An Ecovillage Retrofit for Los Angeles: Healing an Inner-City Neighborhood
Lois Arkin offers a snapshot of the ecovillage movement, another example of a community-based initiative to develop working models of sustainability. Lois describes in depth the evolution of her ecovillage in downtown Los Angeles. It is one way community can happen — even where the situation seems beyond repair.
Sowing Seeds for the Los Angeles Eco-Village
On Christmas Eve, I was on my nightly schmoozing walk around the block. My neighbor Jem was standing outside leaning over his old Cadillac having a smoke. I paused to chat. Then a car sped by, to my expletive.
“You know, yesterday,” Jem offered, “183 cars went by in an hour, and about 75 percent of them were doing over 40!”
“How do you know that?” I queried, astonished.
“I stood here and counted them, “Jem replied, going on to describe the traffic patterns throughout our central-city neighborhood. I was delighted — we have to begin collecting traffic statistics to prepare for major changes on the two streets that compri se our neighborhood.
“What we really need help with is getting some of those speed bumps in here,” he concluded, asking if I knew the people in local government who could help us do that.
I was elated at discovering this interest of Jem’s. In urban neighborhoods techniques for traffic calming — slowing down auto traffic — are a major component of urban ecovillage and eco-city development. Jem’s interest in this issue meant that others wi ll get involved. He manages the 40-unit apartment building across the street from the four-plex where CRSP and the Eco-Village Center are headquartered, and he’s a major energy on the block. Jem knows just about everyone and has a great sense of fair pla y. We’re lucky. We can feel confident about the traffic-calming projects with people like Jem involved. He’ll talk with most everyone on the block and help people get to public hearings when needed.
Earlier in the day, I was talking with Esfandiar, the garden coordinator for our block, about recycling the four-foot stack of cardboard from the boxes of produce clippings for our compost pile. He told me the city had started picking up cardboard for rec ycling — but we had to bind it up first.
I’ve been collecting twine for years, convinced that some day there would be a use for it. This was it! Out came my box of one- to two-foot strips of nylon twine. Soon, Ming Gook and Dai Han, Johnny and James were gathered around Esfandiar and me, curious and wanting to help. These neighbor children, aged four to 12, made a game of tying the strings together. Esfandiar talked with the children about gardening, composting, art, sports, Christmas, his native Iran, and listened to their thoughts and concerns as we tied. In an hour, the string was stretched around poles across the street, down the block, maybe 1,500 feet of it. Four-year-old James insisted on rolling it all up on a stick when we were through, and a fine job he did of it, too.
After the job was done, they all went out on the street to play touch football, except for ten-year-old Johnny who practiced tennis on the sidewalk with me. Then Mary, one of our organic gardeners, came by to share a box of her wonderful ginger cookies wi th us. We are finding more and more occasions for such spontaneous gatherings here in our neighborhood. The night before Christmas Eve, 1992, several members of our Eco-Village Working Group joined together for Christmas carolling. I’d lived on the block for 12 years. Never before had there been any carolling. As the five of us carolled down the street, we met many new folks in our two-block neighborhood and gathered information on their skills for the local barter system we’re helping to organize.
Some Basic Ingredients for Inner-City Retrofits
These seemingly unrelated events are typical of the seeds needed to grow a sustainable neighborhood or ecovillage. Spontaneous encounters and working together build trust and a sense of community. In fact, we are a neighborhood in the process of becoming an intentional community by virtue of our prior residential choices.
Being on the streets helps reclaim them as important community space, apart from automobiles and crime. When neighbors see people of good will having fun on the streets, they are more likely to join in, expanding a healthy sense of play and neighborliness . People who are multiskilled and public spirited can create a healthy neighborhood presence which, in turn, can motivate other residents to recapture hope and move into cycles of empowerment. This is whole-systems or cyclic thinking, recognizing that every thing is related to everything else — spotting the unrelatedness or holes in our community systems, and closing the loops.
There can be many reasons for taking a walk. For example, I wait for Dianne so we can walk down the block together. We can chat with each other, get our exercise, share the synergy of our joyous togetherness with anyone we meet during our walk, look for r ecyclable “trash” for the garden and other projects, and more easily include neighbors in spontaneous conversations that one of us alone might be somewhat shy about.
A whole-systems approach to sustainable neighborhood planning and development is interactive and collaborative. A systems approach to planning works at transfering information to people living and working in the neighborhood. This kind of planning recogni zes the value of spontaneity and chaos as essential to innovation and creativity. Whole-systems thinking promotes sensitivity and respect for the pace at which people can learn, plan, own, and incorporate changes.
