Class and identity matters more than affordability in encouraging diversity in eco-communities

Eco-communities have a diversity problem. While some (Los Angeles Eco-Village, USA; LILAC, Leeds) are well positioned and structured to attract diverse residents, many (EcoVillage at Ithaca, USA; Findhorn, Scotland; Hockerton, England; Lancaster, England, to name just a few) struggle to reach beyond the white upper-middle class cohort.

Los Angeles Eco Village USA

Los Angeles EcoVillage, USA

Keen to ensure that the benefits and possibilities of eco-community living are available to all I have explored the multiple ways in which eco-building and eco-communities have sought to be affordable. This is based on the premise that it is high costs, or perceptions that living ecologically costs more, that deter more diverse residents joining.

Financial costs, or a perceived lack of affordability, are not, however, why eco-communities have a diversity problem. As Tendai Chitewere argues in her excellent new book – Sustainable Communities and Green Lifestyles[1]-it is class and identity that really act to exclude differentiated others. In her detailed ethnographic research of EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI), Chitewere explores the multiple ways potential residents are excluded. The green space surrounding the EVI buildings is not accessible to non-residents and it is therefore a “class-specific public space” (93). Class and identity shape individuals, and only those “with both the economic and social capital” (140), who have money but only work part-time or from home, basically those who are upper-middle class and white, can join EVI.

Ecovillage-at-Ithaca-1

EcoVillage at Ithaca, USA

The ways that eco-communities create exclusions, and diversity problems, are not just through financial barriers. Rather, by residents presuming the exclusions are ‘just’ financial there is a lack of acknowledgement of the difference that class and identity makes in society.

At EVI many had inherited wealth but did not acknowledge it, others’ failed to recognise the difficulty of actively participating in community decisions and work teams if the only way to survive financially is to work full time. This is a financial barrier, but one built through how class can often determine income. As class is not fully acknowledged attempts at introducing affordability projects are often too limited and token, failing to grasp the complexity of what drives exclusions. Unfortunately there is also a less often spoken about assumption, that eco-communities are deliberately created as places of escape from different others, as one interviewee noted “you have a lot more … control about who your neighbours are” (95). Another resident argued that low-income families would complicate communal decision making because they might hold different values.

Chitewere calls on eco-communities to be more critically aware of how class and identity are built into their missions and practices, often in hidden and subconscious ways. By exploring the subtle assumptions about participation, common values, lifestyle and food choices eco-communities can better understand the barriers they have created. Only when we move beyond a focus on affordability will eco-communities be able to embrace diversity.

By Jenny Pickerill

[1]Chitewere, T (2018) Sustainable Communities and Green Lifestyles: Consumption and Environmentalism. Routledge, London

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