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What are sustainable communities?

Updated on October 21, 2014
ecogranny profile image

An environmental enthusiast and activist her entire adult life, Kathryn shares her secrets to reducing waste and living greener.

Grant's house on Smith Acreages
Grant's house on Smith Acreages | Source

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How familiar are you with the concept of sustainable community?

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Cohousing, ecovillage, transitional town: What is a sustainable community?

What the heck is a sustainable community? Maybe you've heard of it by another name: Ecovillage, Cohousing, Transitional town.. What are they? How are they different? And how are they the same? Perhaps most importantly, what would it be like to live in one?

Let's find out! On this page you'll get a feel for what it's like to come home to a cohousing neighborhood at the end of the day. Then we'll get into the nitty gritty and explore typical questions people ask about the different types of community, and living in community in general.

Plus, I've uncovered some of the best, most informative web sites on sustainable communities, and discovered the one tool you cannot live without if you're seriously considering living in or creating a sustainable community: The Intentional Communities Directory--a catalog and compendium of more than 2500 communities around the world.

Apple tree in bloom on garden path
Apple tree in bloom on garden path | Source

A glimpse of life in an intentional, sustainable community

Imagine coming home from a long day at work ...

You pull into your slot in the community carport, grab your gear, walk past the tennis court and through a well-tended garden.

A butterfly flits to the ancient apple tree you and your neighbors saved from the ax when you bought this old homestead and began planning to build your homes.

You smile, tensions of the day forgotten, recalling the first time you and your son sat under this tree. He listened spellbound as you told him of the legend of Johnny Appleseed, said to have planted this very tree.

Children playing in the park-like community playground - Used with permission
Children playing in the park-like community playground - Used with permission | Source

As you round the corner, the sound of children laughing and playing makes you smile.

They've built a giant castle in the sandlot, complete with fire-breathing dragons. Your eight-year-old, acting out the fantasy with his mates in joyful detail, sees you and, without breaking character, surreptitiously returns your wave.

Meandering up the walk, you drop your satchel on your front porch, knowing it will be there untouched when you return, and stroll to the common building where today's kitchen detail is preparing dinner. Mmmmmm. Someone baked pies.

Community members preparing a feast together - Used with permission
Community members preparing a feast together - Used with permission | Source

Other folks are gathering too. You spy your sweetheart, peck him on the cheek, and help him set the table.

Sure, you could eat at home tonight, if you felt like hunkering in, but you're in the mood for company, and the conversations are always lively in the dining hall.

This is a glimpse of what life can be for folks who live in an intentional community, bonded by a desire to create a lifestyle full of family, friends and neighbors.

Community is the secret ingredient in sustainability.

— Jim Leach, green builder and cohousing developer
Community residents enjoy a get together on the patio - Used with permission
Community residents enjoy a get together on the patio - Used with permission | Source

How does it work?

Whatever you call it--Sustainable Community, Eco-Village, Cohousing--all intentional communities have a few things in common:

  1. Individual homes clustered in a village-like setting
  2. A common building, typically housing dining, recreation and meeting facilities
  3. Structures and grounds built and maintained sustainably with "green" materials
  4. Energy, water, soil and other resources conserved through composting, reusing and recycling
  5. Safe, nurturing environment where children can play close to nature
  6. Decision-making by consensus, typically, but not in all communities
  7. Shared responsibility for maintaining the community
  8. Respect for individual needs and space
  9. Commitment to growing healthy, harmonious community relationships

A sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient.

— Institute for Sustainable Communities

Are all intentional communities sustainable?

Short answer: No. Longer answer, while most intentional communities intend to foster a lifestyle that is economically and environmentally sustainable, those may be of secondary or no consideration for some. Groups of people come together for many reasons--religious, political, familial.

This page focuses on those groups whose primary focus is growing a sustainable lifestyle within the context of a close-knit community, no matter what their political, religious, ethnic or other orientations may be.

Sustainable communities strive to take no more from the Earth and each other than they give. Their members seek to engender and maintain a high quality of life while reducing consumption to levels that do not overtax the Earth's resources or exploit the workers who grow their food, manufacture their goods and provide their services.

The Oshara Model - Sante Fe, NM

If you think cohousing and ecovillage = hippie/radical/commune, take a look at this vid. It shows more compellingly than paragraphs of text why sustainable community is the cutting edge for quality of life today. The nine minutes fifty seconds you spend watching this video just may change your life. For more on Oshara and the makers of this vid, visit New Village Institute.

