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A look into life at Ithaca’s EcoVillage

A turn onto Rachel Carson Way in the Town of Ithaca leads to a community unlike any other in the Finger Lakes.

The charm of EcoVillage presents itself at once. To your left is a field of giant solar panels and a berry garden near Frog neighborhood. To your right, the newly developed Tree neighborhood with its modern architecture. Directly ahead is Song neighborhood, where residents put their own spin on untreated wood homes.

Frog neighborhood

EcoVillage is located roughly two miles from downtown Ithaca. In April, I met with EcoVillage’s co-founder Liz Walker for a walking tour of the community.

The first homes were designed in the early 90s by architect Jerry Weisberg. Frog was the first residential group, completed in 1997.

EcoVillage is based on the principle of ‘cohousing,’ popularized in Denmark in the 1960s, Walker explained.

“It’s a community-oriented form of housing that emphasizes taking the cars out of the middle and parking them on the periphery and just using pedestrian streets,” explained Walker. “It brings the focus back on people and people’s interaction with nature, rather than people’s interaction with cars.”

Frog neighborhood at EcoVillage. Credit: Matt Gerety

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I met Ithaca College student Matt Gerety on my tour. He said he was at EcoVillage to snap photographs for a class project on EcoVillage residents. The idea was sparked by a visit to Gourdlandia, the “gourd-based art shop and garden” at EcoVillage, he explained.

I met Graham Ottoson, the artist behind Gourdlandia, on the same tour. She showed me her workspace, where she spends her days turning gourds into an array of items like lamps, vases, bowls and nightlights.

Her shop is the first on-site commercial business at EcoVillage. Ottoson also offers workshops throughout the year. Late September to early October is the best time to see the gourd garden out front in full bloom, she said.

Graham Ottoson carving gourds in her workshop. Credit: Matt Gerety

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“I was a big fan of Graham’s art, ” said Gerety.

I asked him what stood out most about his experience documenting EcoVillage residents.

“I think my favorite part of the Ecovillage is the sense of community that’s fostered there. They really do a lot to emphasize caring for one another,” Gerety said. “They have community events, community meals, communal duties, all of which underline that it’s important to connect with and look out for your neighbors and your community. Building this community care and empathy, especially in these younger residents, will benefit us all as they go out into the world and share that empathy with others.”

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

Song neighborhood

Walker and I continued through Frog, passing by the neighborhood’s common building, where the home offices of eight residents are located. EcoVillage was a living-working community long before the COVID pandemic pushed many Americans to remote work.

“Even back in 1996, we were thinking about how we can get work on-site. These are owned by people who have similar businesses,” said Walker motioning towards the building.

The facade of each house in Song features an untreated wood exterior. The interiors of Song neighborhood homes are not standardized, which sets it apart from Frog and Tree. Residents were allowed to design their own layout at the time of construction.

“The woods here back up on Cornell land. There’s a Unique Natural Area that Cornell owns,” said Walker. “It’s like a gorge that is stunningly beautiful and has very few trails. That land is going to be permanently preserved, which is amazing for us because we have quite a bit of land here.”

Song neighborhood at EcoVillage. Credit: Matt Gerety

Tree neighborhood

In 2015, EcoVillage built its third and final neighborhood, called Tree, using state-of-the-art ‘green’ building techniques.

“We chose to build all-electric houses because we didn’t want to support fracking, so it was a moral choice,” said Walker. “Nobody had done it around here. We weren’t sure whether it was even possible in upstate New York to do environmentally sound, all-electric homes.”

Tree consists of 15 apartment units and 40 houses. EcoVillage contracted local engineering firm Taitem (an acronym for ‘Technology As If the Earth Mattered’) to construct Tree using the German building technique ‘Passive House.’

“Passive House uses really, really thick walls with lots of insulation and very good air sealing,” said Walker. “These units use, in some cases, net zero energy. We didn’t think that was even possible, so we were really shocked when the actual performance was that amazing.”

From its founding to the present, EcoVillage has been at the forefront of adopting new environmental technology. In doing so, the community has not only survived, but thrived

Tree neighborhood at EcoVillage. Credit: Matt Gerety

Learn more about EcoVillage

With 100 homes and 220 residents, EcoVillage is one of the largest co-housing communities in the nation. Over 80% of its 175-acre property will remain open green space, including 50 acres in a conservation easement held by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. 

For more information about EcoVillage at Ithaca, visit their website.

You can also find a documentary about EcoVillage by Flock Finger Lakes here: