Secrets of Sustainable Communities

Creating and opearting a sustainable community is not easy but can be done successfully with good planning, execution and diligence.

Image: CHOATphotographer /

Start With A Vision

For many, this step borders on the blindingly obvious. Of course, no one would begin something as big as creating a new sustainable development without a plan.

But that’s just the point. This is about more than just a plan. This is something beyond what will be built, where it will go and how it will work.

In our research into successful sustainable communities, one of the major differences between ones that eventually made it on their feet and thrived versus those that stumbled and eventually failed is that there was a vision that went well beyond the nuts and bolts of the structure. There were core values set from the beginning and dreams articulated as to how the community would eventually grow over time.

As with any kind of start-up, it is not necessarily important that you get the vision right or even the plans that back up that vision precise, at least in the beginning. But having a clear enough vision of what kind of community you want to build and where it may be heading does help provide a sort of North Star to guide things when the going gets complicated. And it will.

Start and Stay with a Good Team

Another basic that creating a sustainable community has with start-ups is the need to have the right core team with you from the beginning. Sure, that can change if it looks like mistakes have been made or someone is not the right fit. But as has been noted in these pages multiple times (most recently in conversations with our musical entrepreneurs in the “Rock Against the TPP” tour), having the right people with you as things adapt and change over time is far better than being precisely sure of what will happen next.

So think carefully about who you need in that core team, bring them close and fight to stay together even when the going gets tough.

Pick Your Community Site with Care

It is perhaps not critical that everyone associated with planning the development love the land they are going to build on. But it should fit with the vision and support what the community managers imagine for the long term for the village.

Live in Harmony with Nature

As one looks around them, modern living seems more about bending nature to a collective will rather than the other way around.

Take the city of Tokyo, for example, which maybe 20 years ago many business visitors joked about as being a place where when planners were not quite sure what to do in an environment, they just ordered more concrete and paved it over. That at its simplest is a great example of what NOT to do in planning a sustainable community.Closer to home, in North America, the beautiful naturally arid land of the metropolitan area where Denver and its suburbs arose was quickly shunted aside as developers took over. In a place where water was already scarce, native plants like buffalo grass, beautiful in their own right and able to thrive with little moisture, used to be common. But since they were not as lush and green as the public wanted, those native plants were quickly replaced with far-more-water-demanding Bermuda grass and other such foliage. Besides creating a tremendous and now-very-expensive demand for precious water, the planting of so many such species has dramatically altered the formerly dry climate, damaging the ecosystem and driving native species away.

Nature did not take this all lying down, of course. With more moisture in the soils such as bentonite commonly built in the region, the land retained water and various molds often cropped up under that Bermuda grass. The soil itself expanded under the pressure of the water, sometimes damaging foundations of the new homes built in such environments. And besides that, water did not become any more plentiful because of the resulting ecosystem changes.

As a far better alternate plan, the best sustainable communities are often built on sites where nature and what it has already discovered as working are allowed to continue that way. Forests and shrubbery are maintained wherever possible. Land and its natural drainage are kept with the same contours. And a surprising amount of care is built in to maintain and even nurture the existing flora/fauna ecosystems, so much so that species often come back to sustainable communities after having left them many years before due to long-term neglect or even deliberate damage.

And no one would dare rip out a native species like buffalo grass to put in non-native Bermuda grass in one of these communities…

Live in Harmony with Humans

There is also one other species that will be inhabiting the new sustainable community under development: people.

So when the new sites are designed, the best community planners go out of their way to pick the right people and take care of the needs of the people within that community. There are the obvious things that are part of it, including walkways, roadways, meeting places (both formal and casual) and emergency-services considerations. There are also the needs for (depending on the community vision the team has chosen) access to mass transit, hospitals, schools, dependable power, clean water, sewer systems and telecommunications services.

Build Using Recycled and Renewable Materials Wherever Possible

Most sustainable communities have their own building code requirements that go beyond what the local region may also require. Almost all of them include making the best use of what someone else might have thrown away and, for those materials that are new, insisting on readily available renewable materials drawn from close at hand.

Part of why is to do the right thing in building by using renewable materials from the beginning. The other part of why is that someday the house will be remodeled or need to come down entirely and the waste from that process should ideally be easy to dispose of and/or recycle.

From the Beginning, Develop Systems to Deal with Energy, Water and Waste

The best sustainable communities begin with these issues as part of their vision and concept.

Depending on the location, solar and even possibly wind power may be built into the energy supporting the community. Special battery backup systems installed in a home, a block and community-wide may be drawn into the plans. Some areas may even allow for selling back excess power.

Water systems also need to be considered, with more than just the use of natural wells and water catchments as part of the thinking (at least in modern sustainable communities). Gray water, such as what comes from washing clothes or taking showers – or, in more advanced communities, even including the output of toilets – needs to be recycled and used rather than just dumped into the sewer systems.

