Sustainable communities are communities that do not depend upon outside sources for food, energy, or essential resources. Using food gardens, solar power, and other alternative means they generate enough resources internally to sustain themselves indefinitely; hence their name. The advantages of sustainable communities include independence and self-governance, positive environmental effects, and social benefits. Maintenance of sustainable lifestyles involves responsibilities and challenges unlike those of other communities. Despite this, people all around the world have undertaken these alternatives to traditional living.
Traditional communities are built in or around towns and cities, using techniques and patterns that were established during the Industrial Revolution and earlier periods. Any resources that cannot be created in these areas are brought in from outside sources, including electrical power, food, and material goods. In the latter half of the 20th century, the detrimental effects of this system on the global environment were widely observed and documented. During this time, environmentalists and other activists proposed alternative communities in publications like the Whole Earth Catalog. Acting on these ideas, pioneering members of the counterculture created the first sustainable communities.
Sustainable communities can take many possible forms. Some are loose gatherings of like-minded people, while others are highly organized and coordinated, with stringent membership requirements. Some are united by a particular type of dwelling, such as the earth-sheltered house communities of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. Many communities are dedicated to the use of alternative energy, waste, and water systems. In addition to providing independence from public services and utilities, these alternative systems are believed to have positive effects on the local environment.
In traditional communities, home owners pay outside services and contractors for the maintenance of household systems like plumbing and garbage collection. In sustainable communities, home owners must often maintain their own specialized systems; some, like water-retention systems, require close monitoring. This explains why many people who are not used to such responsibilities disdain these alternative methods. Owners of sustainable systems, however, often report a sense of satisfaction with their operation. They can foster a spirit of independence and self-reliance as well as reducing the house’s impact on the surrounding ecosystem.
Some sustainable communities maintain communal gardens or farms; the food is available to all community members in exchange for work at planting or harvesting, a concept sometimes known as sweat equity. Group activities like this often create a sense of community that some find preferential to traditional neighborhoods. It is not uncommon for members of a community to bond over their efforts toward a mutual goal. Sustainable communities may have long-range advantages for the environment, but more immediately, members often feel they are achieving observable social progress in the short run.