Communities and the Built Environment


Average people and the average community can change the world. You can do it just based on common sense, determination, persistence and patience.

- Lois Gibbs

When we look today at the Long before the relatively recent few hundred years of industrialization, humanity still lived close to the land and communities were inherently ecologically sustainable. Many of the ideals of todays green movement naturally existed. There were no pesticides in the food we ate…everything was naturally organic and  harvested direct from the land. Building were made of natural materials and “waste” was naturally re-absorbed back into the land. We were stewards of the land and coexist with it. Our population was small enough so that we did not have a large impact on our overall environment.  From this perspective, “progress” seems like “regress”.

While our modern concept of “Eco-community”  is a growing dream of many, it is only unique within the context of a modern society which has become quite disconnected from the environment from which it arose. The next necessary stage in the social evolution of human societies is to move forward while incorporating the past, rather than discarding it as we have attempted to do.  Some call this the 4th industrial age, but whatever we call it, it is about realigning ourselves and recognizing that we are not separate from nature and work in harmony with it.

Living in disconnected societies have important ramifications on the development of healthy, caring communities. A disconnected living environment will play a role in shaping disconnected attitudes towards fellow beings. In our modern communities, there is a conspicuous absence of a feeling of sacredness within our environment. Modern disconnected societies are accompanied by a great sense of personal alienation, which is accompanied by selfishness, depression and a sense of emptiness of living itself. There is a constant hunger for novelty and new stimulation because nature in her everpresent glory is no longer perceived as sufficient.  When we don’t feel safe, comforted and supported with a strong sense of community and connectedness, our human spirit suffers greatly. We get the kind of society we find we are exactly in.

An  important part of our mission is to therefore to define a pathway which returns us to a truly sustainable living environment, one which integrates all elements of our habitat from the food we eat to how we treat other living beings. Needless to say, this must be a holistic path as the opposite is what has created this very society out of harmony with nature.

How did our Built Environment become so alienated from Nature?

In the last few hundred years, Capitalism has had an unchallenged run as far as economic systems go. Today, we can see the result of a majority of countries adopting this model….most notably, big powers like China and India. We are seeing the natural consequences of the concentration of power in the hands of so few. As those who wield power become even more powerful, there is even less the common person can do to stop them. They rewrite the laws to suit them in a no-win situation. The unfortunate result of this is that it is likely to lead to a catastrophic system failure.

Like all big human models, there are always some finicky detail we dismiss as insignificant, flaws that usually present themselves as big ones but only during system breakdown. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Capitalism’s main premise of a free market based on greed and self-interest was bound to backfire on us….any mother knows that you teach your children to be kind and caring. Societies are complex, yet they can make terrible decisions, even when facing obvious threats to their existence. In the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, noted evolutionary biologist, Jared Diamond explores how human societies come upon disastrous decisions. He determines that there is a host of reasons: failure to anticipate a problem, failure to perceive it once it has arisen, failure to attempt to solve it after it has been perceived, and failure to succeed in attempts to solve it. All of these lead to the ultimate price, total societal collapse.

Relocalization and Transition

There is a growing movement to return to a low carbon, community based life;  a movement called relocalization or Transition.

In the past decades, the globalization movement has increased the disparity between rich and poor. Under the guise of fair trade, it has proven to be nothing more than an acceleration in resource extraction from the developing countries to the developed world without impacting the average citizen in the developing world at all. The globalization movement is just a logical extension of the more general consumerist model of economics, which has created greater and greater distance between humanity and the environment.

Relocalization means going away from Global and Central and back to de-centralized and local. It means a return to community self-reliance instead of corporate compliance and dependence. Villages, towns, cities, counties, and regions  return to independence meeting  their core needs for durable goods and food. To be sure, such a movement will be one of compromise for communities in developed countries, however, ironically, they can be an improvement for Base of Pyramid communities in the rest of the world.

Relocalizing means putting as much resources in the local socio-economic framework as possible. It will necessarily result in a materially poorer lifestyle but in exchange for a much more important gain of resliency and authentic community:


  • Loss of some knowledge
  • Loss of infrastructure
  • Loss of tools
  • Lower energy use
  • Energy and resource autonomy
  • Food and water security
  • Stronger sense of community
  • Lower energy use
  • Establish close feedback loops with the environment

Centralization has made us all minority shareholders of knowledge; relocalization takes back that power and puts it back in the community. The community must become self sufficient for all it’s needs including food production, health, education, manufacturing, waste and building.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Food production is the most important area for survival yet,  in our modern specialized and highly centralized, industrialized system, farming has become the occupation of a minority. It is no wonder that Jeremy Grantham says we need less bankers and more farmers. Bill Mollison, founder of permaculture says that the world’s problems can be solved in the garden.

