Tag: ecovillage

Sustainable “gown towns”

Professor David Orr has been a long time scholar of sustainability, and is now putting thought into action. He has spearheaded “The Oberlin Project“, an ambitious endeavor to make Oberlin, OH a self-sustaining community: socially, economically, and environmentally.

“Gown towns” are those small towns that have a college or university that tends to dominate the social and economic activity of the town. Small towns like Oberlin OH or Miami OH (Miami University of Ohio) can seem to be more of a service station to the faculty, staff and students of the academic institution than a stand-alone community, especially for those citizens who live and go to school there. Even larger cities, such as Knoxville TN, can be dominated by their universities sometimes (especially during football season… go Vols!). For these towns, it might be quite a challenge to build lasting business and arts districts when at least half of the population is seasonal and transient (i.e., the students). However, many of these towns are close enough to a major city to allow them to be dependent upon them for certain services and sectors; Oberlin (just 40 miles from Cleveland) is no exception.

Now here’s my humble opinion: Houghton/Hancock MI might superficially seem like yet another “gown town”, ripe for new ideas about self-sufficiency and sustainability. However, I’d argue that we are quite different than the gown towns of Oberlin and Miami in one very critical respect: we are over 200 miles from the nearest city (Green Bay, WI). Our remoteness may have forced upon us a self-sufficiency that is rare among gown towns. We are probably not any more or less sustainable than these other towns (and so we have a lot to learn from The Oberlin Project), but I’d argue that at least we’ve got most of the components we need to get there.


What is a neighborhood without neighbors?

A recent article in The Atlantic (online, anyway) highlights a new LEED-Platinum certified neighborhood…. yes, the entire neighborhood…. in Victoria, British Columbia. Dockside Green is a 15-acre brownfield redevelopment just across the river from downtown, powered by an onsite biomass gasification plant and treating its wastewater through a constructed waterway. The pictures certainly make it look like the coolest place to live EVER:

However Kaid Benfield (the author) said it didn’t yet feel like a “neighborhood”, perhaps due to its unfinished and half-empty status. He cites both the lack of “critical mass” and the disconnectedness to surrounding neighborhoods as reasons for the feelings of isolation, and I have no doubt that these are the main contributors. In fact, I would argue that the lack of critical mass is far more to blame than the “work in progress” status of the development. And of course, it isn’t just a matter of not having enough humans occupying the space, but enough people who are committed to the goals of the project. Bad neighbors do not make a neighborhood any more sustainable (or desirable) than no neighbors.

Humans are intensely social creatures; if we are unable (or unwilling) to socialize face-of-face, we find new and clever ways to communicate anyway, from smoke signals to virtual worlds. Regardless of how amazing and lovely our dwellings are, without neighbors willing to be neighborly we simply don’t have a neighborhood. It may be that it will take another decade or so before there are enough people of like minds who will create a community in the Dockside Green neighborhood; it seems to have taken that long in other ecovillages such as Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, IL (begun in the mid-1980’s) or the EcoVillage in Ithaca, NY (begun in the mid-1990’s). However, both of these communities have very explicit expectations for social responsibility of all of its residents, going far beyond the restrictions common to homeowner associations, and both of these communities are quite small relative to the Dockside Green effort: 400 homes in Prairie Crossing and 90 homes (60 completed) in the Ithaca EcoVillage, in contrast to the 2500 residents in 26 buildings expected when Dockside Green is completed. It will be interesting to see if this many residents can coalesce into a sustainable neighborhood!