wanted to learn something very different and new, and in some small
way challenge the trend of anthropologists going abroad to study
exotic communities." -- Tendai chitewere, a PhD
candidate at Binghamton University who is writing her dissertation
our society often feel isolated from their neighbors and communities,
and overwhelmed by the hectic pace inherent in the demands of every-
day life. Small wonder: 58 percent of mothers work outside the home,
16.4 percent of U.S. households are made up of single-parent families
and 26 percent of Americans live alone.* People move frequently,
and housing costs are high. There's little time to develop the relationships
that foster a strong sense of community, and the support systems
that used to be filled by extended families and relationships developed
over years spent in the same community (sometimes generations) are
obsolete for many Americans.
Proponents of cohousing, which began in Denmark in the late 1960s,
have decided it's time to leave behind what they view as the anachronism
of single-family dwellings and look to creating a renewed sense
of community and new patterns of living. Across the country and
around the world, thousands of households have joined or are joining
forces to build cohousing communities that are designed to encourage
and promote interaction between neighbors, neighborhoods that aim
to offer a balance between community and shared responsibility on
one hand, and privacy and autonomy on the other.
EcoVillage at Ithaca is one of those communities.
Creating a socially
and ecologically sustainable village In addition to living
in a manner that is "socially sustainable," as cohousers
often term their approach to creating a community, EcoVillage at
Ithaca is also committed to ecological sustainability. To that end,
the first residential neighborhood, known as FRoG, was designed
for maximum energy efficiency. Each home has south-facing, triple-paned
window walls; other walls are super-insulated with 6¢¢ of cellulose.
In addition to ample natural lighting, interior lighting is compact
fluorescent. Heating is provided via a shared hot-water system,
with one gas boiler per cluster of eight homes.
Residents also conserve energy and resources by forfeiting laundry
facilities in their own homes and sharing them in the common house
instead. Most opt for small convection ovens and go to the common
house when they need to use a larger oven. And energy savings are
an extra benefit to the warm conviviality community members enjoy
when they share meals in the common house, an option that is available
three nights per week.
EcoVillage at Ithaca is unique among cohousing communities in its
commitment to build and maintain not just one neighborhood but several
-- enough to create a village. In fact, with the completion in 2003
of the first homes in the second neighborhood group, SoNG, EcoVillage
became the first cohousing community to consist of more than one
neighborhood, said Tendai Chitewere, a PhD candidate in anthropology
at Binghamton University who is writing her dissertation on EcoVillage.
SoNG represents a big step in the community's goal of creating a
whole village consisting of three or four neighborhoods with a population
of up to 500 people on the 176-acre site. Long-term plans for the
village include more office and studio space (FRoG's common house
offers office space available for purchase) and a store in the village
vs. the ideal: An anthropological perspective To those
for whom the word "anthropology" evokes an image of Margaret
Mead in Samoa, the idea of a woman from Zimbabwe researching a community
of mostly white, upper-middle-class Americans may seem, well --
extraordinary. That was the reaction of several EcoVillage residents
when they met Chitewere and learned that she intended to write her
dissertation about how EcoVillage functions as a community, and
how effective it is in reaching its goals.
"I wanted to learn something very different, new, and in some
small way challenge the trend of anthropologists going abroad to
study exotic communities," said Chitewere. "The upper-middle-class
white community doesn't get a lot of attention."
According to Anthropology Professor Carmen Ferradas, who is Chitewere's
committee chair, a lot of anthropologists today do work in both
urban and rural areas of their own countries, and not only in remote
areas of the world. "There were studies like this even in the
1930s," she said.
In her research, Chitewere aimed to explore why middle-class Americans
are trying to create villages in 21st-century America, and why communities
like EcoVillage focus on environmentalism. "My particular questions
as an anthropologist centered on American environmentalism, consumption
and class," she said. "How does this facility foster environmental
change, make people conscious of environmental problems? How does
living at EcoVillage make people feel about each other? Why did
some people move out? What are the environmental, social and financial
costs associated with this community? Through my research, I hope
to shed a light on one group's efforts.
