by Shane Snell
Whole Village members attending a workshop with ecologist John Seed in front of their common house, “Greenhaven.”
On a warm summer evening in July Whole Village,
a sustainable farm community and aspiring ecovillage an hour outside of Toronto, Canada, celebrated their 10th anniversary dinner. Members and friends raised their glasses to acknowledge all the planning, hard work, and good will that went into this pioneering ecovillage. Looking around the room, I sensed that people felt deeply grateful. They had created the only fully developing ecovillage project within this vast, populous, and highly influential Province of our country.
In the mid-90s, parents of students and other supporters of the Toronto Waldorf School began discussing the possibility of forming a cohousing community located within King Township that integrated elements of Biodynamic food production. In those early years, the group (with nearly 100 people signed up) worked on acquiring land and developing and refining the consensus decision-making model, which is practiced widely within the Waldorf School system. On several occasions Toronto developers snatched up a promising property at the last minute, leaving the group frustrated and worn out, until they decided to consider land located farther away. Soon they found a beautiful 200-acre farm property in the township of Caledon, Ontario, about 50 miles to the southwest, with large rolling hills, meadows, grassland pastures, a hardwood maple forest, flat crop land, a spring-fed pond, and a creek and swamp contained within a designated “ecologically significant” wetland area. The property included a typical four-bedroom brick farmhouse with multiple additions, an enormous 1800s barn, a steel chicken barn, a tractor barn, and a tiny garage. For several of the founders it was love at first sight, and soon the group bought the land.
A visiting local school group helping in the CSA garden.
The European settlers who first intensively developed the region cleared the land for crops and pasture and built massive, Mennonite-style barns. Other areas in the region are low-lying wetlands or lands too marginal for agriculture. These characteristics, along with the relatively close proximity of Canada’s largest city, resulted in many wealthy people starting a large number of “hobby” farms and building massive retreat homes there, which more than doubled property values in the last decade. The area transitioned from traditional community farms into high-octane lifestyles financed by well-paid Toronto careers. Within this mix of past and present realities, you can imagine the raised eyebrows in 2000 when Whole Village members first met with the Ward councillors (like county supervisors in the US), to talk about a rural intentional community project on property in their township!
Surprisingly, the Chief Planner for the district was initially supportive to the group, and the founders felt confident that the township’s General Plan could accommodate the zoning changes needed to build their community, and the paperwork was soon underway. But the majority of the original group members had by now left the group, either because the location was too far away from the Toronto Waldorf School, or because they didn’t support the new direction of the project. So eight members of the original group bought the property in 2002, and a few of them moved onto the land and lived in the farmhouse together. In the first year they started a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Whole Village members, although not all living together at the time, drafted important fundamental documents for the community, including identifying their goals and founding principles, and developing their membership policy. They developed their vision statement, which reads: We are a community with a commitment to sustainability and land stewardship seeking to live together in harmony with each other and with the natural habitat. One of the founding members, architect Denis Bowman, started developing architectural drawings for the future residences of the community, with input from the group, to eventually accommodate about 30 families. Things were starting to come together.
CSA managers and volunteers in the pick-up building.
Unfortunately, the township councillors and planners, initially sympathetic to the group’s goals, became less supportive because the neighbours were worried. The Municipal Offices received angry phone calls, with words like “cult” and “hippies” used to describe the proposed new development. Other callers were concerned about what they considered as setting a “dangerous” precedent.
The existing zoning allowed single-family dwellings, and the group was initially given the impression that zoning could be modified to accommodate multiple dwellings, as is typical in cohousing. However, when pressure was applied by neighbours, the officials grew cooler to the idea. Now there was no way separate dwellings would be permitted on the land, and the site plan with separate dwelling units had to be dropped. Thus began the biggest struggle that the group has faced — how to live together on the land when the existing farmhouse clearly was not adequate. As the drawings for potential housing designs multiplied, so did the immense pressure on local politicians to stop the project.
A monthly orientation meeting for visitors.
Finally the Whole Village founders came up with a unique solution for the restrictive legislation and unsupportive township officials: they would build a large “single-family dwelling” and just call themselves a “family.” But after spending over $30,000 in permits and fees associated with this plan, it was quickly rejected by officials without any detailed explanation. The Township of Caledon refused to offer any other options for the group, and basically closed the door on the discussion. So the Whole Village founders hired a lawyer.
While spending another year in legal limbo and preparing for a court date, the founders moved forward in other important ways. They continued to attend meetings and visit the farm. They planted trees and an orchard, started an apiary, built composting toilets and solar showers, erected greenhouses, and continued to grow the CSA program. They learned better methods for communication, and got further training in the consensus process. They celebrated community gatherings and meals together. The spring-fed pond had now become a source of garden irrigation and a wonderful spot for summertime swimming parties and campfires.
Inside the common kitchen.
Finally, in 2003, the Court date arrived. The judge took all of fourteen minutes to rule that the township had no grounds on which to continue to reject Whole Village building applications. Thus the people who issue building permits in the township were basically forced to follow their own existing rules and stop creating artificial barriers to the group’s application. The Whole Village founders submitted a new design.