An urban neighborhood on the path to sustainability is not isolationist within the city! Nor will it be when it has achieved significant self-reliance. The Eco-Village processes set a tone for participation. We engage adjacent neighborhoods and the city a t large in our processes or share resources as appropriate.
For example, the Los Angeles Eco-Village Working Group concentrates on our two-block area for organizing the local barter system (local-exchange trading system or LETS). But we enthusiastically include others nearby who hear about the Eco-Village and want to be included. We participate in tree-planting projects in adjacent neighborhoods. We provide technical assistance to any neighborhood that seeks it. We invite others who live outside our neighborhood to participate in our working groups and neighborhoo d gatherings.
A neighborhood is sustainable when its economic, social, and physical systems are sustainable. The emphasis is always on the people and how they can take care of themselves and their environment in healthy ways — ways that do not jeopardize the ability o f future generations to do the same.
Among those who are planning and advocating for sustainable neighborhoods, there is an emphasis on cooperative relationships, cyclic thinking, and quality of life. In addition to our basic need for a decent standard of living — that is, material sustenan ce and comforts, “quality of life” recognizes people’s basic need for good relationships with other people and the environment — the place, the community around them, and especially life-support systems of air, water, and soil.
At first, sustainable thinking has to be consciously practiced. For example, going shopping becomes a challenge, since one is constantly questioning how a product is made, transported, marketed, where packaging goes when we’re through with it, what the na ture of its by-products are and what happens to all of it! Retraining ourselves to think this way — in cycles rather than in linear isolation — automatically cuts down on nonessential purchases. Much of the time previously spent on shopping, and driving to shop, is available for community activities such as gardening, composting, dialogue, community-based learning conversations, renovations, eco-businesses, and mutual aid. This is how ecovillages are created — by gathering a critical mass of people who regularly think and act in a whole-systems context. Interactions based on good will and a sense of mutual aid build trust and attract action-oriented energy. Opportunities for building healthy relationships and trust should receive priority — the more t rust there is, the less bureaucracy will be necessary, leaving more time and energy for community development and socializing.
Automobiles and Whole-Systems Thinking: An Exercise
As in nature, everything is constantly changing in an ecovillage. Being designed for sustainability, the social, physical, and economic systems of an ecovillage are all under constant readjustment — because they are understood to be interactive. For exam ple, if we are in inner-city Los Angeles, and we want to breathe cleaner air (inner-city children here have the lowest lung capacity in the nation), we have to rethink our relationship to our private automobiles. When we do that as a community, there will be a number of options and actions emerging, all with social and economic impacts.
Some car owners will give up their autos altogether. This will save, on average, $5,000 to $8,000 per year for other uses, or simply provide freedom from having to earn so much. Lives will change substantially as work and social activities become more nei ghborhood based. In turn, the neighborhood economy will be strengthened. Other car owners will organize vehicle cooperatives, reducing the overall number of autos, pooling their auto-related expenses. Still others will simply reduce miles driven by rearra nging their lives a little. Some will trade their fossil-fueled autos for electrics or other less polluting vehicles, and some will switch to bicycles and local mass transit options. All of these choices have positive social and economic effects.
As community members learn more and more about the car’s role in the degradation of life in our city, some will become activists in organizations such as the Alliance for a Paving Moritorium and the Eco-Cities Council. They will help others to understand why changes are necessary and how to make changes in ways that enhance the quality of life for all species living in and around this and other cities.
When neighborhood people begin to think through, plan, and act in other areas of their lives, more and more of them will learn how to be involved in rebuilding our community. Child care, for example, is primarily a social system, but with obvious relation s to the economic and physical systems of a neighborhood.
Learning to think and act in whole systems is fun. It’s like a puzzle, challenging and full of surprises. Once there is a common vision, commitment, and action among even a small group of three or four people, then the pieces always start to fall into pla ce. There’s a certain magic to it. For instance, the Eco-Village wanted to acquire a building to establish a process for nonprofit community ownership. Just at that time, one of the four-plexes on our street came onto the market at an affordable price.
Then we made a longer-term decision to explore restoring the Bimini Baths, the hot mineral springs 2,000 feet below the surface of our neighborhood. We assumed it would take five to ten years to acquire the industrial building we had targeted for restorat ion as a bath house. Now the building is likely to become available this year! As our community awareness emerges, more opportunities for community building will appear — as if by magic!
Techniques for Developing Eco-Village Systems
We have experimented with a variety of techniques for planning and developing Eco-Village systems. For example, at one point we began holding monthly community gatherings. Project descriptions and sign-up sheets were brought to each meeting. We took these lists with us on daily strolls down the street to encourage more folks to get into a project group. We held group meetings in highly visible places like the sidewalk at the intersection of our two blocks, or in one of the building lobbies, or on the fron t lawn of an apartment building. At each meeting, we had a big sign that indicated what group was at work. This established an expanding presence for change in the neighborhood, and kept our processes open and accessible to all.
