What is an Ecovillage?


Ecovillages are green communities on the cutting edge of sustainable human development.  But what exactly is an ecovillage?  Defining the term is challenging because, like “sustainability”, ”ecovillage” is used in many contexts with different meanings.

Robert Gilman offered perhaps the classic definition in 1991 when he wrote

“an ecovillage is a human-scale, full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”

This is clearly a tall order. In fact, using a strict interpretation of this definition, one could argue that that there are no ecovillages on the planet today. So regardless of what definition we use, ecovillages are better thought of as communities striving towards these ideals rather than actualized utopias.

At Living Routes, we view ecovillages as living laboratories – “beta test centers” – for a more equitable, just and sustainable future. They are creating lifestyles that are both “high quality” with equitable access to resources and power and “low impact” with minimal ecological footprints. We therefore define ecovillages as “communities striving to live well and lightly together.”

Environmental and Social Responsibility

Using this simple definition, it becomes clear there are two directions towards the ecovillage model.  “Top-down” ecovillages are typically intentionally created communities within developed, resource-rich countries.  Here, members are exploring how to reduce their ecological impacts below local and global carrying capacities while maintaining high quality lifestyles.  Top-down ecovillages are also deeply examining the economic and political systems that put them on “top” and are often engaged in social equity and justice work in their neighboring communities, their nation, and the world.

“Bottom-up” ecovillages are generally indigenous, traditional communities within resource-poor “2/3rd-world” countries working to elevate themselves above an “Equity Baseline” in ways that increase and assure their access to adequate wealth and resources as well as their ability to affect political and social change . These communities are also striving to preserve and share their local cultures and stories, which often hold deep wisdom for how we can thrive in a post-carrying capacity world.


Both top-down and bottom-up directions are valid and necessary in our quest to create viable models of sustainable, human-scale communities.  In this way, ecovillages are helping demarcate the “livable zone” in which all humans must enter if we are to survive as a species.

Diversity of Ecovillage Models

\"GlobalAccording to the Global Ecovillage Network, there are over 600 self-identified ecovillages around the world. Yet no two are the same.  Some have fewer than 30 members; others more than 2,000.  Some are urban, but most are rural.  Some are secular; others are religious; most are \”spiritual,\” with residents following their own unique paths. Few strive for self-sufficiency and most are well-connected catalysts for positive change within their bioregions. Some even have members who reject the label of “ecovillage” because they feel it falsely implies they have fully manifested their vision. There are also tens of thousands of indigenous communities around the world that have never heard the word “ecovillage”, but are similarly developing and integrating new forms of economic, environmental, and social development, including…

  • Appropriate technologies and renewable energy systems
  • Sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems
  • Habitat restoration and stewardship
  • Group facilitation, consensus decision-making, and community organizing
  • Communication skills, conflict resolution and mediation
  • Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga
  • Ecological design, green building, and community development
  • Social-responsibility, environmental education and activism
  • Cross-cultural and diversity awareness
  • Social justice and equitable access to wealth and power
  • Holistic health, nutrition, and alternative medicine

Ecovillages are not utopias

Humans are in kindergarten when it comes to developing sustainable relationships with each other and the planet. While ecovillages are perhaps in first or second grade, they are far from graduation and few, if any, are even in the “livable zone” described above.  For example, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute cited the Findhorn Foundation (one of the oldest and best known ecovillages) as having the smallest ecological footprint of any community in the developed world – half the UK average.  While certainly a laudable achievement, if everyone on Earth lived like a Findhorn Community member, we’d still need several planets to support our lifestyles.  Ecovillages are trying to prepare us for some major real-life “exams” humanity is facing, but they still have a long way to go.

Ecovillages are not finished products and are very much in process. Real people – like you and me – are developing these unique communities, often under very difficult conditions, Common challenges include inadequate financial and human resources, restrictive zoning, local fears and misconceptions, and even language barriers within these often very international communities. Ecovillages encounter the same hurdles any new business faces while at the same time building residences, decision-making structures and interpersonal relationships. This is hard work!

In addition, there is little being attempted in ecovillages that isn\’t – on its own – being done better elsewhere. One can easily find more successful or cutting edge renewable energy facilities, green buildings, organic farms, and even decision-making processes outside of ecovillages. What makes ecovillages unique and relevant then are not these individual components, but that they are trying to put the pieces together into human-scale communities, into wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. Ecovillages are, in effect creating new cultures and  \”stories\” about what it means to live interdependently with each other and our planet.

Partner Ecovillages

\"LivingRecognizing this core work, Living Routes is proud to collaborate with a select number of these ecovillages as “campuses” where students can learn about sustainability while actually living it.  In addition to offering models of economic, environmental, and social development as described above, Living Routes’ partner communities…

  • are diverse and \”full-featured\” and able to offer a rich academic and community experience.
  • have good accommodations, classrooms, and internet access.
  • have highly trained and educated professionals engaged in real-world sustainable development.
  • are located in stimulating environments with minimal health and safety concerns.

Information on partner ecovillages that host Living Routes programs is available at:

Ecovillage Resources

The following resources are recommended for further reading about ecovillages and sustainable communities.

The world of ecovillages is ever evolving, so please add your comments, thoughts, and questions so we can further our understanding together.  Thanks!

(thanks also to Alexander Papouchis for his helpful suggestions and edits)