The LA Ecovillage

Jonathan Dawson blogs about an alternative Findhorn, in downtown Los Angeles...

I want to devote my blog this week to an extraordinary development unfolding in a poor, multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhood some 6,000 miles from here – in inner-city Los Angeles.

Why on Earth would I do that is a column called Life At Findhorn?! Well, first because we are part of a much larger global family, one of whose members, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, is engaged in quite wonderfully distinctive and inspiring work. Second, because I have just returned after spending ten days there, participating in the annual board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network.

In terms of the general flavour of LAEV, in retrospect the die can be seen to have been cast right at its inception. It was the early 1980s and the original idea of the founder, Lois Arkin, had been to create a new-build intentional community outside town.

Then the Watts riots happened and LA burned in the heat of racial conflict. Lois decided that the priority was to work within rather than without. So, she located herself in the small corner of Koreatown – today very multi-ethnic but with a strong Latino flavour – where she finds herself to this day. The intentional community of around 30 of which she is a member sees its mission in terms of helping bring back to life the entire neighbourhood in which they live.

The two large, Mediterranean-style houses in which most intentional community members live feel like nothing more than great beehives, with a continual traffic of people in and out. On my first morning in the community, a group of kids from a local community centre working on a video project were filming within the courtyard, asking us about GEN and its relevance to neighbourhoods like this.

Later, great boxes of locally-grown, organic vegetables were delivered and community members set to work dividing them into boxes to be collected by members of the food cooperative. More people coming in and out, most stopping to exchange news and chat.

Several of the evenings I was there, there were also public speakers in the community’s main lounge, with the events open to the general public.

Then, there is the traffic out. One community member is working installing PV solar panels on properties throughout the city. Another goes out regularly to man the phones for a fund-raising drive by the local, independent radio station.

Others are off to work at the Bicycle Kitchen (an initiative born in LAEV but that has now moved out into the neighbourhood due to a lack of space), a workshop in which young local people are taught how to repair bicycles.

Community members have been involved in creating mosaics that now decorate the street, planting trees, sculpting a playful and beautiful cob bench (in the shape of a dragon), installing permeable pavements that allow rain-water to run down to the water-table below, helping design a small local park along permaculture lines and, most spectacular, working with local children to create a colourful mandala in the middle of the street.

Community members seem to spend a lot of time in this mandala – community meals, meetings, workshops, discussions – while the traffic slows and gently wends its way around them. This is part of a conscious effort to ‘re-educate the traffic’, as Lois puts it. One poster within the community shows a road filled with cyclists on one of the periodic Reclaim The Streets days. The poster declares: ‘We are not blocking the traffic – We are the traffic’.

It is great, if all too rare, to see an ecovillage get stuck in in an urban context, really working in cooperation with their neighbours and helping transform and humanise an entire neighbourhood.

Now, however, the initiative is under threat – and this is where you, dear reader, may just be able to help. The LA school department is planning to locate yet another school in the neighbourhood – there are several there already. This would entail demolishing 35 affordable housing units (all to rare in the city) and even more bussing in of kids from other parts of town.

The ecovillagers are fighting it tooth and nail and have set up an online petition asking the authorities to find another site. If you feel inspired, visit and sign up.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.