John Bonifas
IAS 409 Spring 2012 Session B
Writing Assignment 3: Final Project

Writing Assignment 3: Final Project

Design a complete eco-community from scratch, using all the concepts we have covered in this course.


My thoughts while beginning design of my eco-community centered around the video we saw in class, "30 days", about the Dancing Rabbit community. This community practiced methods that were in my opinion extreme - such as no running water for toilets. In my mind, extreme concepts and methods break Hester's Impelling Form because they are too radical and too inconvenient for the general populace to accept. In my opinion, just as we have used science and technology to create our current communities, we can also use them to design and create processes that are environmentally friendly but are also simple and convenient enough that the general populace will accept and transition to readily.

Section 1: The Problems of My Chosen Locale: The Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

The Nature Conservancy reports, about the Osa Peninsula: "Historically, the dense forests and rocky terrain of the Osa Peninsula shielded it from the outside world. But improved transportation and expanding development now threaten the peninsula. Osa's forests are starting to disappear as this once isolated land increasingly attracts farmers, hunters, developers, gold miners and tourists. Sadly, lands are being cleared for logging and agriculture at a higher rate than anywhere else in Costa Rica. Illegal logging, poaching and ill-conceived land-use activities further threaten the region."[2]

Daniel Elkan writes: "...With as much as 40 per cent of the planet's carbon being stored in forest vegetation, slash-and-burn is an increasingly significant factor in climate change. For the slash-and-burn farmers themselves, the situation only gets worse. With the land around their villages long since exhausted, they typically have to trek two or three hours into the hills to work. As this prevents other family members from helping with cultivation, the farmers are left with a backbreaking workload. All around, available land is running out fast. Often farmers slash-and-burn their way up to the top of a hill, only to meet other farmers who have slashed and burnt their way up the other side.

Increasingly with no fresh forest to slash-and-burn, farmers are going back, too soon, to previously farmed areas. With the land not yet recovered and the soil still infertile, the returns are meagre. Facing starvation, the farmers try their luck on any remaining patches of forest that were missed the first time round, usually on steep slopes unsuited to cultivation. Tragically, this destroys the last remaining forest seed sources in the area, and makes natural forest regeneration impossible.

In desperation, some farmers move to cities. There, they mostly end up begging or trying to live off rubbish dumps. Their only other option is try to get temporary work on a plantation: hazardous toil for a pittance, in slave-labour conditions."[5]

It is ironic, but true: tropical rainforest areas have the greatest number of plant species of any biome, but have some of the poorest soils. In my chosen area for my eco-community, the acidic soils fail the fastest, agriculturally, of any tropical area in the world. It is difficult to relate my area's soil problems to empirical evidence that Ponting provided in his textbook for our course. However, before Easter Island was deforested, even though the climate was cooler than my area, it was covered with palm trees, which are known to prefer soils that drain well. Both Easter Island and the Osa Peninsula have suffered from soil erosion. But even in places in Costa Rica where soil erosion is not yet a serious problem, soil infertility remains.

Daniel Elkan writes: "In Cambridge [Mike] Hands attended as many as 30 lectures a week, on subjects ranging from soil ecology, plant ecology and soil chemistry to the geography and climate of Central America. As the undergraduates partied and enjoyed their newfound freedom, Hands was running from lecture to lecture like a man possessed. Meanwhile, his weekends were spent in the library digging up obscure papers, hoping to unravel the mysteries of crop failure on tropical soils.

Despite exhaustive research, however, [tropical soil rapid infertility] remained a frustrating puzzle. Nobody could say for sure whether the cause was insect pests, crop disease, nutrient-depletion in the soil, or weed growth. Two leading studies suggested that soil on slash-and-burn sites might be losing phosphorus, an important element in plant growth, but went no further.

When the year was over, Hands still hadn't found the answer."[5]

Another problem that humid tropical areas have is that most plant nutrients are stored in the plants themselves, and thus topsoil in these areas tends to be very thin. The Committee on Tropical Soils concluded in 1972 that: "One of the basic soil physics problems in the humid tropics arises from the removal of the protective vegetative cover when the rain forest or savanna is cleared for cultivated crops." (7)[6]

Section 2: The State of the Locale

Physical Characteristics of the Locale and Its Natural Resources

I have chosen the coastal plain around Agua Buena, Costa Rica, as the site of my eco-community.