Common ground

All sustainable communities have this in common: Their commitment to care for the Earth, as well as for each other.

Child's drawing of diverse circle of people holding hands
Child's drawing of diverse circle of people holding hands | Source

Sustainable communities thrive around the world

Sustainable communities are neighborhoods, sometimes whole towns, designed and built with a small village feel.They're the kind of places you'd like to raise your children. They're the sort of place you might like to grow old. They may be a group of homes on Staten Island, an experimental eco-village in Brazil (If you don't read Portuguese, Google Translate will convert it quickly) or a commune in Russia.

Wherever you find them, the people who live in them come together because they seek a community with whom they share core values and goals. These may vary from community to community, but one thing all sustainable communities have in common is their commitment to care for the Earth, as well as for each other.

Welcoming bench outside the front door
Welcoming bench outside the front door | Source

What type of sustainable community is right for you?

Ecovillages, cohousing communities, transitional towns? The two most well-known sustainability models are ecovillages and cohousing communities. Examples of both models abound, many long-established, others more recent.

With millions of people concerned about quality of life for their children and generations to come, more and more people are coming together to buy land and plan the communities in which they wish to live. But for many of us, pulling up roots is not an option. Enter the transitional town, where folks join together to create sustainability at the civic level.

Each model offers something different. Immediately below, you'll find a brief description of each, and learn--in broad terms--how they differ and how they are the same. Watch for links to web sites of some well-established communities and other helpful resources.

Earthaven 13-sided council hall - Used with permission
Earthaven 13-sided council hall - Used with permission | Source

How is an ecovillage different from cohousing?

Cohousing is a neighborhood, much like any urban or suburban neighborhood. Typically, residents own their own homes or condominiums, and share some space in common. Shared space may include a community building where folks gather for seasonal parties, to share meals, play ping pong, or for planning meetings or quilting bees. Sometimes laundry facilities and day care are shared in this space as well. Frequently there is a common plaza, undeveloped land, or playground which the community maintains together.

An ecovillage has all these things, plus commerce and a deep commitment to give back to the earth more than they take from it. Some or all of the residents may earn their living in the village, just as in times before industrialization, when village life was more common. So you might take your morning coffee in the local cafe, drop by the general store for today's pick of locally-grown, organic fruits and vegetables, and purchase a hot-from-the-oven loaf from the local bakery.

For a deeper look at the differences between intentional community models, see the Planet Friendly Community Page.

Ecovillages lead the way in showing us how to live sustainably - Community, livelihood, eco-conscious lifestyle

Ecovillages are also sometimes known as permaculture villages. While the religious and political beliefs of village members may vary, invariably, ecovillages are concerned with living lightly on the Earth and working with Nature to meet their needs. Many ecovillages have been in existence for decades and have become go-to models for living a low-impact life to the fullest. Best resource site for more information: Global Ecovillage Network.

How it works

  • Members usually own their homes
  • Members co-own common buildings and several, up to thousands, of acres of common land
  • Some or all members contribute time to village enterprises, the revenues from which are shared by the community
  • Members may own cottage industries
  • The community typically grows much of its own food and members participate in community-owned, organic and/or permaculture gardens and farms
  • Decision making is usually by consensus

Findhorn Ecovillage is the oldest in the world - Farming, building, growing more sustainable every year

Findhorn Ecovillage, in Scotland, is the site of dozens of firsts. They show just how possible it is to live in community and to enjoy an enviable quality of life while using less energy and consuming fewer natural resources. People travel to Findhorn from every corner of the world to study and learn how to live well with Nature and with each other.

Learn about one of the most famous examples: Ecovillage at Ithaca, a blend of cohousing and eco-village

Ecovillage at Ithaca blends two thirty-home cohousing communities with the ecovillage concept. Now more than ten years old, the village story is one of the most compelling. Learn about village life, then dig deeper with this book, EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture, which tells their story.

Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage - Missouri, USA

For an in-depth view of ecovillage life, watch and listen to this 27 minute slide show by Tony Sirna of Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage in rural Missouri.

This video is Part 1 of 2. In Part 2 of Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage Tony Sirna continues his discussion of their community currency and answers audience questions, many of which were my own. Perhaps he will answer some of yours as well.

A new We: Ecovillages and ecological communities in Europe - a film by Stefan Wolf

In "A new We," Wolf documents the architecture--social as well as brick and mortar--and lifestyles of eight communities in ten European countries.

