In the past decade or so, thousands of ecovillages — that is, communities of like-minded people who have chosen to live together in what they've deemed to be an ecologically sustainable and harmonious way — have been started around the world. Almost all of them, especially those with a significant farming component, have required their members, essentially, to abscond to the countryside — to some remote, isolated plot of land.
Now, a new ecovillage farm in the East Bay hopes to provide a new model. The founders of Wild and Radish are planning to build a sustainable urban farm and residential community on a ten-acre plot of land in El Sobrante, a small (2.8-square-mile) municipality that's just twenty minutes from downtown Oakland.
"Really, nothing like this has been done before in urban areas," said May Nguyen, one of the company's founding members.
The project is the brainchild of six Bay Area food justice advocates, and their plans are nothing if not ambitious: Four eco-friendly communal houses will be built on one acre of the property, and the other nine acres will be reserved for a "backyard permaculture farm," according to Nguyen. Two of those acres will be set aside as a wildlife preserve, and the rest will be used to grow organic fruits and vegetables in a partnership with various nonprofit organizations, including Oakland-based Planting Justice. (Wild and Radish itself will be run as a for-profit limited liability company.) The ecovillage will also be different from most existing projects because the houses will be rental properties, so prospective tenants won't have to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy a house.
Overall, the goal is to create a "scalable, replicable model" for what this kind of sustainability-minded community might look like in a relatively urban setting, co-founder Leah Atwood said. El Sobrante, in particular, will serve as an interesting case study because of the municipality's "peri-urban" location, on the outskirts of a larger city.
To the uninitiated, creating an ecovillage might sound like escaping to a commune, but Nguyen said that that particular term — with its connotations of Sixties- and Seventies-era flower children and unorthodox religious practices — is severely outdated. Instead, she and Atwood speak of forming an intentional community: a place where people with common values can create a kind of society from scratch, eschewing the "pre-formed boxes" of existing cities and residential developments. As Nguyen explained, "How do we design our communities, and how do we live in a way that's in harmony with how they're supposed to be?" To put it another way, everyone (in the sustainable food world, anyway) has heard of community-supported agriculture, but Nguyen said that this is the logical next step: a "community-supported community."
That said, the agricultural component is perhaps the most central to the founders' vision. Atwood said the plot of land is especially well suited for nut and fruit trees, but that the goal will be to grow as wide a variety of crops as possible: hazelnuts, avocados, artichokes, stone fruits, leafy greens, and more.
Because nonprofit organizations will run a large portion of the farming, Wild and Radish will be able to distribute the produce to low-income communities at less-than-market rates. According to Atwood, the founders are considering all kinds of outlets: farmers' markets, CSA boxes, a truck-based mobile fruit and vegetable vendor, and perhaps even a restaurant of their own.
The fact that all of this will take place in a semi-urban setting is crucial — after all, the founders could have purchased a cheaper, easier-to-farm plot of land if they'd been willing to relocate to a more remote rural area. But, as Atwood noted, the majority of the world's population lives in or near urban areas: "If we're going to rebuild our food system in a really resilient way, we need to look at how a lot of food can be produced in a densely populated location."
Nguyen cited Karl Marx's notion of a "metabolic rift" — the idea that people are now physically cut off from where their food is grown. What better place to heal that rift than in a peri-urban location like El Sobrante — which, as she pointed out, means "leftovers" in Spanish? "We want to transform 'leftovers' into something that's resilient and can thrive," she said.
For now, Wild and Radish is in the process of seeking investors. The plan is to restore an existing house on the property so that several of the co-founders can move in this summer. If all goes well, the first crops will be planted this winter, and by next spring they'll break ground on the first new residence.
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