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Earlier this week, I blogged about how to move toward an energy independent home.  Energy independence begins at home, but it doesn’t end there.  Today, let’s paint a picture of an energy independent community. (First, get inspired by this vision-in-motion created by Ecocity Builders).

When we shift our focus to the community level, it’s all about interdependence.  Unless we’re living in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, we are reliant on our neighbors, our nearby farms and our municipal services to meet our everyday needs.  An interdependent community, then, is one in which residents, small businesses and government agencies work together to ensure a decent, sustainable quality of life for everyone.

As in Step 4 of the home energy independence program, an interdependent community must define its needs and develop a long term strategy for how to sustainably meet them. For example, most everyone would agree that we need food, water, shelter, electricity, medicine, clothing, transportation, waste management, parks and education.  And some might recognize that while we might want plastic toys from the dollar store, the latest i-thing, 6-packs from Safeway, and suburban dream homes, we don’t actually need these things and cannot expect to have access to them forever.

In an interdependent community then, the emphasis is on small and local.  Power is distributed on rooftops or through a small wind or solar generating station.  Food comes from the regional foodshed.  Businesses are small and carry locally-made goods.  People get around on mass transit and bikes.  A few electric vehicles are available for deliveries and for people with mobility limitations.  People know their neighbors and share tools, appliances and skills.  Maybe there’s a community center with a communal washing machine, tool lending library, medical clinic, daycare and senior center.  Next door is a farmer’s market and bike repair shop.

It may sound like ecotopia, but some communities are in fact already moving in this direction. Residents of University Park, Maryland formed an LLC that is installing a distributed solar power system on the roof of a local church.  The super-green, zero-waste, solar-powered Sonoma Mountain Village in California was designed from the outset around the concept of the “five-minute lifestyle”, meaning everything residents need is a five-minute walk away.  And the redevelopment plan for Treasure Island (a former naval base in the San Francisco Bay) aims to be the most environmentally sustainable community in the world.  The new-and-improved Treasure Island will (if all goes according to plan) be home to a 22-acre farm and a network of bike lanes, buses and open spaces that will help the majority of residents ditch their cars. Wind, sun and biogas will completely power the island’s homes, all of which will be built for maximum energy efficiency.  Both Sonoma Mountain and Treasure Island guarantee that a significant percentage of the housing stock will be affordable for low-income residents.

Towns can be redesigned or built sustainably from scratch.  As with most things, the constraints are political, not technological or financial.  What interdependent qualities does your town enjoy, and what steps toward sustainability is it contemplating?  Get the conversation going like this community in Alexandria, Virginia is doing.  And if anyone tries to tell you that ecocities are an idealistic fantasy, you might reply that they’re nowhere near as unrealistic as the notion that the fossil fuel joyride will go on forever.

–Erica Etelson

Posted by Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy co-founded Sungevity and now serves as strategic advisor. He is an internationally recognized opinion leader on climate and energy issues. He is the author of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy - and Planet - from Dirty Energy (2012), a book that has been described as the clean energy manifesto for the next greatest generation.