Pittsburgh’s first experiment in creating an ecovillage is starting to take shape on the Eden Hall campus of Chatham University in Gibsonia.
Named after the school’s most renowned student and environmental pioneer, the Rachel Carson EcoVillage is based on the concept of intentional community and is designed collectively by its residents.
“It’s a community of people who care about both living lightly on the planet, living with nature and also living with their neighbors,” says Stefani Danes, an architect and Carnegie Mellon professor who’s helping to guide the project. “That idea of community is really at the heart of an ecovillage.”
Also known as cohousing, an ecovillage typically includes 20 to 30 units of housing, in which everyone has a private house. However, there’s also a common house with a large dining room where residents take turns preparing meals for one another along with guest rooms. There can also be everything from shared childcare space to shared tools and/or office equipment.
They’ve launched a website, and the first four homebuyers have committed, out of a core group of 30 to 40 people who are involved with the project. Construction is expected to start soon, once there are 15 homebuyers. More than 100 people have inquired about the project.
The plan for many years was to build an ecovillage in a walkable part of the city of Pittsburgh, but that never panned out.
“I’ve been attracted to ecovillages, intentional communities, and the like for about 25 years and have always wanted one in Pittsburgh,” says Grace Astraea, who plans to move into the Rachel Carson EcoVillage. “Having kept an eye on the Pittsburgh Cohousing Group for the last 20 years and their efforts to create something in the city has been akin to watching the world’s longest seed sprouting take place.”
One would think that the pandemic would have dampened the interest in this sort of common, shared use of space. But that hasn’t been the case.
“Having neighbors you know is the best way of seeing through any emergency,” says Danes. “A community can thrive through all kinds of tough times … There is a very strong interest now in intentional communities. Many people have seen the isolation that this pandemic has brought to the surface. Many people live alone, without knowing their neighbors.”
The common dinners that are a primary and beloved feature of ecovillages might not happen in a pandemic. But knowing all your neighbors means knowing if someone has a special skill for making masks or knowing that someone is at-risk so a neighbor can shop for them.
The core planning group has even committed to learning a different style of collaborative decision-making called dynamic governance or sociocracy. They’re taking an online course together to learn about the process.
The “Eco” part of the Rachel Carson EcoVillage is bound up in the notion of community, too.
“Just like friends exercise better when they do it together, a community composts regularly, adopts sharing strategies that reduce the consumption of things and uses things more thoughtfully,” explains Danes.
By sharing so much, people can live in a more sustainable, affordable way, notes Danes. Research done on an ecovillage in Ithaca, New York, indicates that ecovillagers average a 40% smaller carbon footprint than most American families.
The houses will be built according to passive house standards, designed with computer modeling to have ultra-insulated walls and windows that waste the least amount of energy possible.
Lots of collaborations are planned with Chatham’s environmental researchers at the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment, which is based at the Eden Hall campus. Everything from rainwater to trees will be carefully considered.
“The trees we plant will become part of a maturing native forest,” says Danes. “We’ll be working closely with Chatham on this process of regenerative planting of the landscape.”
When fully built out, the Rachel Carson EcoVillage will have 35 units and a common dining house. Two small units will be located above the dining house to provide affordable options. The other 33 will be built in clusters around three courtyards and will range from studios to 3-bedroom houses. Each will have a front yard and a backyard and share a common courtyard. The community will connect to the heart of the Eden Hall campus via a five-minute walk along a wooded trail.