Friday, June 19, 2009; p. 7


by Susan Tan

WHAT is sustainable development? Unlike what some marketers will have you believe, it is not about a 2km "green belt" around a 30-acre development or having smart homes that automate when your lights go on or off.

There's much more to sustainability than just bougainvilleas in the front yard. True sustainable development as coined by the Brundtland Commission (convened by the United Nations in 1983) defines it as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

It covers environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and sociopolitical sustainability.

It's not just a one-time fix; it's a lifestyle commitment. And it is not about a culture of miserly reductions and withdrawals but a choice to live in good homes, self-sufficient communities and be harmonious with others.

The concept is not new, having its roots in 1854 when iconic writer Henry David Thoreau published Walden, arguably the earliest literature to address the issue of sustainable living.

So what does a truly sustainable community look like? London-based Working Architecture Group (WAG) has further developed the concept through the "Good Life Community and Design Proposal" which includes drawings aimed to capture the material, energy, information and social flows acting upon a site ( lifesocial-ecology/ ).

The concept proposes a Good Life Ecology made up of a network of clusters which are groups of around 20 dwellings. Different clusters come with differing characteristics for people categorized by age group or interests, and people gain leaseholds on their properties by the service they provide to their community.

The concept proposes a Social Ecology organized through collective ownership and management of a community freehold, with private lease-holds for dwellings. There are shared car pools rather than private car ownership.

Instead of roads, a network of cycle routes and footpaths cross the site. Green spaces, public and private, abound. There is a range of dwelling types, clustered into groups of 20 units, organized around a linear public park, a permaculture-based community school, a market hall and democratic billboard mediaspace.

Each co-housing cluster overlooks the shared garden, organic food plots and playgrounds.

Individual dwelling units are organized around private courtyard gardens, which are treated as external living rooms.

The backbone principle of the Good Life Social Ecology is the Cradle to Cradle philosophy concerned with material flows. Instead of the typical manufacturing system where vast quantities of landfill waste is produced, this model proposes that nothing goes into landfills.

Instead, every usage is part of one of two cycles, Biological Metabolism or Technical Metabolism. Biodegradable wastes fall into the first cycle, where things can be safely composted or turned into biofuels.

The second cycle encompasses non-biodegradable plastics and metals which are reused in construction and production. These materials are not sold to customers but are leased as part of a service. Therefore, homes in this community which are made out of these materials are sold on leaseholds.

All residents in the ecology own leaseholds and a share of the freeholding company (The Ecology) where annual ground rent is payable to a landlord, covering facilities, services and site management. Ecology members earn credits and learn new skills via participation in the building team.

For developing relationships, web-based social networking is incorporated into homes. Material and energy flows are managed through five constituent cycles. The first is the water cycle where each cluster of 20 houses harvests rainwater for lavatory use and recycles grey-water through reed beds for use on gardens and allotments.

For energy flows, solar water heating, supplemented by wood chip boiler and wood fires, is used and electricity is generated through photo-voltaic or wind technologies.

In the nutrient cycle, composting toilets provide fertilizer for gardens. The economic cycle allows The Ecology to generate work for its members in the gardens and building maintenance. The Knowledge cycle is powered by members of the community which shares fundamental life skills, especially in the areas of building and growing.

Construction in The Ecology uses eco-materials. Residents have good quality organic food and travel by renting from a car pool system. The system promotes healthy living through healthy diet, outdoor activities, a symbiotic relationship with nature, and a culture of living together.

The picture paints a good life but how far are we to achieving this idealistic community?

Jacque Fresco, project founder of a similar concept, The Venus Project (, is optimistic: "Human behavior is subject to the same laws as any other natural phenomenon. Our customs, behaviors and values are byproducts of our culture. No one is born with greed, prejudice, bigotry, patriotism and hatred; these are all learned behavior patterns. If the environment is unaltered, similar behavior will reoccur.

"Today, much of the technology needed to bring about a global resource-based economy exists. If we choose to conform to the limitations of the present monetary-based economy, it is likely we will continue to live with its inevitable results such as war, poverty, hunger, deprivation, crime, ignorance, stress, fear, and inequity.

"If we embrace the concept of a global resource-based economy, learn more about it and share our understanding with friends, this will help humanity evolve out of its present state."

Perhaps, the only limitations are those we impose upon ourselves.