Saturday, June 19, 2010

Destination: Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

In the course of my ever-lengthening formal education, I've had the privilege to visit some pretty exciting places. From the vibrant cultural mecca of Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico to the sweltering coastal hamlet of Santiago Tapexlta, to the upper-reaches of the Orkney archipelago, I've learned more from the local anecdotes of elders and my own personal follies than from all the knowledge I've extracted from text after text. (I don't mean to bash the book, but the written word only served useful once civilizations had to communicate complex messages over long distances. Why settle for books when you can learn through doing/seeing/hearing?) So it with deep satisfaction and anticipation that I am embarking on the next phase of research, in a human settlement that is so close, yet so so far away.

On Monday, June 21st, I'll drive about 4.5 hours west to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (, just outside of Rutledge, Missouri. By Anthropological standards, the place is in my backyard. By Urban Planning standards, however, I'm traveling relatively far for a discipline that extracts most of its data from online government data sources or telephone surveys. I'll be living at Dancing Rabbit from June 21 to July 31.

I've been interested in ecovillages since my first experience with a dry latrine in Oaxaca in 2005, but it only recently occurred to me how relevant such settlements can be to research in Urban and Regional Planning. My reasons are manifold and deserve the detailed explanation of a much longer paper. I'll provide a summary below.

Ecovillages are one type of "intentional community," an umbrella description of communities that are formed around some shared purpose, other than kinship. Co-Housing communities are another type of intentional community growing in popularity in the USA and have existed for a long time in Denmark (ah Denmark, you wonderful little bike-happy seed of everything good in the world...but I digress). Many intentional communities are founded upon the principle of ecological preservation and resource conservation. Co-Housing communities, for example, construct tight-knit clusters of housing , share kitchen and storage facilities, thus conserving the space, energy, and expenses of a conventional residential development. Ecovillages take these principles a step further and opt to generate their own energy, grow their own food, process their own waste, harvest their own water, and often provide on-site employment for most of its residents. The line between co-housing communities and ecovillages is hazy, and the two development types share many attributes. They might center around spiritual or religious norms, or adhere to principles of self-sufficiency and social equity.

I've noticed that ecovillages share several attributes in common with the ever-multiplying American gated community. On one level, they could not be more different. Setha Lowe (2003) explains that American gated communities demonstrate a type of "moral minimalism," whereby residents work very hard to AVOID face-to-face interaction with their neighbors. Gated communities often impose strict behavioral covenants that determine how you decorate your home, where you store your cars, when you mow/water your lawn, your christmas decorations, the list goes on. These rules are often enforced by a paid third-party so as to avoid interaction with neighbors.

Ecovillages, from what I gather, are highly social places and value (perhaps rely upon?) face-to-face interaction. In this respect, these ecovillages and gated communities stand in stark contrast.

They share several aspects in common, however. Gated communities consciously reject municipal services. Residents have opted for private security, road maintenance, governance, and infrastructure repair. Similarly, ecovillages have opted to forego traditional public waste, water, and energy facilities. They also adhere to behavioral covenants, although I imagine they are different, in principal, to those upheld by gated communities.

In the next month, my hope is begin to formulate questions for a larger, longer-term research project (a disseration? Mayhaps!). Some initial questions (copied/pasted from a recent final paper) include:

· What motivates communities to consciously reject municipal infrastructure and “mainstream” market services for privatized, “off-the-grid” services?

· Where did residents of ecovillages live before, and what motivated them to move?

· How do ecovillages distinguish themselves from other communities of intent (i.e. co-housing, communes, co-ops) and privatized (gated) communities, which all actively seek alternatives to mainstream urban development?

· What differences exist amongst ecovillages? Are they different in different geographies?

· What are the perceived benefits of living in ecovillages, and have ecovillages met the expectations of their aspirants over time?

· What kinds of skills and capital are necessary to initiate and maintain an ecovillage?

· What types of social structure and informal social control are necessary to maintain an ecovillage?

· What factors influence ecovillage size (land area and population)?

· What symbolic role does nature play in the community? What symbols, images, or rituals distinguish ecovillages from conventional developments?

· As an “intentional community” are ecovillage necessarily exclusive? How are residents chosen? What are the obstacles to becoming a resident? Are there hierarchies of membership?

· In a community that intentionally unites members of common interest, what difficulties do ecovillages face with regard to diversity? In other words, does an interest in ecological preservation transcend race, class, gender, and age characteristics?

· What gender, age, or income cleavages exist within ecovillages? Do any of these characteristics manifest hierarchically in ecovillages?

· To what extent do ecovillages live up to their stated objectives? What contradictions exist between these ideals and the lived actuality of ecovillages? Are they really as sustainable as they purport to be?

· What outside resources are needed to maintain an ecovillage lifestyle?

· How does planning work in ecovillages? What epistemologies are valued? Who makes plans and how do these intersect with the “outside” world.

· What are the institutional obstacles ecovillages face, for example from local planning and subdivision regulations? How have local planners aided or rejected ecovillage development?

· How is land-use in ecovillages distinct from zoned land in urban areas?

· Can ecovillages be considered at type of “insurgent” development, acting in defiance to conventional social structures?

· What can urban planners learn from ecovillage development? How can “mainstream” development apply the lessons of ecologically oriented development?

I'll be sure to keep you posted of my progress in the coming month!


  1. This is a very cool blog, Robby! Have a great time at the eco-village this summer :-)

  2. One of my theories is that in our society we learn fewer and fewer of the skills needed to get along with each other. A successful ecovillage or intentional community turns out to be a school for successful human behavior, and to have broader social impact than just on the residents.