Chitewere lived at EcoVillage full time for 15 months, and part
time for an additional seven months, in order to do her research.
"I immediately became a member of the community," she
said. "I attended meetings, yoga classes and common house meals,
and worked on a cook team. I got to know people through daily interaction
and interviewed 95 percent of the residents. I also interviewed
a lot of people who left, and those who were part of the early planning
process but didn't ever move in. Residents spent a lot of time with
me and were very gracious about answering my questions." In
return, Chitewere volunteered as much as she could -- washing dishes,
archiving records, babysitting, painting houses and helping to move
"Tendai spent a long time in the community -- the type of
work not all anthropologists do now," said Ferradas. "She
followed well-engineered fieldwork methods. Her topic is fascinating:
trying to understand how people from various parts of the United
States come together to form a community, and how a community can
deal with environmental concerns."
At the outset, Chitewere had to make it explicit that, although
she was a temporary member of the community, she could not become
engaged in conflicts or disagreements. "That's not always easy,"
said Ferradas. "If you don't keep [your objectivity] . . .
if you take sides, you can jeopardize your own research. The goal
is to get a more balanced view of what's going on in ways that those
completely involved can't. It's hard when you're a member to get
the distance needed to observe what is happening. You miss a lot
challenges Overwhelmingly, Chitewere found that EcoVillage
residents are very happy with their new patterns of living. Even
those who have downsized from a 2,400- to a 1,500- square-foot home
love their houses, she said. They enjoy the strong sense of community,
really knowing their neighbors, and find that people in general
are very kind. They share a consensus about trying to achieve a
lifestyle that makes them better stewards of the environment. People
appreciate the sense of safety the community fosters, both for children
and adults, and parents feel that it's a great place to raise kids.
Community meals, which mean not having to cook every night, are
a great boon; even if you don't feel like being part of a big social
gathering, you can pick up a meal at the common house and take it
home to eat with your family. Many like walking over to the community
farm in the summertime to buy fresh vegetables. All value the beautiful
natural surroundings, the gardens and the way their homes are focused
toward the pedestrian walkway. And the casual interaction and spontaneous
gatherings that happen at the common house, play areas, pond or
picnic table are great for fostering friendships. Moreover, people
find that they like working together on projects, like building
a foot bridge or pulling cattails from the pond.
"A lot of people said it was much better to live that way
than how they'd lived before," said Chitewere.
Nevertheless, as Ferradas pointed out, "There is no ideal
situation where harmony prevails every single minute," and
that goes for EcoVillage, too. "People might join a group for
different personal reasons," said Ferradas. "Inconsistencies
in personal and collective goals can become sources of conflict."
In fact, such inconsistencies account for why some people involved
in the EcoVillage project early on either never moved in, or else
moved out. "Not everybody moved to the community because they
had a burning desire to conserve the environment," noted Chitewere.
"Some were lonely in suburbs; some wanted a better place for
kids to grow up." In fact, a major schism occurred between
those who wanted it to be a model of middle-class living, a green
alternative to suburbia, and those who thought of it as a social-justice
community that would provide housing for every economic level. "Throughout
the project, people were concerned that it got too expensive,"
Chitewere said. "Some struggled to make ends meet, but had
to move out for financial reasons."
just nice walking down the street . . . nice to know who's around."
-- Tina Nilsen-Hodges '88, MAT, MA '91
a big "hurray" upon completion of a foot bridge they
built that connects the two neighborhoods of FRoG and SoNG.
For those who have opted to stay and who are committed residents,
reaching decisions through consensus is one aspect of community
life they find challenging. "When people said they were frustrated
about reaching consensus, I understood," said Chitewere. "We
all have different ways of making decisions. You really have to
listen to people. But when it works -- and it often does -- it feels
great: Residents are really happy with decisions that are made."
Another complaint is that there are too many meetings and too much
e-mail on the village's internal listserv. Consequently, some residents
find it hard to balance community and personal life. For example,
one woman said she felt pulled between the community and her family,
and found it hard to have family life separate from community life.
