An Eco-Friendly Town of the Future

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As you can see, our town is going to be a very nice home for ecologically focused, community loving people once it's built, that is.

If you’ve been thinking that THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS is fighting a solo battle when it comes to establishing an environmentally sound, no cars, self sufficient eco-community you’ve got another think coming. Several other such projects are already underway at various spots around the country … and, here’s a report from one of them.

It’s interesting (at least to us) that Cindy Cutting’s gang is running smack into the same exact problems; that MOTHER’s home people have been grappling with: initial financing, local ordinances, the establishment of a workable government for the settlement, etc. Little wonder that Cindy has come up with the same conclusion that we have: once the “right” core of families has been assembled and the red tape is cut, the actual construction of the village should be easy!

Let’s see now … just what can I say about life in a new town that isn’t even built yet? Never mind that there are already 50 full fledged residents and unnumbered residents to be. The fact remains, we’re living in a dream.

The goal? A little town of just over 2,000 people on the slopes of the north shore of Lake Dorena, near Cottage Grove, Oregon. Not your average sort of place, though … a planned, ecologically sound community. The projected number of residents is based on the amount of water available on the site, for example. And the land has been studied down to the last gopher hole, so we know just where a building should or shouldn’t go, and where the garden will have the best chance and where to put the holding ponds for otherwise runoff water.

One thing we aren’t too worried about is where to locate the streets, because there won’t be many. Our aim is to become a car-free society. We’re investigating alternative forms of transportation … and getting in shape for walking, just in case that takes longer than we thought.

We’re hoping to make it easy to go without an auto by building in clusters so one place isn’t too far from another. There’ll be a village center, of course, with shops and industry (small, non polluting) close at hand so that no one has to commute to his or her job. Education, too, will be an integral part of the community. Already, with nary a desk to put an apple on, a preschool, kindergarten and elementary project is underway.

As you can see, our town is going to be a very nice home for ecologically focused, community loving people …once it’s built, that is. So why are we here in Cottage Grove, with that 1,200 acres just sitting out there virtually untouched? Well, aside from the tricky little issue of financing — which is the old chicken-and-egg problem of people needing jobs but businesses not being too keen on moving to a non existent location, and capital being hard to come by for similar reasons the primary problem, to my mind, is the trouble we’re having getting permission to do almost anything at all.

I, for one, had blithely assumed that a town like this would make any existing area proud to have it for a neighbor. It never occurred to me that the residents around Lake Dorena would think otherwise. Well, now we know better, because we’re making the rounds of the planning commissions trying to get the approvals … we need and it’s definitely an uphill battle.

I have to admit that the opposition has some good points. The 2,000 additional people we’ll bring to the area no matter how neat and tidy and unobtrusive they intend to be are going to make their presence felt (although the way the project is set up, it will be a good 15 years before the town is full. That’s another issue: Can we build a community and yet maintain a population limit?) The local residents think we’re going to take jobs that they desperately need, and in a few cases they may be right. And they don’t want us to crowd their schools … but we don’t intend to use the public system any longer than we have to, so I think we’re OK there.

Then there’s the problem of waste disposal, which wouldn’t be a problem at all if it weren’t for the fact that you can’t just go in and build a privately owned sewage plant. You have to get approval from the relevant governmental unit, and since we want to construct a methane digester, you can imagine what we’re up against … even though we intend to install a conventional system as a safeguard.

If we incorporate as a municipality, we can become the official body we need to OK our plans … but unless we can get enough people — over 150 — living on the property (without a sewer, mind you, and septic tank permits coming few and far between), we are somehow going to have to get the county to believe that we’ll maintain the system at our own cost. So far, they think this is a lovely idea but wonder who on earth would really do it. Understandably, the general attitude is, “I think it’s a fantastic undertaking — but although I respect your intent — I don’t see how you can actually follow through with it.” In short, the authorities don’t believe that there are this many folks willing to put their money where their mouths are.

Well, believable or not, here we are … chafing at the bit, with hammers poised, so to speak, and all that energy just itching to be used. So, since physical building is impossible, we’re building our community of people instead.

