Culture environment

Inside the effort to build a sustainable, eco-friendly cohousing community in New Jersey

One EcoVillage will not, alone, change the world. That is, one community of people living intentionally “lightly,” by sharing resources like energy, transportation and housing, will not, solve the problems that afflict society today: pandemic spread, isolation, division, climate doom, inflation, rising costs of living.

But, it could change your world. Ask yourself:

How high were your utility bills this winter? How much did you pay to fill up your car the last time you were at the pump? How much higher is your grocery bill today than this time last year? 

How sick are you of Zoom, or digitized intimacy filtered through pixels and delivered on the internet? How many times did you miss basic human connection in the last year? 

How panicked are you about the escalating effects of climate change? How much do you have saved to pay for the next flooded basement or hail damage to your car or a backup generator?

You get it. In case you don’t: the promise of EcoVillages, like ones in the works in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is to build communities that share resources, connect humans and provide an opportunity to live intentionally, all while modeling a more sustainable way for groups of humans to live.

There are hundreds of cohousing, shared-resource communities in the U.S., and many throughout the world. The Global EcoVillage Network (GEN) helps people interested in bringing such living environments to their areas navigate the process to build one, and it does so with an eye toward sustainability. Residents at EcoVillages—which can be as small as a couple acres or larger than 100, with a wide range of housing units and occupants—often share similar ideas on living intentionally and sustainably, share meals, co-operate gardens, pool money to maintain solar panels, hold community events and, collectively, lower their ecological footprint while building a community. They’re sited in a range of locales from rural to urban, too.

Photo Credit: Øyvind Holmstad

New Jersey has no such living option, no EcoVillage. But a group of well over 1,000 people are trying to build EcoVillage New Jersey. There’s work to do in siting it (though a plot of land in Hillsborough has potential) and so efforts are now focused on building an EcoVillage about an hour west of Trenton in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, according to Steve Welzer, who is helping organize the efforts here.

The Altair EcoVillage, as it’ll be called, will have 30 homes on eight acres and cater to a 55-plus crowd. The homes will be energy efficient and feature low-impact design, and the community will share values of community interaction and privacy; ecologically sound buildings and open spaces; and diversity.

The hope is to have requisite building approvals by late 2022, with the first folks moving in by next summer. The houses will range in price from $390-$490,000, with the price including access to shared common spaces and the promise of lower energy bills due to smart design and centralized mechanical and electrical systems.

“We’re trying to model how to live lightly,” Welzer says, “which we think is an important thing in this day and age, especially affluent societies like ours learning to live more lightly in general. One way for sure is to share stuff. [Altair is] like a lot of the EcoVillages, they’re going to build in car-sharing right from the beginning. Altair will build in infrastructure to support new electric vehicles. Beyond that is to share cars. It the principle that everyone doesn’t have to have their own lawnmower, if you live more collectively. 

“The communities that we’re talking about generally have a common house, like a community center. Very often they’ll have guest rooms. They’ll have laundry facilities. … Also in terms of building community, in the common house people can eat together. Sharing is a very big aspect of living more lightly.”

Welzer’s been involved in trying to get an EcoVillage in New Jersey for decades. He initially came across the idea after getting on a mailing list in the early ’90s for a potential village in Ithaca, New York. Organizers were just starting the process of creating the community, and Welzer saw the genesis of the EcoVillage step-by-step; a process which has resulted, today, in that village having 220 residents in 100 units on 100 acres of land. 

“I’ve watched the whole thing and the movement growing all around the world,” Welzer says. “We’ve been trying— every year until COVID hit—to do a carpool trip. You can drive up to Ithaca, and show people what we have in mind.”

EcoVillage Ithaca

In addition to modeling life inside an EcoVillage, the Ithaca community also demonstrates how it can lead to more sustainable living. A Rutgers study found residents in the Ithaca EcoVillage consume about 70% fewer resources than the average American.

But getting all that done here, in New Jersey, is “very hard,” Welzer says, due to expensive land and tricky zoning laws. That hasn’t stopped the interest from growing, though; in the eight years since EcoVillage NJ was created, the group has held monthly meetings, field trips and investigated potential sites for a community.

“We know there’s an enormous amount of interest in the idea,” Welzer says. “In New Jersey itself, we’ve looked at maybe 10 parcels of land all over the state and we just never got to the point of raising the money to purchase one. Sometimes we’d try to meet with township officials to see if it’d be conducive in their town to do something like this.”

Welzer is optimistic about the dialogues he and others have had with state and local officials around creating an EcoVillage here, particularly recent conversations.

“They’ve really come very far,” he says. “This idea that we have to live differently in terms of climate change… A lot of people were impressed with these cohousing communities and EcoVillages. During COVID, people were still able to socialize. At least they had people around them, they didn’t feel as isolated. We’ve been encouraged. Speaking to outsiders, progressive people are really starting to come around to this idea that we all need to model a more ecological way of living.” 

To learn more about the efforts to build an EcoVillage in New Jersey, go here or follow the MeetUp group, with current events in which to participate, here. You can also check out their Facebook page. For information on the Altair EcoVillage in Pennsylvania, go here