How Sustainable Communities Work

Green Science Image Gallery Where are all the cars? This sustainable community contains many small shops and restaurants connected by pedestrian friendly streets to minimize driving.­ See more green science pictures.
Photo Courtesy Serenbe

Upon first entering the community of Serenbe in the Chattahoochee Hill Country of central Georgia, you might notice several things. You might be pleasantly surprised to see streets not clogged with cars or to see neighbors gathered on their front porches enjoying the afternoon sun. What you won't notice are the renewable materials that built the houses, the energy-efficient appliances that power them or the organically grown, native plants that surround them.

But that's the way Serenbe intended it. Like other sustainable communities, Serenbe strives to lower its impact on the environment without lowering the quality of life. People who join sustainable communities believe mankind's present rate of consumption and waste creation isn't good for their health or the Earth's.

 According to the World Wildlife Fund, people are currently using resources 25 percent faster than they can be replaced. If we continue down this course, we will need a second planet by the year 2050 [source: World Wildlife Fund]. Sustainable communities attempt to change that course by drastically altering how citizens interact with the environment.

Alternatively known as green communities or ecovillages, sustainable communities vary in their approaches to sustainable living, or a way of life that meets the population's basic needs in ways that can be continued indefinitely for future generations. Some communities focus solely on enriching the environment, while others also aim to improve social and economic conditions as well.

Could your community be sustainable or "green"? In this article, you'll learn about the basic characteristics of sustainable communities before looking at a few working examples found around the world, as well as some other kinds of living arrangements that benefit the Earth.

 On the next page, find out the three simple ideas that residents of sustainable communities live by.

Characteristics of Sustainable Living Communities

Serenbe has a 25-acre organic farm to minimize the need to ship groceries from far away.
Serenbe has a 25-acre organic farm to minimize the need to ship groceries from far away.
Photo courtesy Serenbe

Sustainable communities generally strive to minimize waste, reduce consumption and preserve open space. Ideally, they don't use resources faster than they can be replenished, and they don't produce waste faster than it can be assimilated back into the environment. Granted, some communities are more radical than others -- living entirely off the grid and eschewing the use of government-printed money -- but the basic principles are similar.

Designing the neighborhood to encourage walking or bicycling is one way sustainable communities put these first two principles into practice. Less driving means less gas and reduced emissions. Many ecovillages also incorporate work space into homes or encourage telecommuting. They also might zone part of the development for commercial use, essentially making the community a self-contained environment where residents don't even have to leave for shopping or entertainment. This design sometimes is called a live-work-play lifestyle.

Using green building techniques is another staple of sustainable communities. Here are a few examples:

  • Architects design buildings to take advantage of the sun's lighting and heating capabilities.
  • They install energy-efficient appliances.
  • They try to use local sources of materials as much as possible to cut back on the environmental costs of transport.
  • They build with durable, non-toxic materials that have either been recycled or sustainably harvested.

You might see straw bale houses, which essentially use bales of straw as the structural building blocks; cob houses, which are a mix of straw, clay and sand or earthbag homes, which are exactly what they sound like, homes made out of bags of dirt.

Along with green building techniques, sustainable communities rely on green gardening methods. They landscape with native, drought-tolerant plants and raise them organically to reduce water and keep pesticides and herbicides out of the environment. Some settlements, like Serenbe, also maintain sizable organic vegetable gardens to provide a local food source.

Almost eighty percent of Serenbe is reserved as green space.
Photo Courtesy Serenbe

Many communities also set aside a significant portion of their land as open space. Serenbe, for example, reserves 80 percent of its 900 acres for green space; that is 720 acres of rolling hills, woods and streams free of development [source: Thuston]. Quite a contrast to the concrete-laden urban sprawl of Atlanta just 32 miles away.

Another way sustainable communities reduce their ecological footprint is by capturing and recycling their wastes, often creating their own contained natural cycles. Instead of treating normally perceived waste products such as rainwater and sewage as pollution to be gotten rid of, residents turn them into resources. Sewage, for example, is turned into compost that fertilizes plants and increases soil productivity, while captured rainwater is cleansed through innovative filtering systems and reused for watering plants. For more information on these techniques read How Composting Works and What is gray water, and can it solve the global water crisis?

On the next page, learn how 50 people in Missouri are practicing radical environmental sustainability.

Examples of Sustainable Communities

Sustainable communities design their houses to be energy efficient, like this house with solar panels.
Sustainable communities design their houses to be energy efficient, like this house with solar panels.
Russell Illig/ Getty images

More than 400 ecovillages exist in the world, according to the Global Ecovillage Network database. The following examples outline life in just three of these communities.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Missouri

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is a developing 280-acre community in northeastern Missouri with far-reaching goals. It aims to be an entirely self-reliant town that practices "radical environmental sustainability," according to the community's Web site. The town's founders hope to attract between 500 and 1,000 residents to create a diverse community more capable of providing for all of its own needs [source: Dancing Rabbit]. Dancing Rabbit even has its own local currency to encourage local trading and sourcing of jobs.

The ecovillage has established a set of six guidelines that may seem extreme to the lazy environmentalists among us, but should set the town well on its way towards achieving sustainability.

  1. No vehicles are to be used or stored in the village.
  2. Fossil fuels for cars, refrigeration, heating and cooling homes, as well heating domestic water aren't allowed.
  3. All gardening must be organic.
  4. All power must come from renewable resources.
  5. No lumber from outside the local area is allowed unless it is recycled or salvaged.
  6. Organic waste and recyclable materials are to be reincorporated into usable products through composting methods.