There’s a house here in Cottage Grove that has become a veritable hive of activity: our office, wherein the different elements that make up this endeavor dream up new ways to reach people and new reasons for reaching them. Then there are the ever-present interpersonal situations, and we have regular meetings — and then some — in an attempt to meet the myriad needs of a truly strange bunch folks who have quit jobs and sold homes and packed up the kids and come here because they really think it might all happen.

Just how do you handle a group like that, when each has his or her own idea of what this town should be … and a lot of those ideas clash with one another? With kid gloves, that’s how. The toil of actually raising buildings will be nothing compared to the blood we sweat when our dream is threatened by a potential neighbor.

One of our hang-ups is that the existing national society has geared us up for acquisition, and that means knowledge as well as material objects. I find that most of my time now is spent unloading … getting rid of things I don’t need and ideas that are no longer relevant. Let me tell you, it’s painful to give up old, worn-out but treasured belongings, both mental and physical.

In short, utopia wasn’t born in a day. We’re striving toward balance because we’re aware that no town is one-dimensional … and this town least of all. It takes an entirely new psychology to deal with the situations that arise at such times. When we look back on the present we’ll probably find that we’ve contributed a significant amount of insight to the field of interpersonal dynamics in relation to community planning.

Add to this the fact that besides our organization here in Cottage Grove, there are somewhat similar area groups all up and down the West Coast (plus some as you go east) — and each group is having its own sessions, sorting out problems, offering its input to the planning process — and the result is the most phenomenal interaction. We put out a monthly newsletter to facilitate our coming together. Even though the bulletin sometimes makes for anything but unity, it has become an eagerly anticipated means of finding out where we all are.

In case you’re wondering, all this talk does have a specific purpose: Our discussions are the forerunners of the town meetings that will be a part of our community’s management process. Also, the activities of the area groups help potential residents get a feel for the project without having to make the big move first. We’re attracting some people who will eventually locate here, and we’re helping many others get a sense of what they really want to do with their lives. I’m referring to all those who have passed through our local organizations — and learned a lot and given a lot — and then moved on to other ventures. However you took at it, the process is working.

I myself got into all this after I first started reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS, and for a person who was longing for the simple life, my present situation isn’t exactly the realization of a goal. Still, I’m hoping that down the time track — after the patterns are broken and we have indeed managed to get this little country town built — a gentle lifestyle will be one of its better features.

The point is, it’s one thing for a family or two to go back to the land and quite another for a large group to do so … especially when the tract isn’t, for the most part, really suitable for cultivation. We could buy a big piece of farm acreage, but that wouldn’t be easy. Around here such property is going for suburban development prices, about $1,000 per acre at present. Besides, we don’t have a real farmer among us at this point.

Although the complexity of our situation is mind-boggling, I feel that it really has to work somehow. Our size and lack of agricultural land are forcing us into a relationship with the surrounding community, and I think that’s a very healthy tendency. We aren’t cutting off from life, or running away from the problems of society … I guess we’re just spreading them a little thinner. One of our continuing discussions centers on the issue of self sufficiency versus cooperation with the neighboring area. The reality will probably balance out into some of each as time goes by.

At present we’re officially known as the Cerro Gordo Community Association but are generally referred to as the Cerro Gordo Project (Cerro Gordo being the name of the ranch we hope to build on). On a really down day we call our plan Ventura Gorda, which means, more or less, Fat Chance. It ain’t easy, folks!

Still, all you have to do is look at the 50 earnest faces around here, or read the newspaper and consider the state of the environment, and you know deep down that this project — or one very like it — had better work out somehow. Then again, you can drive right out to the property and take a good look. Things being as they are, something is going to be built there before long. Given the fearful alternatives (how about a subdivision, gang?) I surely do hope that the “something” isn’t too far from what we have in mind.

Well, if any of you out in MOTHER EARTH NEWS land have been wanting to move to a small town but haven’t wanted to do it all alone, you know who to contact. Who can tell, maybe someday we’ll be neighbors!.

Note:The Town Forum –the non-profit educational and scientific organization that developed the concept for the town described in this article — publishes reports on the progress of Cerro Gordo and other planned communities. Included in the first series are a Town Prospectus (a presentation of the basic concepts and ideas), a brochure called The Cerro Gordo Experiment which details the ecological land planning process applied on the town site, and two additional publications.