Sustainability Case Study on Hart's Mill Ecovillage

In October 2017, I completed the ten-month Design for Sustainability course through the Global Ecovillage Network and Gaia Education.  The Gaia Education Design for Sustainability (GEDS) course is a 10-month certification program that presents a “comprehensive overview of the necessary components for sustainable community design,” and is “based in the experiences of hundreds of ecovillages acting as living laboratories over many decades.”

The final phase of the course involves a Design Studio where teams of students explore a real case study around the four Dimensions of Sustainability–Ecological, Economic, Social, and Worldview.  My four-member Design Team–Leah Gibbons, Hamish Thomson, Thumbs Dijgraff, and me—worked on Hart’s Mill for our Case Study.  It was a joy working with and learning from these experienced, insightful, and wonderful people, and together we generated an 80-page report on Hart’s Mill’s status as a sustainable ecovillage, with recommendations on how the community could expand and deepen its commitments to sustainability.

In our work, we observed that Hart’s Mill is at a critical time in its development, and still has key decisions to make concerning the nature of the community.  Our Design Team took seriously Hart’s Mill’s stated goal of creating an Ecovillage (versus a more conventional development).  We utilized the GEDS model of four dimensions of sustainability, giving attention to Ecological, Economic, Social and Worldview dimensions and the ways they synergistically interact for systemic sustainability.  

Based on our training in the GEDS course, we concluded that Regenerative Design values and strategies offer the best current guidance for creating an Ecovillage.  Our main recommendations are for Hart’s Mill to adopt a Regenerative Sustainability framework to guide its vision, mission, aims, and practical projects.  Our intention was not to supplant Hart’s Mill’s current plans, but rather to help manifest the latent potential of Hart’s Mill as an intentional community and as an ecovillage.

So what is Regenerative Sustainability?  Regenerative Sustainability aims to re-weave human and natural communities into a co-evolutionary whole, where humans exist in symbiotic relationship with the living lands they inhabit.  Regenerative communities strive to create the conditions and capacities for a thriving and abundant future for all life.  This means continually evolving as a project, working across scales (microscopic to macroscopic, local to international), and developing care and commitment for the land, ecosystems, social systems, and larger wholes of which we are a part. 

One specific example for how this could apply to Hart’s Mill would be to reorient our project to caring for our local and regional watershed.  Hart’s Mill is near the headwaters of McGowan Creek, leading to the Eno River, Falls Lake, the Neuse River, Pamlico Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. This location gives Hart’s Mill an important role to play in creating a healthy and thriving watershed through regenerative development.  If Hart’s Mill recognizes that it is part of larger living systems and that it has a unique role to play in helping those systems manifest their highest potential, health, and vitality, then the community can become a catalyst for regeneration of the larger living systems of which it is a part.

Many of Hart’s Mill’s Principles and Intentions already reflect a Regenerative Sustainability paradigm. These include: “an abiding commitment to each others’ and the lands’ well-being” (PI-1); “embracing the larger web of life” (PI-2); “integrate harmoniously with the land and each other” (PI-11); “deepening connections with one another and with the land” (PI-15); facilitating “sustainable relationships, growth, and trust” with neighbors (PI-30); “enabling the creation and sustenance of other eco-villages” (PI-33); and “continual reassessment” (PI-36).  When applied more consciously, the Regenerative Sustainability paradigm and Regenerative Development can guide Hart’s Mill in achieving its goals and playing a valuable role in helping its larger community of life transform to regenerative sustainability.

To this end, our Design Team recommended the following revision of the Hart’s Mill Vision:

“Hart’s Mill ecovillage lives our interconnectedness with all of life, living as nature. Through this interconnectedness, and through fulfilling our unique value-adding role in our larger whole, we reweave all of life and create systemic perpetuating vitality and health in place and in the living systems of which we are a part.”

Our Design Team also recommended the following revision of the Hart’s Mill Mission:

“Hart’s Mill is a regional center for regenerative agriculture and living, adding value to and catalyzing transformation to regenerative sustainability of our larger community and bioregion while providing our inhabitants with a cooperative, celebratory, and co-creative social and work life. Hart’s Mill uses regenerative agriculture, building, economic, and living technologies to continually increase the health and vitality of the entire living system.”

By enhancing the community’s Mission and Vision, Hart’s Mill can become the US East Coast Center for Regenerative Living.  Hart’s Mill would be a transformational project not just locally, but in its bioregion and throughout the US, elevating the conversation from sustainability to regeneration so that Earth can thrive again and be a place where life flourishes.

In addition to our Design Team’s main recommendations around adopting a Regenerative Sustainability framework, the report is also full of specific ideas and suggestions for each of the four dimensions of sustainability.

For the Worldview Dimension, our team recommends that the community develop a holistic worldview that lives the reality of interdependence and interbeing.  This spiritual framework is a foundation for the commitment to Regenerative Sustainability.  Creating a community such as Hart’s Mill is inherently spiritual, and nurturing this aspect of community life will greatly enrich Hart’s Mill members and its endeavors.

For the Social Dimension, we observed that many members would benefit from deepening collaborative skills and avenues of participation in community governance.  Hart’s Mill members express a great deal of appreciation for the community’s leaders, while also revealing a spectrum of views on the effectiveness of leadership at Hart’s Mill.  The community has needs for feedback systems, younger leaders, more effective decision-making, and improved communication, as well as the need to address power and conflict more proactively.  Our Team also recommends that Hart’s Mill create an Educational Center for Regenerative Sustainability, Cooperative Governance, and Social and Environmental Justice as a top, near-term priority.

For the Economic Dimension, we recommend that Hart’s Mill develop an internship program for youth to work and learn on the land, beginning with scheduling five workshops in 2018, including workshops to build an outdoor kitchen and classroom using natural building techniques.  Hiring a volunteer manager and marketing specialist would be crucial for the success of such programs.  We also recommend innovative strategies for attracting farmers and rewarding them for co-creating farm and community infrastructure.  Hart’s Mill can then purchase any upgrades and investments from the farmer when and if they leave.  Finally, while financing the development of Hart’s Mill is an ongoing area of concern, by deepening the community’s commitment to Regenerative Sustainability, Hart’s Mill will stand out and attract members, allies, donors, financers who are inspired by its sustainable mission. 

For the Ecological Dimension, Hart’s Mill can become a leader in regenerative agriculture, green building, and renewable energy.  The community can grow food in a way that increases the health and functioning of the surrounding ecosystems.  Regenerative design can guide water use, reuse, and wastewater treatment through rainwater catchment, living gray water systems, composting toilets, and constructed wetlands.  Hart’s Mill can become an inspiring model in renewable energy through building for Net Plus renewable energy generation, maximizing energy efficiency, and collaborating with local and regional groups working for a renewable energy economy.

That is a sampling of highlights from the Case Study. 

On December 3rd, about ten community members gathered to hear a presentation on the Case Study and discuss the recommendations.  There was broad agreement that more conversation is needed, so hopefully we will continue to explore how our community might benefit from the results of the Design Team’s work in the coming months and years.