Community Supported Manufacturing (CSM)

Our high tech society produces marvels of technology. In a post peak world, these centres will fall victim to oil shortages due to the massive amounts of energy resources required to operate them. Manufacturing for our basic necessities must happen at the community level. It is unlikely that most communities will have semiconductor engineers and fabs located within them. Community technology will need to be resilient, low tech and meaningful.

Goto Transitional Communities

A Holistic Approach to community design

At one time, there was no global economy and yet, magically, people were able to make do…sometimes even in relative comfort! For most of humanity, human beings successfuly lived in such small communities. Some argue that with 70% of people projected to live in cities in a few decades, that perhaps humanities carbon footprint is better served by the economies of scale of city dwelling. Proponents of urban living argue that it is easier to serve a large number of people concentrated in one area than many people spread out. Such arguments are not so simplistic as highly efficient ecologically designed communities can have a far lower carbon footprint that poor designed urban ones.  Urban environments have one disadvantage compared to small communities. Their infrastructure must be built to serve massive numbers and if that infrastructure is expensive, it is very difficult to change. Large built environments require massive amounts of materials to support it. While thousands may access a resource in an urban setting, in a small community setting, only a few may access it. These two vastly different volumes requires major differences in design material and methodology.

Gaia Education provides a model to allow communities to reclaim their independence in a way that is in harmony to nature. Download their excellent free content here. For Africa, the consequences are profound…it means that communities can return to a state of well being without being completely dependent on outside forces and without compromising themselves to internal strife.



Gaia Education’s Education Mandala showing the 4 Key areas of Ecological Community Design.


Ekistics – the science of community

For those of us involved in the field of “Ekistics” – the scientific, multi-disciplinary approach to human settlements – this means envisioning the sustainable human settlement as an organism, a biological structure, a living system embedded within larger living systems and comprised of smaller living systems. We must begin to model its patterns, processes, and structures upon organic, biological, ecological realities and to learn to use the metaphors that support this transformation. 

- E Christopher Mares

Since buildings are the largest consumer of energy and resources, sustainably designed communities offer a significant pathway  for energy and resource reduction. This requires a combination of scientific design methodologies as well as cultural and humanistic considerations, found in a new emerging field called Ekistics and championed by institutions such as the Village Design Institute.

E Christopher Mares of the Village Design Institute writes extensively of a biological cell analogy to ecovillages and of using a combined ecology and economic approach to such design, coining the new term

With this approach, the community vision is where it all begins and throughout the design, designers, architects, planners and engineers work hand-in-hand with community residents to adapt technologies and methodologies appropriate to those living in the communities. Eco-communities are complex undertakings as they are living, dynamic systems which incorporate a variety of techniques and methodologies in order to work effectively and sustainably.

In addition to the community members, other stakeholders include leading LEED accredited and sustainably minded architectural firms, renewable energy technology companies and green building products suppliers. InGienous Designs imagines, plans and pilots new eco-communities which have the lowest carbon footprint possible and are designed to meet the carrying capacity of the environment. These communities will become the repositories of the best technologies, both modern and ancient that will create beautiful, creative, healthy and inspiring communities which are self-sufficient and scalable to a diverse range of demographics found in African society. Each community will embed the African spirit of Ubuntu and sustainability will also extend into job creation where skilled community members will be trained to assist in the building of other communities.

Nature’s Principles of Design


  • Nature runs on sunlight
  • Nature uses only the energy it needs
  • Nature fits form to function
  • Nature recycles everything
  • Nature rewards cooperation
  • Nature banks on diversity
  • Nature demands local expertise
  • Nature curbs excesses from within
  • 9. Nature taps the power of limits

(Janine Benyus from Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature)


H.T. Odum created a science-based evaluation system to represent both environmental and economic values with a common measure. EMERGY, spelled with an “m,” measures both the work of nature and humans in generating products and services.

Odum describes it as a “science-based evaluation system…to represent both the environmental values and the economic values with a common measure. EMERGY, spelled with an “m,” measures both the work of nature and that of humans in generating products and services. By selecting choices that maximize EMERGY production and use, policies and judgments can favor those environmental alternatives that maximize real wealth, the whole economy, and the public benefit” (Environmental Accounting: EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making, Odum, 1996, p.1).

“EMERGY is a measure of the available energy that has already been used up (degraded during transformations) to make [a product or service]. Its unit is the emjoule” (Environmental Accounting: EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making, Odum, 1996, p.2).

EMERGY can also be considered “energetic memory” (Scienceman, 1987), the total value of energetic inputs introduced over time, both environmental- and human-derived, to produce a usable economic output.

“EMERGY is a scientific measure of real wealth in terms of energy required to do the work of production” (Environmental Accounting: EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making, Odum, 1996, p.1).

Using EMERGY analysis whose measure includes both environment and economics, we can go beyond the artificial, dualistic and often heated debate between environmentalists and economists by providing an objective, scientific measure which can arrive at a truly holistic policy.

– Excerpted and paraphrased from E Christopher Mares paper: Sustainable Settlement Energetics: EMERGY and Ecovillage