EcoVillage at Ithaca: A Community Bound by Ideals

When Kristen Nygren’s three young sons suddenly dash outside to play, there are no cars or trucks zooming by to cause her to worry. Instead of a highway, there’s a path that winds through a cluster of 30 multilevel attached homes on West Hill about a mile-and-a-half from downtown Ithaca. Colorful flowers and vine-covered trellises create old-world charm. Nygren, her husband Jeffrey Gilmore, and their boys live at EcoVillage at Ithaca, an intentional community of 160 residents occupying 175 acres of mostly woods and fields.

Nygren, a psychiatrist, and Gilmore, a software engineer, moved from San Francisco with their children a year ago. They live in a sunlit, spacious home overlooking a pond that’s popular with the village children who swim and kayak there. “I wish all kids could have as nice a life as our kids here have,” Nygren noted. “I’m really grateful they can have a connection to nature and the freedom to be outside so much, and I don’t have to worry about cars.”

Thanks to the community’s emphasis on green living and its commitment to the safety of its children, residents park their cars at designated places away from the housing clusters. The village’s 60 children are free to romp in play areas in front of their homes or ride their bikes on the footpaths. They are also encouraged to use the undeveloped EcoVillage land as a kind of extended playground.

Ecovillages around the world
There are 385 registered ecovillages and about 500 co-housing projects around the world, according to the report, “State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy” from the respected Worldwatch Institute. “The ecovillage and co-housing movements are perhaps the best illustrations of the opportunities that exist in designing communities to be sustainable through the mobilization of resident energy and resources,” says the report. “Many of the projects these communities implement are readily replicable by any group of like-minded neighbors. Small groups within a broader setting can come together and start a sustainability project, such as a carpool, community garden or weekly potluck dinner of locally grown food.”

Residents at EcoVillage at Ithaca can take part in community and neighborhood dinners each week, held at the common houses in each cluster. Meals are cooked by volunteers. In addition, EcoVillagers are expected to perform two to three hours of community service weekly. Many serve on committees that handle the day-to-day running of the community and develop plans for the village’s future.

Pioneers of a sustainable culture
EcoVillage at Ithaca exists today as a consequence of the meeting of two dynamic women: Joan Bokaer, an Ithaca visionary, and Liz Walker, a San Francisco community organizer. The women met in 1990 while participating in The Global Walk for a Livable World, from Los Angeles to New York City, organized by Bokaer. Afterwards, she contacted Walker and urged her to come to Ithaca to help launch EcoVillage. The two became co-directors of the new venture; Walker now serves as executive director. She travels widely in her efforts to spread the word about sustainable living, and is the author of a comprehensive and touchingly personal book, EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture.

“Ecovillages all over the world are getting a lot of attention right now,” she told us, “because we’re doing something that people really want: to live in a community in a way that respects and honors the earth.”

In 1996, residents of Ithaca’s first EcoVillage moved into the housing cluster known as FRoG (“First Residents Group”). The homes were designed with an array of passive solar features. Seven years later, a second cluster called SONG (“SecOnd Neighborhood Group”) was completed and occupied. Many of these homes featured rooftop solar panels. Now, planning is underway for a third cluster called Tree (“Third Residential EcoVillage Experience”), scheduled for completion in about three years.

Sara Cardiel, a Rochester educator, her husband Rick, a business consultant, and their two children are one of nine families who have signed on to build homes in the TREE neighborhood. “Ecovillages have two great things going on: an environmentally friendly lifestyle and a close-knit community,” she explained. “The intentional community idea is something I’ve been interested in since I was a teenager.”

Both Sara and Rick view Ithaca as “the most beautiful place in the world.” “EcoVillage itself is physically absolutely gorgeous,” Sara said. “The view as you look out over the hills with Cornell and Ithaca College and the lake down below is just stunning.”

When she discussed plans for the new housing units, which will range from 800- to 1,400-square-feet, Liz Walker noted: “We’d like to make them as green as possible. One of the things we’ll be exploring is whether we can make them carbon-neutral.

“For instance,” she continued, “we might choose to use photovoltaic panels to supply our electricity, and have passive solar homes that are super-insulated for a very low energy load. Electricity generated from the PV panels could be used to heat the homes and supply electricity.

“Another option might be ground-source heat pumps that have the advantage during this time of global warming of providing not only heat from the earth but also cooling from the earth.

“We’re exploring different technologies that will allow the homes to have the smallest ecological footprint possible, including their energy use,” Walker said.

