When a handful of soft-spoken back-to-the land types bought up a 25-acre parcel of land 18 kilometres west of Chilliwack in Canada and showed up at city council to ask for a special “eco-village” zoning, they were prepared for questions.
According to Yarrow eco-village co-founder Michael Hale, “There’s a fair percentage of people that are skeptical about what we’re doing. Some people are totally unconvinced or think we could be a cult.”
The group had already dealt with local curiousity at a series of public meetings where, over organic and fair-trade beverages, the “pioneers” shared their plans to develop an eco-village in the area.
Hale, who with his partner, Suzanne, has visited several eco-villages around the world, said the principles behind the concept are simple–to create an open sustainable community that practises permaculture methods and exists in harmony with nature and neighbours.
The Yarrow eco-village takes from eco-village visionary Robert Gillman’s idea of an “intentional community” that is “human-scale” and, most importantly, “in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world.”
Although EnVision and Vancity found the group’s proposal sound enough to give them financing, locals weren’t so sure at first.
Perhaps all that talk about community and sharing, about food cycles and solar aquatic sewage treatment were masking something more sinister.
What if all the building they proposed–35 houses, a cluster of businesses, a learning centre, a bed and breakfast–was really just massive development in disguise?
What about that website on which members enthuse about things like social justice, bio-regionalism, writing poetry and caring (www.yarrowecovillage.ca)? And what is an eco-village anyway?
Once members began explaining in public meetings their desire for a “synergistic” relationship with the local community, and started asking what townspeople needed and wanted, the welcome mat came out.
Someone said they needed a bakery. Someone suggested a coffee shop and they wanted the popular deli that was on the property to stay up and running.
“We bought the deli,” Hale said.
Hale and his partners in Yarrow have been working for seven years to create this cooperative living venture.
DECISIONS BY CONSENSUS
The management is “non-hierarchical.” Decisions are made by consensus, a process Hale describes as INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY
The eco-village concept is the latest evolution of the “intentional community.” Typically an eco-village will have between 50 and 150 inhabitants across all age ranges, strive to be sustainable and provide affordable housing for members of all incomes.
“An important recent thread is the co-housing movement that started in Europe in the 1970s,” Hale said.
Co-housing developments, such as Langley’s Windsong, are pedestrian-oriented communities that mix individual homes and communal areas.
It was at Windsong that the first meetings envisioning the eco-village at Yarrow took place.
Howard Staples, who has been a long-time advocate of co-housing and a Windsong member, explained, “The eco-village is similar to co-housing, but a more holistic idea, trying to keep a sustainable food cycle.”
Although there is no religious aspect to the eco-village, Staples said, “In terms of their ecological ideals, there is a strong bond for the people there.”
“Some of the bigger plans we can’t afford right now,” Staples said. “We intend to have power generation through solar panels and windmills, and solar aquatic sewage treatment, a process of using and clearing the site’s own sewage to the point it’s clean water and can go back into the land.”
The four “pioneers”–Gerry Kilgannen, Michael Hale, Alan Dobbs and Alan Carpenter–realized they’d need special zoning.
To achieve what they wanted, two concepts would be crucial: “co-design” and “a triple bottom line.”
The “co-design” approach meant reaching out not just to Chilliwack city councillors, but to business owners and local residents for input.
“It was a phenomenal public process,” Staples recalled.
Hale said every decision they make must also pass the “triple bottom line” litmus test.
“In order to be sustainable you have to have an economic, a social and an environmental bottom line. A balance.”
Karen Stanton, manager of development services for Chilliwack, said part of what made the eco-village concept manageable from a planning perspective was the amount of work that had been done by the group.
The “eco-village” zoning is three-part zoning, Hale explained. The agricultural–part of B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve–has eight hectares of farmland, on which members have already established a productive organic farm.
The eco-village zone, which applies to the areas not in the ALR, has two parcels, one residential (an old farmhouse is already housing members, and there are plans to do a “green” retro-fit of a historic barn), and one commercial (which already includes a busy deli). Although some of the zoning had been approved, some is still pending.