Waste management needs to be an equally thoughtfully planned item for any community. Recycling, composting and reuse should always be priorities in waste management. As noted in the water discussion, everything we human beings dump back into the planet can – with proper planning – be reused.

Curate Your Community

Any community hums along far better when the people who live there share similar values. And while most sustainable communities are enterprises where (to some extent, at least) anyone could move into the community, in the most successful of sustainable communities, it is obvious that the founders began by working to attract a select core group who share those values.

That being said, the other aspect of curating the community that is common for those who succeed is the drive to build diversity of backgrounds, experiences and thoughts of those who come to live there. Growth is intentional, not random, and provided it is not discriminatory, the act of curating can often turn out to be one of the most important parts of the growth process for an ecovillage.

Build Community into Your Community

There is a saying in the United States that people often say to each other, after first moving into an apartment building or housing development and having met for the first time. That saying is “Don’t be a stranger.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens to most of those connections: They DO become strangers, often quite rapidly.

That is not what being a true community is about.

The best sustainable communities seem to tackle this head-on. There are regular gatherings of the community, big and small, on many different topics. Walkways are designed with resting points and benches to encourage people to run into each other and talk rather than just say “hi” and move on.

And in the case of the Ecovillage at Currumbin (the subject of an interview elsewhere in this issue), the village even announces every new baby publicly on signs around the area and the village café provides free meals delivered on the doorstep every day for a period of time to help out the new parents.

Have Some Rules and Decision-Making Processes

The best sustainable communities have rules that homeowners must follow as well as rules the community must follow in taking care of its homeowners.

The best sustainable communities also have clear and democratic decision making on many of the most important aspects of the community.

Don't allow one person to dominate.

Learn to Say “Yes”

Sustainable communities are by their very nature prone to opportunities for trying new things. In fact, part of the membership curation process often encourages bringing in new village members with new ideas.

The best communities are ready to listen to those new ideas and say “yes” to them most of the time – unless there is something glaring that would create problems either in the short or long term as a result of the changes proposed.

Reduce Complexity

The best developments do not get too wild or crazy with their ideas, at least not at the implementation stage.As one such sustainable developer noted in a private conversation with us, this is not about building a theme park. This is a community of homeowners and the ecosystems they reside within.

Ask Experts for Advice

This is perhaps also one of those obvious steps. But sustainable community design is a tricky enough craft that asking for help even at the earliest stages is a good idea.  But be sure to ask for help from those who actually have the experience, have learned the lessons and have been successful.

Learn from Your Mistakes and Your Successes

As the sustainable community one imagined at start-up is finally built and begins to operate, there will be surprises. Things thought to be perfectly crafted will fail miserably, while other things that seemed mostly throwaway ideas or afterthoughts will turn out to be absolutely brilliant.Treasure both extremes, and move quickly to take advantage of those learnings. The best communities are living entities that must evolve and change over time. They do not stay the same.

Be More Than Just Resilient in Community Design

As the author of The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, wrote in a less well known but equally profound book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, in the most sustainable designs, things are created that are actually “better” than just resilient in their design.

Since the concept Taleb laid out is not the easiest to grasp at first, consider the example of what happens when a rigid plastic stick breaks. Too much pressure applied across the stick will cause it to fracture. If bending is something the stick may often experience, a better design – one that many would call “resilient” – would allow it to bend further under normal expected strains. It would bounce back to its original position under normal stress. And yes, if it were to break, it would just be replaced – and with exactly the same part.

However, as Taleb noted in the Antifragile book, nature approaches these sorts of issues very differently. In one of his clearest examples of his concept, when a person breaks his or her arm, it, of course, heals. But when it heals – and this is the same in how all parts of the body and all species heal – the arm resets itself with additional bone tissue and more so it will be less likely to break that way in the future.

The body has “learned” from the accident and rebuilt itself based on that learning. This is also the logic (or whatever one wants to call it) behind why there is scar tissue after a bad cut or burn.

This is the concept that Taleb calls out as being one of the best examples of good design, using a name that describes it well even if a little awkward-sounding: antifragile. The body is the very opposite of fragile in how it is designed and far more than just “resilient” – which would have simply meant the bone healed back exactly the same as before the accident. The body – after the accident – reinvents itself as something stronger and better able to deal with the same thing in the future.

The description above may seem long-winded, but the point being made here is that the best sustainable communities run themselves as “antifragile” enterprises. When something does not work, breaks or goes wrong in some way, the community developers look at what happened, learn from it and rebuild (anything) in a new and “antifragile” way. The community is in constant change, learning from experiences and building stronger on its core values as things happen.

And this is just one of many ways the best sustainable communities differentiate themselves from other such communities.