People are becoming friendlier on our two blocks as more and more of us actually get to know one another and share a friendly spirit with others on the block who haven’t yet begun to participate. Current work groups are based on personal interests and con sensus. The groups change regularly depending on the energy of neighbors and volunteers. At least one Working Group member familiar with Eco-Village systems participates with neighbors and other volunteers on each project group. This way Eco-Village cultu re can expand among residents more consistently.
A sampling of project groups during the first year of the L.A. Eco-Village included earthquake preparedness, children and youth activities, composting and organic vegetable gardening, fruit-tree planting and stewardship, local exchange trading system (LET S — a local currency), traffic calming, neighborhood eco-business development, and monthly potluck gatherings and dialogue groups.
Students from a local church-based urban planning school worked with us on various surveys. Graduate students in urban planning, ecosystem design, and architecture from several local universities have developed Eco-Village plans for their academic project s. We have also been working closely with the White House Place Primary Cen-ter, a public school (K-2) located next to our CRSP/Eco-Village Center. Here youngsters in the Eco-Village and adjacent neighborhoods are learning whole-systems thinking in a comm unity context with two of our city’s prominent mentor-teachers. There is beginning to be real continuity between school and neighborhood.
We have facilitated workshops and brought resource people into the neighborhood on a variety of issues, including earthquake preparedness, traffic calming, water flow forms, eco-cities, composting, organic fruit trees and gardening, organic pest control, intentional communities, limited-equity co-op housing, and conflict resolution.
Many fruit trees have been planted and are being stewarded by youngsters who, in turn, engage other children to work with them for ongoing care of the trees. As these other children become ready to steward a tree of their own, they select the type of tree , locate a site, plant it, and name it. The trees then become part of the children’s “circle of friends.” Involvement of young inner-city children with fruit-tree care and nurturing is the vision of one of our earliest project team members, Maria Davalos. It is so heartening to see her vision become real.
Factoring in Physical Size, Population, and Other Basics
In our two-block area, there are four apartment buildings with 184 households, seven four-plexes, two single-family dwellings, and a drug and alcohol recovery home — about 500 people all together. We have spoken with others in the city striving to create more livable neighborhoods. Some have sought to include much larger geographical areas. Los Angeles, even our inner city, often sprawls way beyond practical considerations. We encourage neighborhood development groups to narrow it down, starting with a s et geographical boundary of one to three blocks and a population of no more than 500.
Our population is ethnically diverse and stable in its proportions of Asians, African Americans, Latinos, and whites. We are multigenerational with a wide spread of incomes from very low to moderate, although proportionately residents are primarily at the lower income levels. Our land uses are already substantially mixed with four strip malls within one block of the community, other commercial and industrial areas within a few more blocks. We are one block away from the best mass transit in Los Angeles, a nd will be within walking distance of two stops for the new underground subway — scheduled to open in 1996.
The hot mineral springs beneath our neighborhood were the base for an international resort here until the early Œ50s. We plan to participate in the restoration of these hot springs to public use. Bimini Baths, as they were known, attracted people from all over the world. Bimini means “sacred site of healing,” a perfect match for the Eco-Village vision.
Anthropological studies indicate that 500 is about the limit for an ecovillage-type community. It is about the maximum size group for those involved to be able to know and be known to one another, by name and face, and still give individuals the feeling t hat they can have some influence in the community’s direction. Five hundred people in agreement on common issues and concentrated in a single geographic location can also be a powerful economic and political force.
The Eco-Village Planning and Advisory Group
There are about 25 members of the L.A. Eco-Village Planning and Advisory Group, and another 100 or so that have participated in some way during the past several years. After the April 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Planning Group decided to select the inner -city neighborhood around the CRSP center as the L.A. Eco-Village site.
A few members of the core group live in the Eco-Village neighborhood; some are considering moving in; others simply want to be part of the process of helping to make it happen. Some in the group who already live close by have committed to a regular prese nce in the neighborhood. They may eventually begin similar activities in their own and other neighborhoods — this is a learning laboratory for them. The Planning and Advisory Group meets in a variety of ways. There are biweekly dinner and dialogue gather ings, sometimes with special speakers. We have an electronic bulletin board in which we share information and dialogue, seek advice, and build community. For additional information sharing and community building, some of us participate in wider telecommun ications networks — like those operated by the Institute for Global Communications, the Foundation for Intentional Community, and other groups. We have Saturday morning potluck brunches, Friday night front-porch hang-outs with neighbors, and unstructured Monday night gatherings. A seven-member core group is in almost daily contact with each other.
