Friday, December 26, 2008

Saving Suburbia (Part I): To Eco-Village or Not

For a while (OK, years) I’ve thought about how the collective we might go about “saving” that grand ol’ plan of post-WWII expansion known as “suburbia”. Clearly, at the time it sounded like a good idea, but with time comes wisdom and of course, hindsight. Alas we now know that it is at the heart of why the U.S. is leads the world in carbon emissions. You just can’t walk to the store when it’s ten miles and half-a-dozen-40-mile-per-hour-no-sidewalk roads away.

But what if you could start over? Re-architect the whole thing? Build it from the ground up with sustainability woven into every single construction-laden fiber?

I guess that’s the idea behind the eco-village concept. And last week, that hit home with this interesting announcement.

Clearly, if you’re coming to the table with this kind of plan, you’re coming out swinging. Hence you hire a PR agency to pitch it with all the fanfare and spotlights you can (those spotlights, mind you, help to blind you from the details, which many times are scant at this point in the whole thing). You have some fresh concept posters. You give it a cool name.

All that aside, this thing is massive. Six hundred and fifty acres spanning both sides of a major highway; industrial and residential mix-use areas; pre-powered with its own wind and solar arrays build in; agriculture, retail, trails; the list goes on. New zip code anyone?

Not wanting to pass an uninformed judgment, I set out to learn more about other eco-villages. What I found was interesting.

The Global Eco-village Network is a good resource for learning about and finding a large listing of these sustainable communities across the globe. Another listing/tracking site I came across was Intentional Communities.

No matter the listing, traditionally, the typical motivations behind these shared living communities are social, environmental, and/or spiritual. While there is a more-with-less approach it is kind of Three Musketeers at the end of the day – one for all, all for one. Micro-governance structures are in place with shared decision making the primary means of “law”. Many times there is strong link to permaculture.

Check out some of the specific communities I found (I tried to find ones with decent websites). All are in various stages of formation. This list is in no way exhaustive.

Abundance Ecovillage, Fairfield, IA
Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, Peterborough, NH
Sawyer Hill EcoVillage, Berlin, MA

My take-away: The new eco-development proposal for Tiverton is at a scale unlike any of the eco-villages I checked out. Is that to say such scale and size is un-doable, contrary to what a sustainable living infrastructure is supposed to be? I don’t know. It reminds me of driving through Utah and seeing new towns being build literally out of nowhere on huge tracks of land.

But the thought of clearing all that land to develop all this makes me wary. I’m all for doing more with that industrial space off of Eagleville and agree that would be great for our local economy. But adding 480 new homes and trying to figure out how to support all that with an already strapped municipal infrastructure is concerning. And then there is the “gated community” portion of the plan – that just flies in the face of what true cooperative living is all about. And finally, there are other potential placement opportunities for renewable energy structures in town (if the town could just its act in gear and push forward with all that).

So, if clear-cutting and building from scratch is not an attractive way to save suburbia, what is? Stay tuned for Part II…


Tillerman said...

Interesting. Most of the reaction on eastbayri site seems to be negative, though some of those comments are so ill-informed that one wonders if the writers have even bothered to read the press release.

My reaction is that Tiverton should consider this seriously. There are some potentially very attractive ideas in this proposal that could make our town a role model and an example for all of New England on eco-friendly development.


tillerman, I think we'll both have to play the wait and see. In the absence of any detail, no one is going to be able to make an informed opinion. I too would like to see Tiverton a role model, but it has to be done right.

At the surface, I just feel that many of the components being discussed (green industrial development, alternative energy installations, expanded agriculture ventures, etc.) could be pursued outside of any formal eco-village plan.

Remember the proposed artists' community from a few years back? That seems more in line with many of the sample "villages" I checked out.

Would this development be more towards your neck of the woods?

Anonymous said...

Two things give me concern about this proposal. First is the old saying, "If it's too good to be true ..." and this project is way too good!

The second is the history of proposals for this land. Several years ago another grand multi-use proposal was announced with appropriate fanfare and press interview. I don't recall details other than it included a major cranberry growing operation, and that the owner stated the plan was ready to go and the "ball was in the Town's court." In fact a plan had not yet been submitted to the Town Planning Board for preliminary review, and ass far as I know was never submitted.

Another proposal by the same individual was for an asphalt plant for the industrial park, which went down in flames, ending with a lawsuit against the Town because of the Planning Board denial.

Obiously, this history has nothing to do with the current mega-plan, but it certainly will require close scrutiny, as would any development of this size.

tillerman said...

Yes, it's very much my neck of the woods. My road is on that aerial photo on the eastbayri site.

I only moved to Tiverton a couple of years ago so I'm not familiar with the history of other major land development proposals. So maybe I'm naive, or maybe I'm not as cynical as those who have seen it all before.

As to whether green industrial development, alternative energy installations, expanded agriculture ventures, etc. could be pursued outside of any formal eco-village plan, I suppose they could, but is anybody willing to make them happen? Sure it sounds as if a developer wants to sweeten his plan by making appeal to environmentalists... but I suspect that's how a lot of this stuff is going to have to happen in a free market, capitalist system.