Lessons from the LA Ecovillage

Two weeks ago I had the chance to visit the Los Angeles Ecovillage (LAEV), and spent time with its visionary creator Lois Arkin. The story of the LAEV is inspirational and instructive.  Located 3-miles west of downtown, the Ecovillage represents a compelling model of how to begin to transform dysfunctional and unsustainable urban (and suburban) environments into real places, places with soul and meaning and commitment to community and environment. Arkin’s work in Los Angeles provides an unusual but telling pathway for other cities. Arkin’s story begins more fifteen years ago, when she and a handful of others re-imagined how this small piece of LA, home to the former Bimini Baths in the early1900s, support an urban ecological community. The immediate neighborhood looks like a cross section of many American cities—apartment buildings, a nearby school, auto repair shop, strip malls not far away, The Ecovillage owns two buildings now, but the boundaries of the village actually extend to include the larger two-block area, an area which they seek to positively influence and steward over. In approaching the nucleus of the village, you realize that you must be somewhere different indeed. There are marks of creative community building everywhere in sight: a vividly painted pole, chairs carved from large tree trunks, an extended sidewalk plaza, a beautiful cob-built community bench. A main part of the LAEV is an intentional community of around 35 people, who live in the main building. This is a primary hub, the center of activity and life at the ecovillage. There is a lot of socializing here, a palpable sense of community, always something going on: there are potluck dinners, workshops and meetings, even films shown on the wall of the ground level common area.  Part of this urban restoration the LAEV seeks, then, is social and human. The residents of the intentional community serve an important social anchoring role, building community, and establishing a visible outpost of hope (and help, when needed) to the larger neighborhood. The lessons from this remarkable story are many. One derives from the location of this creative energetic mix of ideas and people—in an urban area. Mostly our notion of an ecovillage conjures up something more rural and agrarian, and many of the best examples of ecovillages around the world occur in rural or exurban settings. Arkin’s vision is decidedly urban—it’s not about laying down ecological concepts on a tabula rasa, it’s about tackling the much harder job of retrofitting, restoring, retooling an already formed and damaged urban landscape. If we are to truly aspire to Green Urbanism, a celebration of living in dense, joyous, ecological cities, then surely the LA model is a more relevant one indeed. There are other urban examples to cite, for instance the Cleveland Eco-Village, but there are (unfortunately) not very many. Much of the emphasis on the LAEV had been on living a life less dependent on cars. About half of the residents of the intentional communities are living car-free, and with there is now an impressive degree of transit options (another important part of the story)—buses, metro, and of course walking and biking.  Residents of the intentional community without a car even get a break on rent. Arkin and her colleagues have worked hard to shift the attitudes of car drivers who drive through (as car drivers are apt to do) the neighborhood with little regard for the pedestrian and social life of the place.  They occasionally hold traffic-calming breakfasts where they set up a table in the middle of the street, and also occasionally undertake what Lois refers to a car re-training session.  This involves standing together with a small group again in the middle of the street, as drivers are forced to divert around them.  It sounds a little dangerous but car drivers (they are almost referred as a kind of alien species) apparently get the idea pretty quickly that this is not just another piece of pavement but a beloved home and neighborhood requiring special care and caution when moving through by car. With the city’s help they have recaptured some of the street in front of them, extending the sidewalk and installing a demonstration permeable paving.  Projects like this use recycled and salvaged materials, a common strategy at the Ecovillage. The beautiful courtyard of the main structure is home to vegetable gardens, a number of fruit trees (guava, fig, lemon, banana, you name it), and even a solar cooking oven. The LAEV is home to many demonstration projects that show how the scarified and paved might be de-sealed and life restored. These include a multi-level rainwater collection and infiltration project, utilizing recycled bricks in its retaining walls, as well as native vegetation. The gradual renovation of the main ecovillage structure has also demonstrated sustainable materials and techniques (e.g. recycled flooring). And, a new green park on the edge of the ecovillage that recreates a portion of the slough system that existed before settlement, inserting needed nature as well as intercepting and cleansing runoff from nearby roads.  The ecovillage shows the power of a place where new ideas can be visibly tested, where residents and visitors can see what might actually be possible in a highly urbanized setting. The ecovillage has also served as an incubator for new community businesses and nonprofits.  One of the more interesting is the Bike Kitchen, a community bike repair center with tools and help for anyone interested in learning how to repair their bike (and charging a per-hour rate). It was started by an LAEV resident in empty kitchen of one of the village apartments (thus the name). Lois Arkin hopes to create more spaces for start-up green businesses and community enterprises. Another key lesson is the critical role to be played by ecological outposts like the LAEV that are able through the power of demonstration and personal passion, leverage for change in many ways beyond the small size of the place itself. The LA Ecovillage holds special promise, it seems to me, as a node of urban experimentation and learning, a place where new ideas and methods of low-footprint urban living are tested and played out, and then serve as a practical model for other urban neighborhoods. Much has been accomplished here already, but Arkin has even more ambitious plans for the future.  She hopes that to tap into the subterranean geothermal waters a mere 2000 feet below the surface, and the origin of the Bermini Baths that brought people here in the first place. She has plans for converting a remnant parking area behind one building into a mixed-use live/work space for hatching new sustainable businesses. She imagines orchards where there are now streets and pavement. And she will undoubtedly continue her energetic involvement in the design and planning of the larger neighborhood and city in which this unique place is embedded. Arkin talks of the importance of the LAEV as a repository of learned experience and wisdom about how to live sustainable lives—personal knowledge about such things as growing food, pruning and maintaining fruit trees, capturing and recycling rainwater, building with sustainable local materials (like the lovely cob-constructed community bench), essentially what it will take to live rich lives with less (less oil, less energy, less water, less waste; and fewer consumer goods that rely on the former).  This skill and knowledge will increasingly be needed in an era of declining oil and need to use global (and local) resources more sparingly and creatively. I would liken the ecovillage to a kind of community seed bank, with the potential to spread these inspiring ideas near and far. Lois is herself a kind of Johnny Appleseed, spreading the message, stoking sustainability pots all over the city and region, serving as catalyst and inspiration for others who understand the need to change the cities in which we live. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.