The coastal plain around Agua Buena is located on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. It is bounded by the Laguna Pejeperrito to the Northwest, which is part of the Corcovado National Park, the central mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Cabo Matapalo to the Southeast. It is about 16 square miles in size. Due to the increasing complexity of designing an eco-community of very large size, I chose to keep the community small, with a maximum population of about 2,000 or so. This coastal plain slopes gently to the sea, with only a few low hills at the extreme Southeast corner, near the Cape.

Costa Rica lies in the Tropic Zone. The Osa Peninsula area of Costa Rica, where Agua Buena is located, is covered with tropical rainforest and jungle, all the way down to the sea. This area is warm year round and also gets plenty of rainfall year round. Temperatures are moderate due to the ocean's influence. Thus, just about any crop can be grown; even those that do not require much water can be isolated from the tropical rains.

Agua Buena means 'good water' in Spanish, and for good reason - this area of Costa Rica receives 59 – 80 inches of rain per year. There are several rivers flowing from the mountains down the coastal plain to their wetland estuaries. Wood is of course plentiful, and because the soil is rocky there is an abundance of rocks and stones, if needed for building materials.

The Nature Conservancy reports, about the Osa Peninsula: "...Day or night, the Osa Peninsula crawls with life. Howler monkeys greet the break of dawn with a thunderous roar while scarlet macaws wing over treetops as the sun begins its slow trek across the sky. Tapirs cool themselves from the hot midday sun in cool, sparkling rivers while poison-dart frogs hop in the nearby vegetation. At night, jaguars stalk moon-lit beaches looking for prey. At Costa Rica's southwest corner, 400,000 forested acres of the Osa Peninsula jut into the Pacific Ocean. Only a strip of white sand beach separates the lush rainforest from the sea. The forest is alive with a wealth of magnificent plant and wildlife, including jaguar, puma, sloths and four species of monkey. [there are also] 4,000 plant species, including trees that can grow more than 200 feet tall."[2]

Construction Materials to be used, Preparation of the Site, and Site Orientation

As has been mentioned, the topsoil at this site is very thin, with a very porous subsoil and water table, as is common in the tropical regions. In Puerto Rico, the soils in the El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest are, "...deep, weathered, [but] moderately rich in nutrients. Little humus accumulates, due to rapid decomposition, except in local areas at upper elevations, where decomposition seems to be inhibited by water logging."[10] Therefore, my community will need to consider the soil structure of the area when designing and constructing foundations, sidewalks, streets, walls, barriers, and the like. When leveling the ground in preparation for foundation construction, we will be careful not to dig too deep, to minimize soil disturbance. We will minimize the use of asphalt for streets as it leeches harmful chemicals into the soil and groundwater; asphalt will be used only in the beltway around the community.

In all other cases, we will use Thermacrete. BVIStyle, a construction firm based in the British Virgin Islands, writes, "Autoclave Aerated Concrete has been around for over 80 years and is a preferred building material in all climates. It serves as a lightweight, all-natural concrete material. Perfect for walls, floor panels, roof panels, lintels, and blocks. Thermacrete is also fire and termite resistant so you can count on it to last and keep you protected."[12] Thermacrete is also porous, which is advantageous in tropical climates known for their heavy rains and humidity.

We will orient the streets generally at a Southwest-to-Southeast angle, so they are aligned with the mountains and the coast, but in a fan-like shape, with the bottom of the fan near the coast and the top of the fan near the mountains. This will also make it easier to install water management constructs such as drainage pipes, drain tile, sewage pipes, and storm drainage.

Tropical climates are warm-to-hot and humid much of the time. Therefore, we will need to pay special attention to proper ventilation when designing the living and working structures, to keep the interiors cool and dry but also to minimize the need for artificial dehumidification and air conditioning machinery, which in turn reduces total energy consumption. Patrick Arthur, a biochemist by profession but a resident of tropical Ghana and experienced in tropical building construction, writes:

"...A building in the tropics must not have its windows and doors opened directly to the elements...All houses must have an intervening space; a corridor that separates the rooms from the direct incidence of the sun and rain. There must not be dead spaces anywhere in the [building] that block ventilation. All rooms must have windows on at least three sides of the room, making use of a lot of inside corridors, which must open into the outside corridor to complete the air circulation circuit.

