When Barbara first showed me into her Portland apartment, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. It looked like it could be any comfortable mid-price city apartment, with a modest open-plan kitchen and living room, two bedrooms and one modern bathroom.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but I had this vague, inexplicable idea that my first ever glimpse inside an urban eco village apartment would reveal to me some kind of vegan science fiction world of indoor vertical aquaponics, compost-fuelled stoves and bicycle-powered blenders. Or something. The reality was so much more… well, ordinary.
I was in Portland, Oregon, in the freezing cold of a North American December, and I was on a mission. I wanted an answer to a question that had been bugging me. By 2030, 60 per cent of the world population will be living in cities. How can that 60 per cent live in an ecologically sustainable way? What, in short, does it mean to live green when the only green in your life is a vacant lot?
My research had led me to two new US urban eco villages, Columbia and Kailash. Both had been around for about two years and had been established in order to create and encourage sustainable forms of city living. But while the residents of Columbia purchased their apartments, Kailash residents are renters, and whereas Columbia is run using a consensus-based ‘democracy,’ Kailash uses a more top down approach.
I decided to brave the Portland winter and pay both of them a visit. My first stop was Columbia. This large complex of four buildings comprises 37 mainly two-bedroom apartments and over 50 residents, as well as one big communal farm house and grounds. The apartments were purchased in 2007 after some years of negotiation by Joe and Pam Leitch, a couple whose shared background in permaculture shaped their vision for an ecologically sound way of life. After two years of extensive planning, consultation, marketing and retrofitting, Columbia was finally born in 2009.
My guide at the eco-village was a friendly middle aged woman called Barbara, who works as a community educator in ‘deep ecology’. Barbara told me that she decided to move into Columbia eco village after her adult daughter moved out of home, and she began feeling that her house was “too much for one person.”
But it was about more than that: She wanted to live more in line with her environmentally leaning values, and she wanted to live in a community with other people who shared those values, too. As she was explaining this to me, the whole ‘village’ aspect of the eco-village piqued my curiosity. After all, we can live green in our own, existing ‘non-green’ communities, right?
I asked Barbara why community was so important to her, and what relevance it had to environmental sustainability. “It’s about long-range planning,” she told me. “We’re essentially learning to be with less, and to be resilient. We’re more resilient together than alone.”
This comment from Barbara on community would turn out to be more important than anything else in helping me understand the whole concept of eco-village living, as opposed to just ‘greening’ your individual house. But it wasn’t until I’d made my later visit to Kailash that I came to this realisation.
Being taken around the grounds of Kailash by my guide there, Camela, I quickly discovered that the hands-on, practical aspects of eco living at Columbia and at Kailash are almost identical. I was thrilled. This discovery of some kind of a Portland consensus on what constitutes ‘eco living’ provided me with a kind of urban sustainable living ‘checklist’ to take away with me. You might want to get this down…
Both consist of pre-existing buildings that have been retrofitted to green certification standards using used local and recycled construction materials, had eco-insulation installed, and which use energy efficient heating and appliances and non-toxic paints. The apartments are small, which reduces energy usage and minimises the amount of ‘stuff’ needed to fill them. And, strangely enough, both of them are still in the process of switching to green energy – apparently not easy in Portland.
Both are structured around concentrated living in fairly central city locales, with access to transport and bike lanes. And like Columbia, Kailash has relationships with local businesses and community groups that involve taking on their waste, sharing land, goods or services or offering the use of facilities.
Both Columbia and Kailash have individual and communal organic gardening plots, composting, rainwater collection, chickens, bee hives, a bike shed, recycling centres, communal spaces, and a range of in-community ‘sharing’ arrangements (ie. car sharing, tool sharing and second hand goods sharing), as well as green living education programs, some of which have been very successful.
Maitri, co founder of Kailash eco village and something of a green living pioneer in Portland, told me about the success of their waste reduction eduction program as I sat in her office. Education for residents about separating waste at Kailash led them to reduce waste-for-landfill from two dumpsters a week to a fairly astounding 1 dumpster every fortnight for all 32 households. “One day”, Maitri told me, “we hope to have no waste at all”.
During my discussions with Maitri about the founding of Kailash, I couldn’t help but feel Barbara’s comment on community niggling away in the background. After a look around the apartments and grounds of Columbia and Kailash, I felt I’d found my checklist of practical tips on how to live green. While no one’s yet done any kind of impact assessment, the ecological footprints of the residents at both of these places would undoubtedly be a great deal lower than the average American’s. But there’s more to it than that.
