Manifesto for truly sustainable communities

Raising the standard in ecovillages

Two things caught my eye in the New Statesman over the last week. The first was the emphatic thumbs-down by Sian Berry, UK Green Party speaker, to Gordon Brown’s new ‘ecovillages’ idea – the proposed pilot projects that will inform the design of five new ‘eco-towns’. She imagined they would “end up as sought-after, trendy developments whose residents, in practice, commute miles to work, shop in supermarkets and rarely walk or use the bus”.

The second was the policy advice given by a series of progressive think tanks and individuals to our prime minister in waiting.

Since I live in an ecovillage that goes a long way towards meeting the government’s carbon-reduction targets – we have the lowest footprint of any community in the UK that has been scientifically measured at around one half of the national average – it feels worth exploring why our reality is so different from Sian’s (entirely legitimate) fears and what policy guidance might emerge from our experience.

So, here goes!

Per capita car mileage in the Findhorn ecovillage was found by our ecological footprint study to be just six per cent of the national average. This is primarily because we generate so much employment on site – in the region of 200 jobs – that very little commuting is necessary. In addition, the community runs a fleet of small buses to ferry residents and guests between the two community campuses – that are around five miles apart – and there are many informal car-sharing schemes.

Policy implications? Promote mixed-use planning zones that integrate the residential with the commercial and industrial in a convivial mix, thus reducing the need to commute and provide advice and incentives for car-pooling.

Our ‘Home and heating’ footprint is 21 per cent of the national average – partly because our four wind turbines make us net exporters of electricity and partly because of the highly energy-efficient design of many of the houses. My near neighbour, John Willoner, had a total heating bill of £48 for calendar year 2006.

Policy implications? Encourage small-scale, community-based generation of electricity. This will involve greatly simplifying the regulations, assessments and studies required for small-scale projects that are currently broadly in line with those required for creating large wind farms: our pre-planning costs were in the region of £100,000 – far in excess of the cost of the actual turbines!

A predominantly vegetarian diet based primarily on local and seasonal produce gives us a food footprint 32 per cent of the national average. Policies to promote local procurement of food for schools, hospitals and other local government facilities could do much to promote a low food-mile diet, with extra employment generated in the agricultural sector.

Finally, an important reason why our community economy is relatively strong and able to generate so much employment is that we have our own community currency - Ekos. These, necessarily, keep purchasing power local, since the notes can only be spent in businesses in the community as well as several in the neighbouring village. In this sense, they are ‘un-travellers’ cheques’!

The promotion of community currencies to run parallel to national currencies would do much to regenerate local economies, enabling people to walk or cycle to work and school. As with the wind turbines, significant simplification of the regulations is required: much our largest item of expenditure in launching the Eko was lawyers’ fees.

None of this is rocket science. It is all sufficiently simple that we have been able to manage it with a minimum of official assistance.

Now, it may be said – in fact, all too often it is – that all of this is of little relevance since ecovillages like ours are so different from how most people live. Ours, after all, is a predominantly urban society. However, this is to miss the point. We have chosen to work on a small scale in a rural context since this makes it considerably easier to develop and prove the models. Having done so, the trick is to scale them up.

This is being done nationwide with gusto and imagination. We are seeing a proliferation of CSAs (community-supported agriculture box schemes) linking up cities with neighbouring farmers, urban carpools, community currencies and even, as in Dundee for example, some city-based, community-owned wind farms.

What is lacking is a clear vision and strategy at governmental level. Weaving cities back into the fabric of their bioregions and reviving local economies is both achievable and necessary if we are to meet our carbon-reduction targets. But, there will be commercial interests to face down.

The challenge facing our prime minister in waiting is not that of identifying policies to create truly sustainable communities – these are already out there in abundance – but the political will and imagination to champion and implement them.