Each of these communities has a different focus, but all are engaged in people learning to live in harmony with the Earth and with each other. This video is the official trailer. "A new We" is also available on DVD for $30 from the Fellowship for International Community (FIC).*

You may also enjoy Chris Roth's enthusiastic and thoughtful review in Community Magazine: Hopeful new stories from the Old World: A new We.

*Btw, I receive no compensation in any form for promoting this video. I make this link available to you because the FIC is the sole North American distributor of the film.

Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities
Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities

If you are thinking about starting an intentional community, read this first. Let me say that again, to be sure you heard me: Read this first!. Diana Leafe Christian knows the pitfalls and successes better, perhaps, than anyone, and she's outlined and detailed a clear road map to building community. Perhaps the most helpful are the stories of failed communities. Christian interviewed the people involved and dissects their case histories so you can avoid making the same mistakes.


Creating a life together: Practical tools to grow ecovillages and intentional communities by Diana Leafe Christian

Christian is one of the foremost advocates and sought-after speakers on living in intentional community. She has reason to be. She has lived, taught and worked in Earthaven EcoVillage for many years.

If you are thinking about starting an intentional community, read this first. Diana Leafe Christian knows the pitfalls and successes better, perhaps, than anyone, and she's outlined and detailed a clear road map to building community.

Perhaps the most helpful are the stories of failed communities. Christian interviewed the people involved and dissects their case histories so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Also a must read for the serious community-minded

Christian's other book, Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community is also a must-read for the serious sustainable community hopeful.

This book, too, helps us navigate the often terrifying, equally often exhilarating waters of finding and building the right community.

Cohousing communities combine conventional and sustainable lifestyles - They are a meld of autonomy and communal values

Cohousing neighborhoods usually comprise a cluster of single-family, fully equipped homes or apartments and one or more community buildings, courtyards and playgrounds. Residents pay dues for the upkeep of the common buildings and grounds, and may participate in work days throughout the year. Usually they share meals a few times a week.

Cohousing ranges from single shared dwellings to large tracts of homes. Neighborhoods, too, vary from inner city to isolated rural. These are just a few examples.

Best online resource for finding a community that meets your dreams: Cohousing Association of the United States.

How Cohousing works

  • Members usually own their own homes
  • Members share financial and upkeep responsibility for common grounds and buildings
  • Communities typically consist of a group of homes or apartments and one or more commonly owned buildings, courtyards, gardens and playgrounds
  • Structures range from single Victorians divided into apartments, to rebuilt-refurbished apartment complexes or condominiums, to a cluster of homes in a suburb
  • Members typically grow some of their own food in a community garden
  • Community-owned businesses are rare, though some cohousing communities provide live-work space and encourage cottage industry
  • Governance is typically by consensus, though community charters differ widely

a type of intentional, collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing provides the privacy we are accustomed to within the community we seek.


— Cohousing Association

What are transition towns?

Transition towns are municipalities whose citizens have made a collective decision to promote quality of life over quantity, as well as creating an environment that reduces or eliminates the need to use fossil fuels for transportation.

Our vision is that every community in the United States has engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present.

Transition Towns United States

The name is almost a misnomer, because the transition movement encompasses tiny villages and some of the world's largest cities.

Large or small, transition towns are municipalities whose citizenry has come together to address the three most serious issues having an impact on their everyday lives: Peak oil, climate change and financial instability.

Their shared purpose is to meet these challenges through short- and long-term strategies that will increase their community's capacity for energy resilience, reduce their carbon footprint community wide, and stabilize their economy for the long haul.

Founded in Ireland in 2006 by permaculture guru Rob Hopkins, Transition Towns, or Transition Town Totnes, as it is known there, quickly spread worldwide. For a comprehensive look, follow the link imbedded in the logo here, which they have kindly given me permission to use.

Transitional towns move toward ever more sustainable practices city-wide - Start where you are, build from there

In a transition town, ordinary citizens and civic leaders work together to develop a long-term plan with measured steps along the way. Their objectives are to ensure their town can meet--and beat--the challenges of the twenty-first century while developing communities that thrive despite global uncertainties. Participation requires getting involved in your existing community. Now.

Best online resource: The transition town movement.