At Columbia, I’d asked Barbara if anyone in the village acts as green police, telling off residents who buy three cars and factory farmed meat. She laughed, and reassured me that people aren’t lynched over the kale for buying a new car. But they are ‘supported’ by the village, she told me, in making ecologically sound consumer choices.
After some thought, I realised that this is roughly how it works. Because of the existence of both a ‘village culture’ of ecological awareness and the mechanisms for reducing impact such as sharing rides, stuff and skills, residents are given more ecologically sound choices.
Put simply, if you need a jumper, you know that you can (and probably should) go check in the swap closet before you go out and buy a new one. Or, if you need a drill, visit the communal tool shed and borrow one of the two drills that you have access to.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that, fundamentally, the eco village approach to green living goes quite a step further than just greening your house. In a way, it’s nothing short of restructuring society on a micro scale. They’re essentially inventing their own mini systems of governance in two unique attempts at replacing an unsustainable, uncertain global economy with a productive, sustainable local community as much as possible. But a community is just a collection of people, with their own ideas and interest. So what happens if the community doesn’t buy into it?
When Maitri and Ule Ersson bought up a central Portland block of 32 units three years ago, they had a vision to make green, community oriented living accessible for those on a low income. They decided to try a rental model of eco living, and in less than two years had it running, with retrofitting, gardens, communal arrangements and new regulations all in various stages of completion. And so Kailash was born. “Oh, we don’t like to waste time”, Maitri told me laughingly.
But despite their proactive, if somewhat top-down approach, what they didn’t anticipate was just how few of the original residents would share their enthusiasm. Of the original 26 residents, only eight remain. “During the first two years of Kailash”, Mitri explained to me as I sat in her office, “almost all of the existing residents moved out”.
I asked her why. According to Maitri, some of them didn’t want to comply to new rules around recycling and non smoking, and some of them were kicked out when they were found to be using their apartments for criminal activities.
I asked Maitri whether or not she had run education programs, and tried to get the existing residents on board. “Oh yes,” she told me, “we ran education nights and meetings, but it was much harder than we thought it would be. There was a lot of friction. Some people just didn’t want to recycle or live in community.”
I found myself wondering if it was more than that. Maybe it was the top down approach that had turned them off. Camela seemed happy with her management, but for all I know Mitri might be quite a dictatorial landlord. Or maybe it goes deeper than that. How do we explain people’s resistance to environmentally motivated regulation, like Maitri’s recycling rules or the carbon tax?
The experiences of Columbia and Kailash show us, on a micro level, what happens when different individuals and different social groups with different interests interact with the whole idea of sustainable living.
In this case, a whole bunch of people renting out cheap apartments found themselves in a situation that they’d never asked for, with new rules applied to them and behaviours encouraged that they didn’t really care about. Kind of like us having to deal with climate change, and the whole debate around the carbon tax.
Unlike Columbia, Kailash wasn’t started with a consensus between all residents that sustainability and community matter. These original inhabitants lived at the apartments now called Kailash because the rent was cheap, and they might never have given a thought to something as distant from them as the environment. And while Columbia is made up of long-term owner-residents, who are motivated to invest in the community where they put their money, the renters at Kailash have the option of leaving if things get too hard.
Maitri, quite remarkably, was able to convince eight of the existing residents of Kailash, who may have had no pre-existing interest in the environment, that it is in their interest to care about sustainability. But she lost the rest.
From an observer’s perspective, discovering that so many people had opted out had shaken my somewhat naïve idea that people would naturally prefer to be living in ways that are ecologically sound and community oriented if given a chance. But there were many other factors at play in their decisions. We’re much more complex animals than that.
I went to the eco villages looking for eco-retrofitting advice and an urban green living checklist. What I discovered instead was that at its heart, from regulation to consumer choices, sustainable living is much more about people managing other people and people managing themselves than practical solutions.
The technology and know how is there, mostly, even if it’s not refined. Anyone can put up a solar panel. But if no-one can agree on whose responsibility it is to put the solar panel up, who’s going to fund it, how to create an incentive to put it up or whether solar panels are the most efficient form of renewable energy- well, then you’ve got a problem.
We really do need to find some political solutions that stick, because unlike Kailash, opting out is not really an option. Environmental activists, environmental ‘skeptics’, those who are utterly indifferent and all the rest of us in between, until we find another one to rent we’re all stuck on the same planet.