2007, respectively).
The “19 Steps” was originally published as a chapter in Bioregionalism and Ecovillages: Green Economic Corridor and Intentional Community in Vietnam, Toshio Ogata, Editor (Hilltop Press, Tokyo, 2011).
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• DianaLeafeChristian.org • EcovillageNews.org •Diana@ic.org • 828-669-9702