The planet is fast urbanizing and villages are losing out. That trend is unlikely to change.
We have been building human settlements for ages. Yet these days opinions diverge on what ideal human habitats should look like. Some strive for higher and bigger in thriving metropolises, while others settle for small, local and somewhat natural in villages.
The planet is urbanizing rapidly and villages are losing out. That trend is unlikely to change any time soon. Globally interconnected cities will become home for the vast majority of the human population in this century, leaving empty villages in its wake.
That is why it’s time for smart sustainable cities to lead the way. Thanks to strong learning networks, relentless innovation, creative experiments and civil society initiatives, cities can become role models for sustainable human flourishing. Be it technologically advanced sustainable megacities or smaller biophilic settlements, cities are the future.
Circular cities will close material loops, while natural solutions will restore ecosystems and reinvent the urban dream. And there will also be enough sustainable energy to feed even the largest urban centers on Earth. Cities will continue to struggle to improve the quality of life and equity for their residents and learn to deal with the impacts of climate change. In that, Stockholm, Edinburgh, and other top cities of the Sustainable City Index can lead the way.
However, there are limits to what a densely populated human habitat can achieve. As cities grow, productivity may suffer with people having to travel longer and longer distances to work. Also, urban impacts on the planet remain little understood and often underestimated. Green transitions will often take much more time than wishful thinking would have it. Even the most innovative green cities require vast amounts of money, resources and effort to get going and keep going, often comprising the quality of life in other parts of the world.
Urban growth could also end up encroaching more and more on wildlife habitats. That is why more and more people think that smaller is better.
Going back to move forward
Ecovillages, often called “intentional communities,” offer a seductive alternative to urbanization. What separates ecovillages from cities is not merely the size or density of the population. Rather it’s the philosophy of sustainable living and cultural transformation that comes before innovation and speed. These are places where joy from manual labor tops efficiency, while the focus on consciousness and connection to nature is not just about daily relief from a busy life. It’s about actually finding a way to live within nature and not outside it.
While many small indigenous tribes and religious communities can be seen as ecovillage prototypes, their contemporary incarnations in the west started with the early “back-to-land” movement in the 1970s with one of the first official ecovillages set up in Ithaca, New York in 1991. There are over 10,000 ecovillages globally today.
Ecovillages are diverse. Some embrace and explore technology, others try to minimize it. There are ecovillages with rigorous rules and others with more relaxed attitudes. In some places, local self-sufficiency is a must. Elsewhere, it’s fine if you feel like drinking imported coffee.
Usually built by small groups of passionate enthusiasts, some ecovillages might look strange even to the most devoted sustainability folk. Their inhabitants are philosophical downshifters, living in geodomes and staying unmoved by Tesla’s latest models. Yet ecovillages are often places where lots of social innovation happens. They can also be places that harbor traditional wisdom, respect heritage and nurture old crafts.
Meanwhile, many of them are also home to buildings with high green standards, EV-charging stations and innovative sustainable agriculture practices, way ahead of many cities. You may not find the latest gadgets or fashion accessories on sale, but these places allow you to reevaluate your habits of endless consumption. You may start thinking and feeling differently about community, social resilience and true wellbeing.
But not all is always well. Some ecovillages have been turned into mere tourist attractions whose residents may get seduced by fuel-powered cars and malls, slowly turning their small communities into “normal” towns and cities. Still, the growth of the Global Ecovillage Network suggests the concept has a future.
As the competition for land is growing, however, ecovillages might become a luxury for many. The well-off in turn may see them as preferred retirement destinations whereby enclaves of the rich might sprout in the countryside away from the hustle and bustle of polluted cities. Ecovillage like Amatciems in Latvia or ReGen in the Netherlands already offer all the usual comforts in a picturesque landscape on private land.
Beyond the urban-rural divide
Growing increasingly complex and interconnected, many cities might start to witness a transformation of their boundaries. Urban areas could well begin to be separated into more locally governed districts and neighborhoods with unique features. Some of them might develop sustainable agriculture, local economies and other features common to the ecovillage approach.
Some experts even posit that thanks to digitalization we are approaching the end of big cities and entering an era of small and connected digital towns and villages. Readily open to knowledge workers, freelancers and digital nomads, this reality is even more seductive if you know that you can travel anywhere and anytime.
Meanwhile, not every city of the future is going to be about speed and connectivity, and not every village is going to allow for harmony with nature. Slow cities are likely to keep developing their unique niches, while many villages will endure massive pollution and environmental degradation exported from the megacities. With rising inequalities and regional imbalances, we might also see more and more poor and degraded cities right alongside high-tech ecovillages thriving on landscapes micro-engineered for their wealthy inhabitants.
We will also see unprecedented changes in climate, biodiversity and ecosystems, which will leave no city or village untouched. That is why we should start looking beyond nominal differences and instead focusing our attention on what types of human habitats can nature really sustain in a landscape. It’s crucial that we start building human settlements that will allow nature to remain undiminished.