Ecological impacts of community-led initiatives

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Many CLI and their members are strongly motivated by ecological concerns. Ecological footprint analysis provides an established methodology for asssessing their success in this regard and comparing it to wider situations and trends, and shows that CLIs and their members and beneficiaries do in most cases achieve tangible reductions in their individual and collective ecological impacts. A number of different studies studies suggest that activities relating to domestic energy use, food and transportation are the most significant contributors to these impacts. However, thorough calculation of ecological footprint is demanding and studies involving CLIs remain quite few in number, largely restricted to ecovillages and co-housing projects.

Ecological Footprint Analysis

Ecological footprint analysis aggregates data on consumption patterns and their environmental impact in different domains of activity in order to arrive at a single consolidated figure indicative of the sustainability of personal lifestyles.[1] Based on the 'One Planet' model that seeks to establish the relationship between the global ecological impacts of human consumption and the capacity of the biosphere to provide materials and absorb waste, this figure is usually reported as 'global hectares'(gha): the area of ecologically productive land that would be necessary to support the lifestyle in question. This methodology has its limitations and can not, given diverse contexts of application, accurately cover all possible factors of relevance nor produce rigorously comparable data with absolute reliability.[2] Importantly in relation to CLIs, it does not take into account increases in local or global biocapacity resulting from the regenerative activities through which many CLIs both restore ecologically degraded land and increase capacities for collective action at community level to monitor and respond to ecological impacts.

A 2014 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature reported global biocapacity at the time to be 1.7 gha per person (and gradually increasing due to changes in land use).[3] Ecological footprints above that, if replicated over the entire human population, would therefore represent ecological overshoot. The figure therefore represents a benchmark for sustainable living, and has been employed as such in several of the studies reported here.

Ecological Footprints of Ecovillages and Co-housing Communities

Relatively few published studies provide rigorous data on the general ecological impacts of CLIs. Most of what exists has focused on ecovillages (sometimes also including co-housing communities). Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) has developed an impact assessment tool for ecovillages whose latest version is structured to reflect the Sustainable Development Goals.[4] This has provided qualitiative assessments of activity towards the SDGs in 29 showcase ecovillages worldwide, but not yet progressed to providing robust quantiative data or assessment of the ecovillage movement as a whole.[5] A review of quantitative studies of ecological impacts of ecovillages and co-housing projects found published literature to cover only 23 of more than 1000 ecovillages known by GEN to exist worldwide and be largely restricted to Europe and North America. Relevant literature took a great diversity of forms (from research articles to postgraduate theses) and also varied greatly in their aims and methods; only six directly compared ecological footprints with those of comparable mainstream communities.[6]

The review in question covered 16 scientific publications that assessed the ecological and carbon footprint of a total of 23 ecovillages and cohousing initiatives. [6] Most initiatives presented an average Ecological Footprint (EF) around half that of the comparison figure, usually a demographically similar mainstream settlement in the same region or country. Compared with the estimated available global biocapacity, in 2014 to be 1.7gha, five of the 23 initiatives had reported per capita ecological footprints below this global sustainability threshold. Two of these communities are located in Europe: Krishna Valley (1.5 gha per person) in Hungary and Tir y Gafel (also known as Lammas) in West Wales (1.6 gha per person). In terms of activities, the greatest contributions to lowered ecological footprints were from domestic energy use, food and transportation.[6]

Ecological footprint analysis at Cloughjordan employed participatory methods that actively involved residents in design, data collection, interpretation and communication of findings. This collaboration with university-based researchers supported the village's stated aim to be a working example of sustainable settlement and interest in monitoring progress towards this goal. Findings from a household survey completed by 47 of the 50 households in the ecovillage at the time showed residents to have an average EF of 2.03 gha, which according to WWF figures represents an ecological overshoot of around ten per cent. The figure was slightly higher than the per capita EF forecast by five founder residents involved in the original ecovillage design (1.95 gha), well under half the EF calculated in a study of 79 Irish villages in 2006 (4.35 gha), and nearly a third lower than the EF in another Irish village that had achieved significant reductions via a four-year carbon reduction programme (2.93 gha).[7]