Long term, Dancing Rabbit citizens are trying to achieve negative population growth. If they want the current 50 or so residents to become 500 or 1,000, they may want to rethink that last guideline.

Los Angeles Ecovillage, California

Los Angeles Ecovillage, California

You might think sustainable communities have to be set in the country, but that's not true. Located just three miles west of downtown Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Ecovillage (LAEV) is a community of 500 residents seeking to have minimal impact on the environment while also providing a fulfilling way of life [source: Los Angeles Eco-Village]. The urban location near public transit, schools, churches, commercial services and industry helps residents drive less, while the dozens of gardens and fruit trees provide a local source of food.

LAEV takes a whole-systems approach to sustainability, meaning that residents strive to balance the social, economic and environmental needs of the community. Here, clean water and air rank up there with close-knit relationships, ethnic diversity and affordable housing. Citizens have saved 20 tons of brick from the landfill to use in construction projects, composted over 100 cubic yards of yard waste and held countless weekly potluck dinners to establish and strengthen relationships. Who knew that sustainability could be possible even in one of the largest, most polluted cities in the United States?

Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood, New Zealand

About 6,510 miles (10,477 kilometers) away in New Zealand, another environmentally minded community is sprouting up. Earthsong has joined the two concepts of permaculture and cohousing to form its own unique green community. Permaculture is a sustainable method of edible landscaping that minimizes energy and water usage, while cohousing is the sharing of common resources by a group of people.

Residents of Earthsong own their own homes, but they also have shared access to common land and a common house. The common house is where residents socialize and use amenities such as the library and the laundry and craft rooms. Individual houses in the neighborhood are made of rammed earth, which is a form of natural building material excellent at keeping houses cool in summer and warm in winter. In addition, homes are outfitted with solar panels, and their roofs collect rainwater.

Sustainable communities are just one kind of living arrangement that's easy on the Earth. On the next page, you'll learn about a few other kinds of eco-friendly developments.

Other Eco-Friendly Communities

The Amish were green long before it was cool.
The Amish were green long before it was cool.
Bruce Hands/ Getty images

Residents of the three sustainable communities we just discussed deliberately placed sustainability at the top of their agenda. But communities spring up for lots of reasons not related to the environment, and sometimes the Earth benefits.

Before "green" was the new buzzword and sustainability was cool, Old Order Amish communities were quietly co-existing with the planet since the early 18th century. While members of this religious group didn't consciously develop their way of life to help the environment, their simple farm-based living doesn't hurt it.

The Amish use horses to power their farm equipment and to get around. Their homes have no electricity; instead, they use lanterns for light. In stark contrast to the rampant consumerism visible in many countries, the Amish do not own things they don't need. They wear simple clothes, and their houses are sparsely furnished. Amish communities didn't have to "return to the earth" to achieve their brand of sustainability. They were there all along.

They may look goofy, but people in eco-friendly cohousing developments are practicing sustainability by sharing meals and common resources.
Cheryl Maeder/Getty Images­­

Cohousing developments offer another example of a living arrangement that unwittingly practices sustainability. These developments typically are designed to encourage and strengthen social relationships, rather than to tread lightly on the environment, but, as it turns out, the two often go hand in hand. Although residents in a cohousing development enjoy the privacy of their own homes, like the citizens of Earthsong mentioned earlier, they share a common building and other resources.

Sharing major appliances like washing machines, power tools and heavy exercise equipment forces you to interact with your neighbors while reducing resource use. In addition, it allows individual houses to be smaller, which, along with the clustered arrangement of homes, preserves land. People who own cars (some people share cars) park them on the sides of the neighborhood to create a pedestrian friendly environment safe for children. Several times a week, residents may also eat a shared meal in the common building to strengthen ties. Cooking for many on one stove is much more energy efficient than cooking for 20 on separate stoves.

For more information on sustainable communities and tips on living a "greener" lifestyle, you can investigate the links on the following page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Banjo, Shelly. "You Are How You Live." Wall Street Journal. March 24, 2008.
  • Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. "Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage." (March 26, 2008)
  • Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. "Ecological Covenants." (March 30, 2008)
  • Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. "Our Vision." 2007. (March 30, 2008)
  • Earthsong. "Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood." June 20, 2005. (March 26, 2008)
  • Gangloff, Deborah. "The Sustainable City." American Forests. May/June 1995.
  • Global Ecovillage Network. "What is an Ecovillage?" 2007. (March 25, 2008)
  • Hart, Maureen. "An Introduction to Sustainability..." Sustainable Measures. 2006. (March 25, 2008)
  • Heckeroth, Stephen. "Towards Sustainable Communities." Solar Today. March/April 1999. (March 25, 2008)
  • Los Angeles Ecovillage. "Los Angeles Eco-Village." March 25, 2008. (March 26, 2008)
  • Serenbe, LLC. "Serenbe." 2008. (March 25, 2008)
  • Thuston, Jessica. "Living the Simple Life in Serenbe, Georgia." Cottage Living. (March 30, 2008),21135,1725616,00.html
  • Wise, Stephen. "How the Amish Work." 2008. (March 27, 2008)
  • World Wildlife Fund. "About One Planet Living." Jan. 11, 2008. (March 27, 2008) pl/index.cfm