Design for Life: Bringing Life to the City

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Members of the Los Angeles Eco-Village gather regularly for potluck meals in the street.
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If you live in town and think that you need to move to the country to live naturally, it’s time to think again. No place needs your love of life as much as cities and suburbs do, and you can create a rich, increasingly sustainable life right where you are by joining with your neighbors to multiply your positive impact.

My greatest inspiration for revitalized urban living comes from the Los Angeles Eco-Village. The name itself usually evokes surprise: How can there be an eco-village in one of the most consumptive, car-based, sprawling, polluted cities in this country? And the Eco-Villagers respond: Where is healing more needed?

In the belly of the beast

I’m intrigued by what L.A. Eco-Village is not. It’s not a group of exclusively white, upwardly mobile people master-planning a community on pristine land and leaving the city behind. L.A. Eco-Village is growing in the midst of the worst problems of city living, and its organizers are taking one step at a time, responding to local needs and monitoring their progress, drawing in people from diverse backgrounds, and continually reassessing their priorities.

L.A. Eco-Village was born of an earlier endeavor: a group of like-minded people planning a new eco-village in Southern California. But after the L.A. riots of 1992, the group re-examined their priorities. One of the members, Lois Arkin, had lived for fourteen years in an inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood of apartment buildings, surrounded by neighbors from fifteen ethnic groups, many of whom feared each other; the children didn’t even play together. The eco-village planning group decided to refocus their efforts there.

When I visited L.A. Eco-Village in 1994, Esfandiar Abbassi, one of the Eco-Villagers, told me how it began: “It literally started with people talking to each other: ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so, I’ve seen you on the streets, what’s your name?’ Some of us were interested in gardening, so we started planting things, and gradually the neighbors said, ‘Can we help out, too?’ When the first garden was put in, we had Saturday potluck brunches there–and watched the biology of the neighborhood change as butterflies and bees and birds started coming in.”

Before long, children of different races began playing together, adults became politically involved, and ecological living was spreading. “The ideal is to have a small working group of people,” explains Arkin, “with a lot of knowledge about the various systems of sustainability: housing, water, gardening, trees; the economic, social and physical systems; and a sense of the integration of these systems. As these people function in the neighborhood, they are constantly sharing and exchanging information with neighbors, demonstrating a different way of living in our city.”

L.A. Eco-Villagers have planted a dozen organic gardens and more than 100 fruit trees in their two-block neighborhood; developed a community revolving loan fund that made it possible to purchase and eco-rehab two apartment buildings (which will be converted to co-ops); composted sixty cubic yards of green neighborhood waste; diverted twenty tons of brick from the landfill (from the 1994 earthquake) for Eco-Village beautification projects; and held weekly community potlucks to build a sense of community.

Future projects include developing eight live/work spaces; purchasing more buildings; bio-remediating several brownfields; creating a demonstration “slow street” (already funded by the city), where landscaping and pedestrians have priority and cars move slowly; installing a graywater system and a demonstration neighborhood “living machine” for sewage treatment; demonstrating innovative solar heating and cooling systems; starting local green businesses; organizing organic food buying and car co-ops; creating a training program for urban eco-villages; and establishing a local currency system.

Fewer fences, better neighbors

Ecological community grows differently in different places. If you live on a street of single-family houses, you may draw ­inspiration from N Street Cohousing in Davis, California. This project also grew gradually, beginning in 1986 when two neighboring families with a shared interest in permaculture took down the fences between their yards. As homes on the block came up for sale, the original families found like-minded buyers to move in. Their community now includes sixteen homes with one huge backyard enhanced by play areas, outdoor dining patios, organic gardens, laundry lines, compost bins, and a chicken pen. One house was transformed into a “common house” with a large kitchen, group dining room, office, and upstairs rooms for rent. Some homes were retrofitted with solar collectors.

Another inspiring project is OnGoing Cohousing in Portland, Oregon. It includes seven existing homes whose inhabitants share meals, work parties, and celebrations. Together, they are rehabbing their houses (upgrading ­in­sulation, adding double-pane windows, recycling building mate­rials, adding solar water heat and low-flow toilets), sharing amenities (tools, electric mulch­ing lawnmower, pick-up truck), grow­ing gardens and orchards, capturing rainwater, and recycling graywater to irrigate the gardens. A food-buying club has now turned into an organic cooperative storefront.

You’re already in paradise

If, like me, you’re timid about “con­verting” neighbors, take heart; you can begin with the smallest, simplest gestures. Last year, I planted a strip of earth ­adja­cent to the downtown triplex where I live. My neighbors began asking questions, and I casually shared information about mulching, organic methods, native plants, and small-space vegetable gard­ening. One neighbor donated a ­birdbath, and another suggested that we begin composting as a group. Slowly a sense of eco-community is growing among people with diverse political leanings.

When you stay put and gradually transform your neighborhood’s vitality, you can improve existing buildings (less wasteful than new eco-building); avoid invading rural land; educate neighbors who aren’t already part of “the choir;” grow healthy food that doesn’t need to be trucked in; help cool the urban heat island; recharge the water table; bring birds, bees, and butterflies back to barren areas; reduce car use; and lower crime while increasing a sense of belonging by increasing community.

In short, you can make life a lot more enjoyable and sustainable without leaving home–and you can do it one step at a time, growing naturally.

CAROL VENOLIA is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988).

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