That spring, first as a work-exchanger, then as a building contractor, I was among about a dozen members of a grassroots construction team to begin building the large common house. More Whole Village members spent an increasing amount of time on the land, camping or living in the farmhouse. Whole Village members, working together with other land planning authorities, placed a Conservation Easement on the land, restricting further development for 1000 years. They initiated a multi-year permaculture plan, and with help from the Credit Valley Conservation, over the years planted 10,000 trees on the property. Volunteers from all over Canada and internationally, often WWOOFers (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), arrived to help with the CSA. The grassroots construction crew developed their own community-within-a-community, which evolved as new workers arrived and others left.
A masonry heater uses small, hot fires to heat common areas with radiation from thermal mass.
As the design evolved over the construction period, the common house, now called “Greenhaven,” became a 15,000 sq. ft. passive solar dwelling with local and reclaimed building materials, walls and roof constructed of SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) with R-40 insulation, and eco-friendly, nontoxic flooring, sealants, stains, and paint. Its radiant floor heating is supplied by geothermal heat pumps; graywater is handled by an engineered wetland septic field.
Eleven apartments or “suites” were constructed around the perimeter of the building, with central areas designated as common space. Suites range from studio to one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, all with kitchenettes and a washroom. A five-bedroom apartment was built on the south end of the building, legally a “granny flat.” Individual members or households would own the square footage of each of their own suites, and a portion of the common area, as well as a small yard adjacent to each private external entryway.
Common space includes a community kitchen, large dining room for shared meals every weeknight, a living area, meeting room, kid’s playroom, recreation room, library, laundry, and mechanical room.
The architect dubbed it “A farmhouse for the 21st century.”
Members preparing a flower bed with straw mulch.
In 2006, two years after groundbreaking, Whole Village members moved into Greenhaven.
In the two years since, Whole Village has continued to evolve. The legal status of the community was changed to become a nonprofit co-operative. The farm remains a for-profit entity, which leases the land from the co-op. Committees include Legal/Financial, Farmland Stewardship, Membership, and Education. The group averages one meeting per week, as well as a Monday night check-in to see how everybody’s doing, discuss issues, and co-ordinate schedules. Currently, community demographics are weighted towards baby boomers, with the average age in the 60s. Yet, young people are also in the mix, either as provisional members, renters, associates, gardeners, or volunteers. And the large family living in the five-bedroom suite welcomed a grandchild this year, the newest Whole Village resident.
Whole Village supporters and visitors working on one of the CSA greenhouses during a winter work bee.
Over the last three years some members left the community, for a variety of reasons (health issues, travel, starting another community elsewhere, disappointment in a personal request not being approved), leaving almost half of the suites in Greenhaven without resident member-owners. This relatively large loss of members is likely to precipitate some kind of re-evaluation process soon. Whole Village members realize it’s difficult to attract new long-term members, given that the cost of building Greenhaven has increased new-member buy-in costs to a level many newcomers consider unaffordable.
Loading hay to feed the resident farmer’s cattle through the winter.
Despite this challenge, Whole Village forges ahead. In 2008 the three-member CSA garden management team sold over 40 shares and are setting records for surplus sales at the local Orangeville Farmer’s Market. The resident farmer continues to manage a small herd of sheep and cattle; other residents manage the flock of 35 chickens that provide free-range eggs. Members are initiating programs for growing strawberries and shiitake mushrooms, raising ducks, and preserving or canning vast quantities of pears, apples, and tomatoes, among other fruits and vegetables. A significant harvest of maple syrup was produced from the hardwood forest. The monthly work bees and orientation tours continue to generate public interest, introducing dozens of outsiders to sustainable farming practices and the ecovillage vision.
The annual Maypole celebration on the lawn next to the old farmhouse.
Whole Village has now been featured in nearly every major media publication in the greater Toronto Area. Events hosted on the land include food demonstrations and workshops, nature presentations, organic farmer training, and seasonal celebrations. Plans are underway to update and reclaim the existing buildings on the farm. Proposals have been drafted for more educational and outreach initiatives. And a young provisional member who is part of our newly formed Energy Committee is directing the installation of photovoltaic panels and solar hot water heating units on the roof.
Greenhaven from the northwest.
Returning to the 10-year anniversary dinner, I could understood why current Whole Village members admit that the road has been anything but easy. But, I have to wonder, is it ever easy for pioneers? According to the philosophy of Deep Ecology, in the natural world there are always similar challenges to new systems. So for those engaged in the work of changing our world, we should perhaps expect struggles along the way. Yet, as Whole Village members take stock of how far they have come, despite all of the challenges and the uphill travel still ahead, indeed, I could easily see that there were already so many good reasons to propose a toast. Here‘s to the next decade!
Shane Snell is an Associate Member of Whole Village Sustainable Farm Community in Ontario, Canada. As an ecovillage activist he educates about community responses to the critical challenges of our times — climate change, energy depletion, environmental degradation and social inequity. As part of his research, Shane recently completed a two-year “eco-tour” of the U.S. and Canada, visiting and documenting over 100 sustainability-oriented projects including ecovillages, intentional communities, CSA farms, and environmental education centers.
- How Yarrow Ecovillage Got “Ecovillage Zoning” — May ’08
- What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden — Jan ’09
Also in this issue — Oct. '08
Coming in Future Issues:
- Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
- Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
- First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
- Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
- Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
- Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
- Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
- ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)