A focus on education
Along with the new housing complex, EcoVillage’s master plan includes increased emphasis on the community’s educational outreach. Residents regularly teach courses on sustainable living at both Cornell University and Ithaca College, and students from those institutions visit EcoVillage to view the workings of the community.

A new EcoVillage education center is being planned, reported Walker. In addition, plans for a sustainability-centered alternative high school, located in downtown Ithaca, are presently being made under the aegis of the New York State Charter Schools Association. The organizers have applied for up to $1 million in state and federal funding for the new school, which will open with about 60 students and eventually expand to upwards of 300, according to Walker. Students would visit EcoVillage for hands-on project-based learning.

As part of its environmental mission, EcoVillage hosts a highly productive, 10-acre organic vegetable and fruit farm operated by a resident husband-and-wife team, as well as a 5-acre organic berry farm. The West Haven Farm sells its produce to EcoVillagers and other Ithaca area residents through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) unit and at the Ithaca Farmers Market. Liz Walker said, “These farms provide a teaching opportunity that is very difficult to match in other educational settings. We envision working with beginning farmers to help them gain the skills they need in order to get started as organic farmers, and we’re also doing internship programs.”

So how are we doing in the push for green living and sustainability? “I would say that we’re doing very well for Americans,” Walker offered, “but the rest of the world is far ahead of us in terms of knowing how to live lives that are much more ecologically sound. For instance, in Europe you hop on a train. You don’t have to drive your car to get to many places.

“I think we’re doing well but I think we could do so much better,” she added. “We’re learning gradually over time.”

At the conclusion of her book, Liz Walker puts it this way: “What do ecovillages have to offer the world? I see us as incubators of a new culture, one that values cooperation in the most profound sense: cooperation between diverse peoples and cooperation with nature.

“We are part of a vast wave of change, made up of billions of people who want to be free from war, environmental destruction and economic slavery. Along with other growing movements, we are taking the brave step of trying to live out our ideals.”
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Where is it located?
EcoVillage at Ithaca is located on West Hill along State Route 79 at Rachel Carson Way, about 1.5 miles from downtown Ithaca.

Can I take a tour?
Free tours are available on the last Saturday of each month. Visitors meet at the FRoG Common House at 3 p.m; no reservation is needed. For more information, e-mail education@ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us.

Private tours for groups and individuals are also available with at least one week’s advance notice. E-mail visit-coordinator@ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us. A fee is charged for these one-and-one-half-to-two-hour tours.

“Ecovillage Experience Weekends” are scheduled for August 29 through 31 and October 17 through 19. “If you want to know more about life in our community or have ever considered becoming a resident of EcoVillage at Ithaca, then this workshop is for you,” the website notes. Rates include all meals, and cover your room, commuter or camping arrangements. For reservations, contact education@ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us.

How can I find out about new residential opportunities?
For information on the new housing cluster being planned at EcoVillage, go to www.ecovillageithaca.org.

Where can I find Liz Walker’s book?
EcoVillage at Ithaca – Pioneering a Sustainable Culture, is available from the community or at major book stores and online dealers.

Where can I purchase produce grown at EcoVillage at Ithaca?
Produce from the community’s 10-acre organic farm is available during the harvest season at the West Haven Farm stand in the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Where can I go for more details?
For more information, visit www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us.
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A second ecovillage project independent of the community on Ithaca’s West Hill is under development now in Tompkins County. White Hawk Ecovillage is located on State Route 96B in Danby, about 5 miles from downtown Ithaca. It will have 30 energy-efficient homes clustered on a former 120-acre farm, according to developer Henry Peterson. Peterson currently owns and lives on the land but plans to sell it to the project’s nonprofit organization.

The ecovillage was named for a white variant of a red-tailed hawk that was spotted on the land.

The first White Hawk home was completed and occupied in July. Two more houses are under construction, and another nine families have joined the community or are in the process of doing so. Peterson noted that the new intentional community, with three construction phases, had an original completion timeline of four to five years. However, that estimate has been extended because of the tight mortgage market.

A 40-acre organic vegetable farm and two orchards are planned for the property.

For more information, visit www.whitehawk.org, or call 607-330-2609 or 607-273-5879.


by Bill Wingell
Originally from New York City, photojournalist Bill Wingell lives in Apalachin. He started in the news business in the 1960s, and reported in the Philadelphia area before founding a commercial greenhouse business that he ran for 23 years. Today Bill writes news and magazine pieces, and serves as a stringer in photography for The New York Times.