Kailash Ecovillage: Profile of an urban intentional community in Portland
When you think of an intentional community, do you envision a rural setting far away from it all with people living an abundant life in shared housing? Or more of a yoga retreat center with colorfully adorned and long haired people that smell like patchouli and talk about the alignment of chakras? Or a cluster of tiny houses on a shared property with sprawling organic gardens, gathering spaces full of board games and a spacious communal vegetarian kitchen?
For most people, an ecovillage may conjure up these images or any number of other scenarios. The truth is, intentional communities are what we make them. After all, as the name implies, they’re intentionally created by their founding members. Often the primary goal of these communities is about creating better lives focused on the things that matter to most of us: having neighbors you like, who will watch out for you and your family, and who you enjoy doing activities with…in other words, a sense of community that is utterly lacking in a lot of modern housing.
Ecovillages: Elements of Sustainability
An additional benefit of intentional communities is improved overall sustainability. The idea of sharing resources is inherently more sustainable, and these communities lend themselves naturally to sharing kitchens, garden space, responsibilities, tools, secondary fridges or freezers, even cars. By sharing these types of resources, each individual needs less stuff and thus less storage space, and therefore the footprint of the community is much smaller than if each person preferred all of these resources to be their own possessions. Sharing know-how among the group also yields improved efficiency–everything from nontoxic snail treatment to organic gardening to fixing a leaking toilet. Almost as an afterthought, all of this sharing and resource efficiency can prove to have another very important benefit: saving a lot of money!
My girlfriend and I have long been interested in intentional communities, and make it a point to try to visit at least one wherever we travel.
Recently, we were in Portland, and found the Kailash Ecovillage in a Google search. The Community Council’s Chair, John Legler, gave us a tour of the property and proved to be incredibly knowledgable about everything happening on site and in the intentional community network as a whole. Legler moved to Portland from Minnesota not long ago, moving into Kailash after spending a fair bit of time researching potential properties.
The Kailash Ecovillage journey began nearly a decade ago when founders Ole and Maitri Ersson bought a rundown apartment complex (that was fondly referred to as the “Meth Apartments” prior to the purchase) in inner Southeast Portland, OR. Since then, the couple along with a plethora of residents, gardeners, builders, and driven community members have created a functional, beautiful, and highly livable intentional community in one of the most walkable cities in the U.S.
Legler said that he and his wife had spent a few years thinking about and searching for their move into an intentional community. “We started small in Minnesota,” he said. “We had a community that regularly got together for sharing meals, but it wasn’t a central physical place, and that’s what we were really looking for.” He said that Kailash stood out due to its demographics (Kailash Ecovillage is purposefully culturally diverse in its resident population), the eco-commitment of the owners, and the idea of renting rather than owning. Each apartment is rented out by the owners, whereas in many intentional communities, people buy a small plot of land or a tiny house on a bigger property full of other eco-villagers. Having it available as a rental makes it more attainable to people of all socioeconomic statuses, which again was an attractive feature.
Today, Kailash hosts around 60 residents, with 30 one-bedroom apartments, plus a dormitory and community living spaces. The mission and goals of the community have been progressed and expanded upon to keep in line with the intentionality of the residence. Their values cover everything from sustainability and education, to respect, safety, and honesty, even more socially conscious goals like making it possible for lower-income inhabitants to reside there.
Gardens at Kailash
Once you tour the Kailash grounds, you ascertain the name “ecovillage” to be almost an injustice to how conscious the Kailash community is. They really have it all: solar power, a water catchment system, vegan-only community kitchen and meals, a vehicle share program, living roofs, plus four annual permaculture convergences, one per season – and that’s just to name a few of the admirable projects and programs Kailash hosts. In addition, as food is so central to a sustainable community, probably the most impressive part of Kailash is the garden. Or should we say gardens – there are 46 private garden plots for resident use, and an extensive community garden. They also have a bamboo micro-forestry project, berry bushes, grapevines, fruit orchards, and a greenhouse. They have also created areas dedicated for wildlife habitat, including bird houses, bat houses, bee boxes and reptile gardens.
The gardens produce a lot of food. Portland’s temperate climate allows for year round spinach, among other veggies. We were there in December and the artichokes were still going strong. The garden is tended in a “veganic” concept. While there is an attempt made to use plant based supplements, Legler acknowledged that occasionally the compost they use may have derived from composted animal product scraps, but they simply do as much as they can and don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.
They even filled in the swimming pool from the old apartment complex (that again, due to Portland’s temperate climate, was very underused) to make room for more garden space.
Communal tools make garden work easy:
Water Use at Kailash
Portland is rainy in the winter and drier in the summer. As a result, the Kailash Ecovillage created a rainwater catchment system to help reduce the need for outside water.
The property sports a contemplation area, a meditation area, a kids’ play area, and a picnic area.
Also, there’s a hammock. That’s what really sold me. I love hammocks.
Governance, Lessons Learned, and Joining Kailash
At the time of this writing, Legler was the active Chair of the Community Council. Via email, he said, “We are about 9 months into a new community governance experiment called the Cultivating Community Council (CCC). There are four elected positions to lead the council: (1) Leader, whose main job is to see that the Kailash Mission and Values are followed in the council process. (2) Facilitator, who runs the council meetings and develops the agenda with the Leader, (3) Representative, who acts as a liaison between the council and the community at large, and (4) Memory Keeper, who takes meeting minutes and distributes them to the community. Sub-councils have been created for Transportation (including bicycles), Public Food Sharing, and Mediation (for conflict resolution). There are other proposals in the works for Community Outreach and Coordination with Owners.”
As with any gathering of people, there are, of course, disagreements. One example Legler gave was that of bike parking (the top photo in this article shows the bike parking setup). Active bike commuters were leaving each morning to head to work, and less active riders would find the front spot in the rack open during the day and lock their bike there, not realizing that it would make bike commuting more difficult. The group agreed to allow the better bike parking spots to be given to the more active bike riders, but even a small bit of what could be viewed as favoritism was somewhat contentious, according to Legler. “We try to settle everything with discussion,” Legler said, “but it’s not always possible, so there has to be some mechanism for decision making when consensus proves elusive.”
There are two dorms on site, where people can rent and join the community on six month (minimum) leases. Kailash used to rent these spaces out on shorter term leases but found it to be a lot of work to manage all the coming and going, training, orientation and so forth. So the Council decided these would be longer term leases both to minimize the work, but also to ensure that renters were committed to the community.
Kailash expanded when the home next door to the apartment building became available for purchase. The house needed a retrofit, so the owners decided to do it right and make it into a passive house. Passive house design means the house has no heat or cooling, and instead relies on great ventilation and insulation to keep the home a comfortable temperature for its residents year round. Given the consistent mid-40’s temps in the winter in Portland and the fact that it can reach the 90s in the summer, it’s an impressive feat.
Interested in living at Kailash? Join the club. According to Legler, “There’s a huge waiting list.” No kidding. After our tour, I can understand exactly why. But the lessons of Kailash and other successful ecovillages can be spread to other communities…maybe even yours.