A day in the life of the
Cleveland EcoVillage,
June 1, 2010

An imaginary account about what life could be like.

Julie woke early with sunlight on her face. She loved waking up in her new bedroom. It was so light and airy that she often felt like she was floating.

It wasn't a large bedroom. In fact, her townhouse would probably be described as "cozy" in a real estate ad. But it felt large and open because of the abundant windows and skylights.

When she had moved into the development, the realtor had bragged about the windows and the building's passive solar design. At the time, she hadn't understood what that meant, but now that she had lived there for a year she had seen how her townhouse respected the sun. Windows and overhangs were precisely oriented to let in sunlight in the mornings and evenings, and also during the winter months when the sun was low in the sky. At noon on a hot summer day, however, her place stayed shady and cool. The whole development of townhouses and apartments had been designed to take advantage of the angles of the sun throughout the year in Northeast Ohio. Unlike most modern buildings, which were the same boxes from Miami to Minneapolis, her building was designed to fit a particular place and work with the sun rather than trying to overpower the local climate with heating and air conditioning. The result was energy-efficient, comfortable, and delightful. The building felt like none other she had ever experienced.

Julie lay in bed and stretched for a few more minutes. Her mornings weren't so hectic now. She used to live in an apartment out in the suburbs, and, as a single parent, it had always been a struggle to get downtown to work on time. First there had been a two-mile drive one way to drop her son, Josh, at school. And then she had to endure a long and stressful commute on I-71. If the weather was good and there were no unusual traffic jams, she could make it in 50 minutes.

Now it took less than 20 minutes and she didn't have to drive at all. Josh's new elementary school was a couple of blocks away in a renovated church building. From there she walked another block to the W. 65th Street Rapid Transit station and took the train two stops to downtown. The law firm where she worked as a paralegal had its offices in the Terminal Tower right above the downtown Rapid station. She couldn't believe how quick and convenient it was to take the train. No matter what the weather, she knew she could get to work on time. And she had come to enjoy the relaxed walk to school with Josh. It was a lot better than piling him into the car and driving like a madwoman every morning.

His school was different, too. It was called the Kirtland Ecology School (named after Jared Potter Kirtland, the 19th-century Cleveland-area naturalist). It was a charter school within the Cleveland Public Schools and had a customized Montessori curriculum based on environmental stewardship and neighborhood development. The students planted organic gardens, studied math and measurement on construction sites, and learned geography by studying the migration routes of songbirds. In May the fifth-grade students went on a field trip west of Cleveland to witness the spring warbler migration along Lake Erie. Josh was amazed to see 48 different birds, and he proudly checked them off in his field guide. Although Kirtland School was just three years old, it was already gaining a reputation for motivating kids to achieve. Scores on state proficiency tests were as high as scores at many suburban schools.

Many other students were involved in the neighborhood. Indeed, the EcoVillage had become a living laboratory for all kinds of projects and research activities. High school students had developed a recycling and composting program that had cut the neighborhood's waste stream in half. Urban planning students from Cleveland State University had helped plan bikeway and pedestrian routes. NASA scientists were testing hydrogen fuel cells and photovoltaic panels as power supplies for public buildings. Business students were helping to recruit companies to the EcoVillage's eco-industrial park in which the waste by-products from one plant became the valuable feedstocks of another.

And Cleveland Public Power technicians were monitoring energy use. They had an Internet Web site that tracked the neighborhood's electricity consumption hour by hour, along with how many tons of air pollutants that energy efficiency measures were preventing. Currently, EcoVillage residents were using about half of the power per capita of a conventional neighborhood. Additional savings were on the way as more of the older homes in the neighborhood received state-of-the-art energy retrofits financed by the municipal utility. The retrofits included insulation, high-efficiency furnaces, and super-efficient windows. The windows were produced by a local company that employed many city residents, so the neighborhood's energy dollars were being invested in the local economy rather than sent out of state to purchase power.

Julie was reminded of the energy and money savings as she flipped on the bathroom light (a compact fluorescent bulb that used less than a quarter of the power of a regular incandescent bulb) and turned on the shower (a water-conserving showerhead drawing water from a solar hot water heating system on the building's roof). The combination of the townhouse's smart solar design, super insulation, and high-efficiency appliances made her utility bills so low that at first she thought there must be some mistake.

But now she was enjoying the savings. She kept part of the money in her pocket as extra disposable income. And another part went into her mortgage. In fact, a big reason that she was able to afford a beautiful, new home was the innovative financing package offered in the EcoVillage. Not only did a portion of her home's energy savings help qualify her for a bigger mortgage, but so did a part of her transportation savings. By living in a neighborhood with such good transit service, she didn't need a car. And that put thousands of dollars back into her pocket. As a result, she could afford more house in the EcoVillage than she could anywhere else.

Of course, it had taken her a while to get used to the idea of a car-free lifestyle. But it was amazing how it could work if you lived in a compact neighborhood with stores close by. If she couldn't find what she needed in the shopping court built over the Rapid station, she could hop on a community circulator bus and quickly get to other shopping areas. And the West Side Market was just one stop away on the Rapid.