The Planning and Advisory Group includes community organizers, professionals, graduate, and undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines: ecosystem designers, architects, planners, environmentalists, educators, social change activists, waste managem ent specialists, artists, writers, and others with a variety of eclectic interests.
A Brief History of L.A. Eco-Village
Prior to December 1992, the energy of Eco-Village was focused on a vacant 11-acre landfill site owned by the city, and on the surrounding neighborhoods in northeast Los Angeles. That site is about seven miles away from the current location. The vacant lan dfill has a rural feel to it, though it is only about five miles from downtown. The volunteer Planning and Advisory Group used the landfill site to focus its energies for over five years. There have been four exploratory design studies and some significan t public-policy work, including the establishment of ecovillage concepts in the City of Los Angeles Housing Policies.
The Eco-Village Planning Group learned a lot about landfills; but when it came right down to it, no one in the group felt right about moving there. The Group had tried, over the years, to establish a presence in the neighborhoods surrounding the landfill. Although many of the existing neighbors expressed an interest, none assumed an active involvement, and some actively opposed our proposals.
After the violent uprisings of April 1992, many of us began to seriously reevaluate our priorities for inner-city Los Angeles. How could we help heal our city? How could we most effectively introduce whole systems planning into “rebuilding” neighborhoods? At the same time, how could we rethink our positions concerning urban development and open space issues? How could we protect, restore, and preserve our remaining open space? After much thought, those of us in the Planning Group realized that our hearts were no longer into the idea of creating yet another new development. The landfill should remain as open space.
It all added up! In mid-December 1992, 25 of us came together and enthusiastically consensed on changing the focus from the landfill site to this neighborhood. At that time, we had a 12-year presence here, and there were four major fires within two blocks of our community during the riots. We realized that the Eco-Village could have greatest impact where it was needed most — in our own built-out neighborhood.
An ecovillage is not a standard concept that can be designed and plunked down anywhere. Whether new development or retrofit of an existing neighborhood (urban, suburban, or rural), an ecovillage is a complex set of interactive processes. These processes a re inextricably linked to a core group of people working to integrate the public interest with their individual needs, desires, resources, and networks.
Nothing has been lost in refocusing L.A. Eco-Village energy to the new site. In fact, progress is accelerating now because of the learning curve established in the process of working with the old site.
Eureka: Eco-Village Is a State of Mind! Share It!
Now others are moving here because energy is starting to concentrate on our Eco-Village retrofit. Those who begin similar processes in other neighborhoods will begin to share transformative energy here as well. There are so many people with large reserves of knowledge and skills, people isolated in their efforts to create change, and frustrated at not having an appropriate place or community in which their talents and energies can be utilized and validated. Hopefully, this is the decade in which more and more of us will find one another and create the synergies for accelerating planetary transformation.
New alignments are taking place for many of us as we realize our transformations must begin where we are. The skills and knowledge are present within to heal ourselves, our neighborhoods, our cities, our planet — and we have the public responsibility to do it. There is no more time for waiting and searching for “the place where I can live happily ever after.”
Ecovillage is the form of community we have chosen to transform or retrofit our neighborhood. Recently, Dianne Herring, an L.A. Eco-Village core group member and ecosystem designer, enthusiastically commented to one of our dialogue groups,
“Eco-Village is a state of mind. You think; you play around; you talk about and work on all these interactive systems; then other people join with you. And soon, it just jumps out at you — you start thinking in Eco-Village systems about everything.”
We believe our city, our bioregion, and the world at large desperately need inner-city models of sustainable neighborhoods. Those of us in the Planning Group have a longing for community and meaningful work in response to the pain of our city, and the pai n that Los Angeles has brought to the planet through its giant media machine. We are elated to be doing something about it.
About the Author
Lois Arkin is the founder and Executive Director of CRSP, Cooperative Resources and Services Project, a 14-year-old nonprofit organization committed to small cooperative ecological communities. CRSP is the coordinating organization for L.A. Eco-Village. She was coeditor of Sustainable Cities: Concepts and Strategies for Eco-City Development (Eco-Home Media, 1992) and Cooperative Housing Compendium: Resources for Collaborative Living (U.C. Davis, Center for Cooperatives, 1993) (both available from CRSP). Lois serves as a board member with the Foundation for Intentional Community. She can be reached at 3551 White House Place, Los Angeles CA 90004, 213-738-1254.
For ongoing news of the ecovillage movement, see the regular “Ecovillage” column in Communities Journal of Cooperative Living.