How it works

  • Citizens and civic leaders meet and begin planning how their town can become--and remain--resilient in the face of diminishing oil reserves, skyrocketing energy costs, climate change, and a turbulent economy in the decades to come
  • Planners initiate a series of campaigns to engage business leaders and ordinary citizens in a comprehensive effort to reduce the city's carbon footprint
  • Planners simultaneously initiate a series of campaigns to encourage the community to source food, goods and services locally, thereby stabilizing their economic base

Joanne Poyourow - Image courtesy Transition U.S.; Used with permission
Joanne Poyourow - Image courtesy Transition U.S.; Used with permission

One citizen leader takes on LA

One person can make a difference. See how Joanne Poyurow, an ordinary citizen, helped the City of Angels become a transition town

Some might be daunted at the thought of helping a metropolis like Los Angeles adopt the concepts and purpose of transitioning to a low-fossil-fuel, high-community-bonded city. Joanne began small, meeting with other concerned citizens.

Together, they set goals and objectives to begin the Herculean task of becoming Environmental Changemakers. That was in 2005. They've been working and growing and making waves ever since, and their reach is amazing.

Perhaps Joanne's story will inspire you to make changes in your area, doing what you can. Stay inspired by following her blog on the Transition US site.

Start with the Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinbrook

With chapter titles like How peak oil and climate change affect us: Post petroleum stress disorder, and Why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions, you know this is more than a how-to handbook: It's a good read too. Better still, the authors wrote what they knew: They've been helping communities become transition towns since 2005. They've studied the process, implemented it, tweaked it, tested it and retested it. They know what works--and what doesn't.

If you are interested in helping your city become a transition town, start with the Transition Handbook.

The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience

Head, Heart, Hands. Those are the titles of the three sections of the book. First we understand why we need to help our towns transition to a sustainable, resilient economy. That's the head part. Then we open our hearts to the vision. Really visioning what our world can be like in ten, twenty, thirty years--how much better we can make it. Lastly, we put our hands to work, getting the job done.


After reading this article, what is your opinion on sustainable communities?

Would you like to live in an ecovillage, or a cohousing community?

What do you think of the idea of transitioning your entire city from a heavily oil-dependent town to one that provides neighborhoods with parks and safe paths to grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, dry cleaners, and just about anything else we might need?

Take this poll, and after you vote, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

What type of community appeals to you most?

See results

© 2011 Kathryn Grace

Comments welcome

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    • ecogranny profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Grace 

      4 years ago from San Francisco

      @MelRootsNWrite, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Many sustainable communities are quite open to people with disabilities. Were you to find one that was a good fit otherwise, I suspect you would discover it to be welcoming. Everyone has different strengths and abilities to contribute to whatever community in which we find ourselves. Even when we require a good deal of care from others, we are valuable to our community. I have often thought my need for both solitude and privacy make me a good hermit candidate, but I am certain that the right community would respect that need and be supportive.

      Still, your points are well taken. Village life, however we might describe it, is not for everyone.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 

      4 years ago from California

      This was really informative. I like the concept. I think we all need to be working towards sustainable communities. I'm not sure it would be for me. As a disabled person, I would not be able to contribute much. And, I like my privacy. Still, I like the idea. I think it's great what these people are achieving.

    • ecogranny profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Grace 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      @thegreeneredge: You're welcome. Thank you for visiting.

    • thegreeneredge profile image


      6 years ago

      A great lens! Thank you for sharing.

    • LauriFinn profile image


      7 years ago

      An interesting lens and worth more than a glance, which unfortunately is all I have time for. I will be back to read more.

      Here in Finland, sustainability and environmentally friendly living is very high up on the political and social agenda. And has been for decades. Nevertheless, we still have a way to go, IMHO, before we can say Finland has a sustainable economy/society.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thumbs up from Cottage Craft Works, we also work closely with the Amish sustainable communities across the Midwest and up into N.Y.

    • kathysart profile image


      7 years ago

      I've heard of these before.. VERY COOL! I am not sure I could do it but I do admire those who do. Angel blessed lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      wow ,great job

      gonna sit down and dig in here for more information

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      Stopping back by to review these sustainable communities. I am tossing about the idea of starting my own ecovillage. Really appreciate this important emphasis on sustainable development. Thank you for all that you are doing to build awareness. You are making a difference.

    • youssef93 lm profile image

      youssef93 lm 

      7 years ago

      Good lens

    • greenerme profile image


      7 years ago

      This is wonderful! My community is a little spread out, maybe a little opposite of some of these sustainable communities. It's great that these are springing up more and more - it's a nice idea that has so many benefits. Squid Angel blessed!