"Some residents felt they were giving too much," said
Chitewere. "Others felt that they weren't living up to the
community's expectations of them."
"You do feel stretched at times," acknowledged EcoVillage
resident Jim Hodges, MAT '90. However, he has found that
"everyone is sympathetic to people's needs to back off, then
step it up when you can."
The traits that help to make EcoVillage a successful community,
in Chitewere's view, are a willingness to be open to and to work
with other people. "Tolerance and patience are great skills,"
she said. "I was so impressed with people's real desire to
work through differences and solve problems."
are interested in becoming EcoVillagers aren't required to meet
a certain set of criteria. But they are encouraged to gain an understanding
of the community by visiting several times, talking with other residents
about the community, learning about the community's history and
attending at least one community-wide meeting. In this way, residents
"You have to
go in with your eyes wide open," said Tina Nilsen-Hodges '88,
MAT '91, MA '91, who moved to FRoG with her husband, Jim
Hodges, MAT '90, and their sons in August 2002. "In an established
village, you need to be open to working with other people about
decisions you're used to making unilaterally," agreed Jim. "You
need to understand the mission of the place."
For Jim and
Tina, the goals and values of EcoVillage dovetail perfectly with
their own. They had long been committed to finding ways to foster
ecological sustainability in their own lifestyle. For example, before
moving to EcoVillage, they had a 40' x 80' garden and sought out
local organic farmers to supplement what they didn't grow for themselves.
Now, they're working members of West Haven Farm, a 10-acre organic
farm located on EcoVillage land that offers consumers shares of
its harvest in exchange for a share in expenses, an arrangement
known as community supported agriculture. Jim, a member of the community's
outdoors team (all EcoVillagers donate several hours per week to
a work team of their choosing), has created systems for a smooth-running
composting program at EcoVillage, including providing education
to community members.
Tina is leading a fundraiser for a new greenhouse capable of year-'round
production for the farm that will incorporate state-of-the-art "green"
features such as thermal night shades, auto venting systems, radiant
floor heating and solar panels. In addition to making the farm more
economically viable, the new greenhouse will provide more fresh
produce for EcoVillage's common-house meals. A head cook on one
of EcoVillage's cook teams, Tina also procures food from local farmers
and regularly plans meals for 60-70 people.
All of these
efforts are wonderfully fulfilling to Jim and Tina. As Jim put it,
"Before, we made contributions to our own household. Here, we make
contributions to benefit an entire group of people."
to its commitment to ecological sustainability, the social benefits
inherent in the close-knit community EcoVillage offers are another
big plus for Jim and Tina. "The decision to move here was easy,
partly because we have kids," said Tina. Both parents enjoy looking
out their front windows to see their sons, Aidan, 9, and Niall,
6, playing with neighbor children on the wide pedestrian walkway
that connects all the homes. But they're also happy that the boys
have the chance to connect with other adults of all ages in the
community. "They get the benefit of knowing a lot of interesting
people," said Jim.
Jim and Tina
enjoy the spontaneous nature of the social encounters fostered by
the layout of the village. For example, while taking out the trash
one day ("usually a pretty solitary endeavor," as Jim joked), Jim
stopped to chat about global climate change with a neighbor who
is a writer for NASA. In addition to enjoying an interesting and
informative discussion, Jim got some new ideas for teaching a unit
on climate change to his middle school class. Tina, who spent the
day before Thanksgiving baking pies and roasting a 38-pound turkey
in the common house, enjoyed a series of impromptu conversations
with people who stopped in throughout the day. Plus, she said, "It's
just nice walking down the street and seeing that Ôoh, there's Jen
cooking dinner in her kitchen.' It's nice to know who's around."
Although he was particularly concerned about retaining a sense of
privacy before moving to EcoVillage, he said that "People have a
nice way of respecting privacy and community space. If you want
a conversation, there are people right there you can chat with.
And if you want privacy, you really can have it."