The next hurdle, Hale said, is that that area is on a septic system with the capacity to service only eight residences. The eco-village hopes to densify the residential area so that ultimately it has up to 45 homes.
“It’s up to them to propose a method of dealing with fire flow [the amount of water that should be available for providing fire protection] and with whatever effluent they are dealing with, and that if the system won’t sustain it, we can’t allow it to move forward,” Stanton warned.
The idea of a solar aquatic sewage and water system hasn’t been approved yet–but similar systems are in use in other parts of the country. In Bear River, N.S., Canada’s first solar aquatics system was installed in 1995 to service a community of 60 families.
For many city engineers it’s an untested concept, Stanton admitted.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said architect Richard Kadulski, a specialist in sustainable building, who consulted on one of Yarrow’s first homes.
“For a lot of municipal, regional and local governments, there’s a paranoia of liability. Municipal engineering staff tend to be quite conservative, and health people are too.”
Solar aquatics basically imitate nature to process waste without chemicals. Black water (sewage) or grey water passes through a series of solar tanks. Solids are removed and the water filters through a series of tanks containing algae, plant matter, bacteria and other organisms that “digest” waste.
Hale said the group is still looking at what’s required in terms of permitting and insurance. “It’s an expensive investment.”
In the meantime, the village is already bustling. The farm and the deli are going concerns.
Two duplexes have been completed on the land so far–and the first families are moving in.
Hale and his partner, Suzanne, chose to go with an energy efficient green-built home on which Kadulski consulted.
Another resident, Yonas Jongkind, has built a traditional cordwood house. Cordwood is a design that upcycles lumber mill cedar scraps–lengths of wood that would otherwise be discarded. The pieces are laid lengthwise with mortar in between.
Kadulski isn’t a fan of cordwood construction.
“A green building has to be both comfortable and airtight. The stacking of the lumber, with concrete mortar between the log ends, means that when wood shrinks it’s going to leave a lot of gaps. There is no such thing as a waterproof coating . . . It’s wet and it’s windy at that end of the valley so you have horizontal rain, so the walls will get wet.”
DREAM COME TRUE
But for Jongkind, it’s a dream come true, and he’s confident his new home will be as comfortable as it is beautiful.
Jongkind also came to Yarrow through Windsong, and is an active member of the community.
He and his partner, Julia, are also excited about raising their three children in a rural setting.
For Jongkind, being part of Yarrow is “a way to have a much more meaningful life without having to focus so much on work and achievement.
“Achievement, or being a part of a cause or social organization, or having a big social life are some ways people look for meaning in their lives. For me, living in community like this is an easier and more sustainable way to have rich life.”
“extremely powerful for ensuring the group is really cohesive. You have to listen to everybody.”
Members have a responsibility to participate and guidelines and expectations are made clear.
Diana Leafe Christianson, founder of Earthaven, a very successful off-grid eco-village in North Carolina, identifies six critically important elements to make a successful eco-village.
– A gate: A group must identify the skills and qualities they need–a group can’t offer shelter to someone who can’t work towards building the community.
– There must be a clear mission and purpose, and really good agreements between people, including contracts on paper.
– There must be money, but sweat equity is valuable and volunteerism is important.
– Training and education in consensus and community living, and methods for keeping members accountable.
– A well-honed process for selecting people to join the group, and screening out anyone who might be disruptive.
– A strong commitment among members to learn the planning and financial skills necessary to keep the eco-village economically healthy.
In essence, an eco-village is “sustainable, egalitarian and communal” without, well, being a commune.
“It’s not a commune,” insisted project manager Howard Staples. “There is no income sharing, and members are still having equity ownership in their own home.”
Seven “intrepid souls” started up an organic farm on land that had been fallow for 20 years. With a few participants coming and going, and some mistakes along the way, it’s now a thriving enterprise.
Yarrow’s founders, some of whom come from “co-housing” backgrounds, envision more cottage industries, perhaps a bed and breakfast, an arts and crafts guild, a home gallery. There will also be places for the community to gather for meals and events.
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