    • mantuamom profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens! I've heard about sustainable communities, but never quite understood what that meant. Thanks for taking the time to write a very thorough lens on the topic.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Really good lens; never thought of any of this before but it made me think now.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Sustainable communities are often pedestrian friendly instead of vehicle friendly and this makes it a hard sell at first for a lot of people. So ingrained is the extremely wasteful and unsustainable suburb model of living that people resist the idea of a community built around the enjoyment of those who want to actually live in it. Always boggled the mind, that one.

    • Tawice profile image


      7 years ago from Maine, USA

      I've never really given much thought about this type of living. Now I wish there was something like that closer to me. Awesome lens!

    • knit1tat2 profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow, great lens on a great topic! thanks,

    • hirephp lm profile image

      hirephp lm 

      7 years ago

      very nice lens thanks for sharing

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Lots of good info. Nice lens and congrats on the front page!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thanks for this information. I had heard of such communities before, but not like this. I have always wanted to live like that.... here in Kuwait there is really nothing like that available. very nice! Blessed!

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 

      7 years ago

      Thank you for sharing.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow! This is, hands down, the most informative lens that I have read. Well done, and thank you for taking the time to write this! Ecovillages and transition towns are the future.

    • Johanna Eisler profile image

      Johanna Eisler 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting and informative. Thank you for the education!

      Congratulations on making the front page!

    • Art-Aspirations profile image


      7 years ago

      Inspiring. I dreamed of doing this when I was young. It didn't happen quite this way, but I do live in an intentional community on shared land, and I am an active member of a community garden. Thanks for helping me see my life in this perspective.

    • TrevorLedford profile image


      7 years ago

      I really like the information presented here. It inspires me to look into this concept further. Nice lens.

    • katiecolette profile image


      7 years ago

      Very interesting concepts. Intentional communities are a great way to live a more fulfilling life.

    • glenbrook profile image


      7 years ago

      It sounds like just living in a small town to me.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      7 years ago from Canada

      I never really thought too much about creating communities to be pedestrian friendly. The sustainable community principle really does make sense. Great information, video choices, and article.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Coming home sounds like Nirvana! Don't be surprised if you find me sitting on your tree one day when you come home...I'll be watching the butterfly.....

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent lens. I am featuring it on my newest lens.

    • traveller27 profile image


      7 years ago

      Back for a second visit. Great lens - blessed by a travelling angel.

    • Surfer83 profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank for sharing such a restraint topic.

      I feel so peaceful just reading the lens. = )

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I lived in an intentional community in the 70's but couldn't do it today. I enjoy being alone too much to want to live with a group of people. But it is a great lifestyle choice for people who are concerned about the environment and looking for like-minded people. Great info and resource.

    • WorkitSmart profile image


      8 years ago

      love your topic.. I've always wanted to visit an 'eco' vacation spot, you know, off the grid and all.

    • sallemange profile image


      8 years ago

      This lens really taps into the values and principles that are close to my heart.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      No added comments...just loved reading this lens...learning...learning

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      8 years ago from Scotland

      living in a National Park in Scotland, we are becoming more and more aware of preserving our communities, It is wonderful to be bringing back the "community" atmosphere, it is also creating. In my garden I have a huge compost bin, that all my neighbours add to and our compost fills all our planters! the kids at school are encouraged and fully participate in the Green Flag programme, to becoming sustainable, it is so encouraging. This is indeed a page that is well worth Reading.. Blessed by a Passing Angel.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a dream for my family - to live in a sustainable community. Like you, we will probably have to wait years to realize our dream. :)

    • KarenTBTEN profile image


      8 years ago

      There is a wealth of resources here. You make a very good point about intentional community not being the same as sustainable community. I lived in housing co-ops for seven years. One member went on to own a house at a co-housing community. I don't think either had everything it took to be sustainable, but from an environmental standpoint, we were living more sustainably at the co-op: an old building with a lot more shared space -- and we did reuse. SquidAngel blessings.

    • ecogranny profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathryn Grace 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      @EcoGecko LM: Thanks for stopping by. How'd the exam go?

    • EcoGecko LM profile image

      EcoGecko LM 

      8 years ago

      Thanks got a geography exam tomorrow so just doing a bit of extra reading on some of the topics. Some good information, thanks.


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