If she needed to carry a lot of groceries or wanted to go somewhere that was hard to get to by bus, she could always rent a car. There were so many car-free people in the EcoVillage that a co-op rental business had developed. Julie could walk down to the corner and pick up a car for a day or for a couple of hours. Anything from a small compact to a minivan was available, including electric vehicles that reduced pollution. It was a lot cheaper to rent a car for the few times she really needed one than to own one all the time. And she was glad to give up the worries of car ownership and maintenance.

After dropping Josh off at school, she mailed a letter at the new post office that had been conveniently located next to the Rapid station. Outside the post office was an attractive plaza surrounded by other shops and a day care center. Above the stores were three to five stories of terraced apartments. With the transit, retail, services and housing all mixed together, the plaza was a center of activity all day long. Old-time residents told Julie that the old W. 65th Street Rapid stop had once been a decrepit and dangerous place that people avoided. Now it was a lively, fun place, and it was attracting new ridership to RTA.

As Julie headed for the boarding platform, she ran into Maria, a member of her new "supper club." The organizers of the EcoVillage were very good at linking residents together and creating a sense of community. In addition to lots of meetings to plan new developments and educational programs for the neighborhood, there were computer networks for bartering goods and services and for matching people up to share meals. As a single parent, Julia had grown weary of rushing home to cook supper every night. So she had joined a cooking group with three other residents on her block. Julie cooked on Monday evening and the others took turns on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Tonight it was Maria's turn, and she asked if Julie had ever tried "tostones," a dish of fried green plantains that was popular in Puerto Rico. Julie laughed and said she'd try anything. There were so many different kinds of people in the EcoVillage that she was learning something new every day. The diversity was built on the existing ethnic diversity of that part of Cleveland, and it was protected by the mix of new housing types that were being constructed. For example, many of the new homes had small accessory apartments—"granny flats"—that were very affordable. And the special mortgage programs had helped many people who had been renting older homes in the neighborhood to become homeowners. Residents on fixed incomes also were assisted by a tax break that made it possible for them to fix up their homes without getting hit with higher property taxes for a five-year period.

Some of the most economical, as well as environmentally friendly, housing in the EcoVillage was in the cohousing block. In this development of townhouses residents had private rooms but shared a common kitchen, dining room, courtyard and other facilities. "Why does every household have to have a blender and a lawn mower?" members liked to ask.

Although cohousing wasn't for her, Julie was getting used to the idea that it was often better to share a public amenity than to try to buy everything privately. For instance, she had always dreamed of having a big house and yard. But now she realized it was much nicer to have access to public parks and greenspace than to spend time taking care of a lawn. It was more convenient to walk two blocks to swim at Zone Recreation Center than maintain her own pool. And it was just as good to have a plot in the community garden as it was to have her own land. What she really wanted was access, not ownership.

That evening after work, since she didn't have to cook supper, she was able to go on a bike ride with Josh. They followed the pedestrian and bike paths that wound through the EcoVillage. They crossed busy Lorain Avenue where a "traffic calming" project slowed down the traffic and made the street safe for people. And they continued along the nature trail by Zone Recreation Center and on to the Walworth Run bike trail, which in turn linked the EcoVillage to the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor trail farther to the east. Someday, she told Josh, they were going to ride their bikes all the way to Akron!

It had surprised her at first, but she never felt unsafe while riding around the neighborhood. So many people were out enjoying the streets and trails and front porches that she felt neighbors were always looking out for her. If she needed a favor, there were a dozen people she could call within a block. In contrast, she had always felt isolated out in the suburbs. Her previous place had been in a big apartment complex and had had a view of parking lots and garages. She had gotten to know many of the cars in the lots but not her neighbors, who had been a transient, rootless bunch.

Julie put Josh to bed and went out on her third floor balcony to enjoy the evening. She watered her plants and looked out over the neighborhood. She could see a dense mix of treetops and rooftops. Farther to the south she could see lines of cars streaming along I-90. She pitied the people with long commutes home.

To the northwest, she could see the sun setting over Lake Erie. She wasn't high enough to see the lake itself, but she knew it was there. She had gotten to know where the sun set and rose. It was the first time in her life that she had paid much attention to such things. Her new home had given her the precious time to notice the world, time to feel connected to a place.

She smiled. It would soon be the summer solstice. A year ago she hadn't had a clue about the longest day of the year. But people in the EcoVillage were talking about it and were planning a big celebration.

The EcoVillage was like that. There were lots of celebrations. Summer solstice. Winter solstice. Ethnic holidays. The groundbreaking for a new energy-efficient house. The completion of a habitat restoration project.

More and more residents were learning about the earth, the natural systems that sustain life, and how to make cities work for people. They were understanding not only that a compact, urban neighborhood can be a wonderful place in which to live, but that it can be the best place for most people to live sustainably and reduce their impact on the earth.

It was hard work. It involved experimentation, new ideas, and imagination. Plans didn't always work out. But it kept moving forward. And it made Julie feel that she and her new home were part of something good and important.

David Beach


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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003



Illustration by Paul Downton, Urban Ecology Australia

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