Factors Enabling Lower Ecological Footprints

An important consideration in ecological footprinting studies is the relative contributions of infrastructural and behavioural measures to ecological footprints. Comparison between Ecovillage at Ithaca and two alternative designs for the same site in the USA showed the actual ecological footprints of ecovillage residents to be at least a third lower than those for more conventional designs. While a high proportion could be attributed to higher density of residential housing at Ithaca (allowing much of the land to be dedicated to regenerative purposes, whose impacts the study did not take into account), much also resulted from differences in behaviour and consumption patterns.[8] Similarly, a comparison between comparable houses in an ecovillage and conventional settlement in Sweden found a significantly lower ecological footprint in the ecovillage (2.8 gHa versus 3.7 gHa), with 95 per cent of the difference resulting behavioural differnces relating to food consumption and energy use rather than house design.[9] A UK study that compared the ecological footprints of nine residents of eco-homes built to the highest existing national environmental standards with those of 22 permaculture practitioners living in a range of housing types lacking specific eco-credentials found those of permaculture practitioners to be on average 60 per cent of those of ecohome residents (2.6 gha compared with 4.37 gha).[10]

The study of ecological footprints at Cloughjordan Ecovillage showed their low levels to result from both behavioural and infrastructural/technological measures, including a woodchip-powered district heating system, use of energy efficient technologies, food production measures and consumption choices, and collaboration to reduce waste and private car use. High variance among households in the impacts of different behavioural measures suggested high potential for collective learning to enable further behavioural and social measures to reduce ecological footprints via sharing of relevant skills and best practices.[7] Similar findings have come fromresearch on Danish ecovillages and cohousing communities, which tend to present high levels of social capital and effective means for its mobilisation organisation towards increased adoption of sustainable technologies, sharing of goods and facilities, and enabling more sustainable behaviour among residents.[11] Daly's review of findings from several studies of ecovillage and co-housing studies confirmed the recurring importance of social and behavioural measures, includng car-sharing schemes, co-working spaces, food procurement and preparation, including provision of shared vegetarian meals, and onsite production of food. The same study highlighted the need for further research to establish in more detail how the reductions in ecological footprint associated with these measures are achieved.[6]


  1. Barrett, J., Birch, R., Cherrett, N., Wiedmann, T., 2005. Exploring the application of the Ecological Footprint to sustainable consumption policy. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 7, 303–316.
  2. Wiedmann, T., Barrett, J., 2010. A Review of the Ecological Footprint Indicator—Perceptions and Methods. Sustainability 2, 1645–1693.
  3. McLellan, R., 2014. Living Planet Report 2014. WWF International, Gland.
  4. Accessed Feb 16th 2019.
  5. Kovasna, A., Mattos, T., 2017. GEN Ecovillage Impact Assessment Pilot Study. Initial Results of 29 Showcase Ecovillages. Global Ecovillage Network.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Daly, M., 2017. Quantifying the environmental impact of ecovillages and co-housing communities: a systematic literature review. Local Environment 22, 1358–1377.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Carragher, V., Peters, M., 2018. Engaging an ecovillage and measuring its ecological footprint. Local Environment 23: 861–878.
  8. Moos, M., Whitfield, J., Johnson, L.C., Andrey, J., 2006. Does Design Matter? The Ecological Footprint as a Planning Tool at the Local Level. Journal of Urban Design 11, 195–224.
  9. Haraldsson, H.V., Ranhagen, U., Sverdrup, H., 2001. Is Eco-living more Sustainable than Conventional Living? Comparing Sustainability Performances between Two Townships in Southern Sweden. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 44, 663–679.
  10. Pilkington, B., Roach, R., Perkins, J., 2011. Relative benefits of technology and occupant behaviour in moving towards a more energy efficient, sustainable housing paradigm. Energy Policy 39, 4962–4970.
  11. Marckmann, B., Gram-Hanssen, K., Christensen, T.H., 2012. Sustainable Living and Co-Housing: Evidence from a Case Study of Eco-Villages. Built Environment 38, 413–429.