Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dandelion Ecovillage, Urban Planning, & Bloomington, Indiana

I’ve just returned from an overnight trip to Bloomington, Indiana where I witnessed an important step in the formation of Dandelion Ecovillage (a.k.a. Bloomington Cooperative Plots), and a fascinating interface between the “mainstream” urban development regime and the ecovillage “socio-technical niche”. Over the summer, I discovered the young Dandelion community through fellow Dancing Rabbit work-exchanger, Kim Kanney and her friend Danny Weddle. Kanney, Weddle, and several others have worked persistently with Bloomington urban planners, planning commissioners, and common council members to re-zone a 2.23 acre parcel on Bloomington’s west side from R-S (residential single family) to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to accommodate an ecovillage that will include several small cabins, a cooperative house, an orchard, and space for raising chickens and goats.

I find Dandelion both promising and extraordinary: promising because the founders of the community have purchased land and successfully navigated a complex and costly urban development process in a methodical and transparent manner; extraordinary because Dandelion has the potential to fulfill the role of an “intermediate” socio-technical niche that can demonstrate innovative living practices while simultaneously translating these practices to a progressive citizenry in Bloomington, Indiana.

Ecovillages very commonly withdraw to rural areas, where they can avoid the structures of urban development regimes that render unconventional design choices nearly impossible. Settling in ‘institutionally thin’ rural areas allows ecovillage and other intentional communities to avoid the land-use regulations, high land costs, and NIMBYism common in suburban and urban communities. Land-use regulations like zoning and subdivision regulations, for example, serve well to segregate land into different ‘uses’ (e.g. for housing, business, industry, education, recreation, etc.) while dictating the density of buildings on a parcel, the number of unrelated adults occupying those buildings, the distance between buildings and the edge of the property, building height, floor area, parking requirements, where-and-what types of trees can be planted, amongst many other minutia that offer a relatively narrow window to exercise creativity in the built environment.

Ecovillages very often aspire to integrate residential, commercial, agricultural, recreational, and institutional land-uses, sometimes in the SAME BUILDING. Unconventional social structures (e.g. food cooperatives) and experimental building practices would almost certainly violate zoning and subdivision codes in most American municipalities.

The Dandelion community will integrate diverse uses, diverse social structures, and (potentially) experimental building practices without having to withdraw—spatially—from the mainstream. The 2.23-acre site is bordered by single-family housing, a railroad track, and a cemetery. When I visited the land briefly this afternoon, I found that the narrow frontage on a dead-end street opens up to a cozy, dynamic landscape that is buffered well by trees on all sides. The multiple uses envisioned on the site will be a tight squeeze, to be sure, and I’m very excited to see how the physical community evolves.

Most exciting—at least for this student of urban planning—is that the Dandelion plans have received legal blessings from the City of Bloomington’s planning staff, plan commission, and city council, in large part because the founders took exhaustive steps to iron out potential conflicts with neighbors and decision-makers prior to public deliberation. As one city council member suggested last night, such a bold plan would probably not have survived without careful and conscious communication amongst the Dandelion founders and city staff over the last year. In order to accomplish their goals, Dandelion had to petition the city to rezone the site from R-S (residential single-family)—probably the zoning that claims the most acreage in contemporary American cities—to a Planned Unit Development, a customized zoning district that allows city staff and petitioners to craft unique, detailed, often mixed-use, site plans.

Members of the Bloomington Planning Department presented the community’s plans to the city council with such grace and articulation, demonstrating a masterful understanding of city ordinance and zoning history. The evening made me proud to be a planner. Amongst the more interesting findings of the city’s planning and engineering staff was that the community’s plans would actually mitigate storm water runoff and traffic.

Opportunities for public comment elicited only supportive remarks from residents including multiple participants of the Occupy Bloomington movement, who marched in on the city council session, seemingly by coincidence. The meeting concluded with overwhelmingly positive remarks from council members, who reaffirmed the city’s dedication to sustainability and even seemed to cheer on the Occupy Bloomington crowd. Common Council President Susan Sandberg offered her blessing to the project, commenting that she plans to devote her next term (should she be re-elected) to diverse housing opportunities, including housing that allows residents of different income levels and of “all kinds of preferred lifestyles” to live in the city. She commented that while ecovillage life is not for everyone, “… it is for you [Dandelion members]” and that the planning department has worked hard to make sure that such a lifestyle works well in the city. The evening made me proud of planning, ecovillages, and democracy all at once.