The bus leaves me at a shallow turnout from the main road. I look around, breathing in the clean Irish air. The road curves down to my right, where I can just see the chimneys of the town of Cloughjordan. It appears to be just like any other Irish village, a broad High Street fronted by pubs and shops at the center, with smaller residential streets branching off to the sides.
Though it may not look like much, it is home to Ireland's first major ecovillage, one that is just completing its first buildings with the aid of grants from the European Union and Enterprise Ireland. The Village, as the project is called, provides a new model for how sustainable development can occur within towns and urban areas.
In the past, most ecovillages have grown up away from established towns and cities, in isolation from the wider populace, a fact that often contributes to an elitist image. As a result the valuable lessons they have to offer often fall on deaf ears. In the early days of the Findhorn community in northern Scotland, locals talked of witches and loonies living there and, though relations have warmed, they still tend to keep their distance.
The founders of The Village have decided to reverse this trend. Says one of them, Dave, "A big aim of what we're trying to do is integrate with the local community." They hope that eventually locals will be inspired to make more sustainable choices in their own lives.
There is no doubt that the ecovillage project has caused debate in Cloughjordan. When I first arrived in town, I stopped at a pub to get warm and phone Dave, who was going to meet me at the project's site. While I sat waiting for a call back and drinking a half-pint of Guinness so as not to be rude, I overheard the bartender chatting with the crowd of retired or out-of-work locals who sat sipping and watching the horse races on TV. "I went up there, and they're putting straw bales in their walls. Load of bull, if you ask me."
"I don't know," replied one of the customers, "straw bales do keep in a lot of heat."
Though there will always be those, like the bartender, who are slow to adjust to having an ecovillage as part of their town, the majority of residents seem to be warming up to the idea. The community recently had an opening ceremony for the construction site, which was previously blocked off by plywood walls (hoardings). More than 200 locals came, and Dave says they were very excited by what's going on. Said a local teacher as the ribbon was cut, "It's wonderful to see the hoarding come down. It's one village." Alice, a leading member of the ecovillage, agrees: "We feel like we've been supported and welcomed into Cloughjordan."
In many ways the ecovillage is already bringing good things to the town. Members have started several new businesses on the high street, including a coffee and bookshop and a bike shop. As the ecovillage develops, one of its key objectives will be creating a resilient and sustainable local economy. It will include a green enterprise center with resources to aid fledging local environmentally friendly companies.
The entrance to the ecovillage sits opposite a wooded square in the center of town. The total site covers about 90 acres of land. One third will be left as wilderness area, one third will be farmland, and one third will be developed into 130 houses, two thirds of which have already sold. Hot water for radiator or floor heating will be pumped to the houses from a central woodchip boiler, and many houses will also have their own solar water heaters. Each member who buys a site is free to design their own home, under guidelines that will keep them eco-friendly. The community is currently on the grid for electricity, but plans to build an offsite windfarm that will supply their needs.
A main path cuts through the site, leading through two squares that will house businesses and community spaces, and continues over a small stream and into the wilderness area. A cobbled street will connect The Village with Cloughjordan town proper, through a welcome square.
The 28-acre farm will be the first Community Supported Agriculture scheme in Ireland, and hopes to attract residents of the town to become members, as well. The Village has hired a farmer to run it, with the aim of producing bulky vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, as well as meat, milk, and eggs. Residents will have individual allotments where they can grow lighter vegetables to supplement this produce. In addition, the farm will grow grains making it, as far as I know, the only grain-producing farm in livestock-heavy Ireland. Grain from the farm will be milled onsite using waterpower from the stream, and a baker has already bought a storefront on one of the squares.
In an age of urban sprawl, The Village offers a model that could be applied to any new development, even the suburbs rapidly springing up on the outskirts of our cities (or further expansions to Ashland). In our society today, says Alice, we are often disconnected from those around us and from the natural world. By creating resilient local communities, we can foster meaningful relationships, living happier, low-impact lives that will leave the planet intact enough to allow our children to enjoy the same standard of living we do.
There's more! You can read a wider explanation of a new vision for suburban development at my Ecovillager blog on the Daily Tidings Web site, www.dailytidings.com. Or go to www.thevillage.ie/ for more information on The Village.
Elias Alexander is an Ashland resident studying in Findhorn, Scotland, one of dozens of intentional communities dedicated to sustainable living that dot the European map. After undergoing a month-long intensive Ecovillage training course there, he will spend the next three months visiting some of those communities. He intends to find out what they are doing to be sustainable, how they are doing it and what aspects can be expanded to a larger segment of the population. In articles here, you can join him on this journey.