The use of slide windows is a bad idea in the tropics. Together with the dead spaces, the rooms will end up being extremely hot. The simple louver blades are very flexible to use in regulating the airflow through the rooms. Windows should be taller than the usual we have in Ghana, the best should be 2 meters high and slender to take one louver blade in width. They must be paired but separated on the same wall and on at least three sides of the room. The rooms must not be short and small[,] this increases stuffiness and heat in the rooms. At least 50% of the height of the door must always be added above it before the roofing. Ideally, the room height should be 4 meters, with long under-roof windows that allow hot air collecting under the roof to escape. This way the cool air comes in through the regular windows and the hot air leaves through the windows under the roof. Aluminum roofing sheets and plastic ceiling[s] are another heat generating idea as well as a bare concrete roof. Clay tiles [are] the best option to reduce heat but I personally prefer a concrete roof that has an aluminum roof above it with [pack insulation] in between."[11] So for building roofs, we will use either Arthur's double-roof recommendation, and/or clay tiles shaped and arranged on the roofs much like the roofs of the American Southwest and Mexico.

Both Arthur and BVIStyles do not recommend the usual construction woods such as ash, oak and fir in the tropics. First, because of the high humidity, which tends to deteriorate and promote rot in such woods quickly. Second, because of the numerous wood-eating insects of the tropics, such as termites and certain ants. BVIStyles writes, "...A great alternative to [such woods] is the use of tropical hardwoods such as ipe and tigerwood. They are more resistant to decay and are gorgeous materials for the style of your home." .

For plumbing and other inside-wall fixtures, we will use the usual PCV, but we will not use wood due to reasons just mentioned. Instead, Arthur recommends the use of aluminum and glass for most of the room cabinets, which he claims eliminates humidity, fungi and insect problems. For sinks, bathtubs, showers, and other fixtures, we will use either one-piece constructs made of PCV or ceramic, for easy cleaning, or Thermacrete secured with water-resistant plastering materials.

For several types of constructs such as the walls of schools, retaining walls, and decorative features such as fountains, we will use Gabion walls. According to Comazzi, these "...have the ability to integrate more than one function [and] also allow for flexibility in application. For example [they] could be used as a retaining wall on a sloped site in a rural setting, to create terraced spaces on the site, or as merely a decorative element."[8]

We will make use of bamboo for many things, such as interior/exterior decorations and fixtures, and for erosion control. According to Comazzi, "Bamboo is one of the best plant materials to combat the current exponential increase in hillside soil erosion, particularly for the control of ravines. Bamboo is fast-growing, improving ecological conditions of watersheds as well as supplying a useful material for the local population."[8]

For general building insulation, we will use EcoStud. According to BVIStyles, "...This furring product is made of 100% recycled material and serves to support finished materials in a room such as the insert between brick and concrete when hanging drywall. EcoStud is perfect for homes being built in coastal areas. It’s light, easy to install, and serves as a good sound barrier between walls."[12]

For high-traffic areas such as shop floors, kitchens, garages, basements, and the like, we will use cork rubber flooring. According to BVIStyles, "...Companies such as Zandur now carry flooring that is 65% recycled material and come in many colors. The mixture of cork and rubber also serves as an extremely comfortable and easy-to-clean flooring alternative."[12]

Eco-community Design

The general layout for the eco-community will include having the non-telecommuting workplaces, major shopping and service areas, and major parks near the coast, the neighborhoods shaped as quadrangles radiating out from the community center, and the outer ring being the beltway where cars will operate. This supports Hester's sociopetal concept.(22)[1] Streets will have wide greenways containing fruit and palm trees placed in meandering patterns, supporting Hester's principles of Centeredness and Nature (Impelling Form). They will also have wide sidewalks on both sides and pedestrian bridges crossing the streets at neighborhood intersections. We will enact community policies and building codes which encourage the planting of edible plants, fruit trees, and nut trees, and the community in general will adhere to a natural, tropical-rainforest, central-american-type theme. For example, the town of Leavenworth in Washington State has a Bavarian theme that all buildings have to adhere to - it's in their building codes and zoning laws. Our eco-community will maintain our theme similarly.

People will be able to walk or ride their bicycles to work down the greenways, and telecommuters will be able to walk out into the greenways and parks for breaks and lunches. Smoking will be prohibited within the community limits, but not on the beltway. Bicycle speeds in all greenways and parks will be kept to 20 miles per hour maximum, supporting Hester's principles of Pacing and also increasing pedestrian safety. The greenways will be large enough in between the streets and neighborhoods so that they are perceived by people traveling through them as separate landscapes from the surrounding human activity; partly supporting Hester's principle of Limited Extent.

Each neighborhood will have a multi-use community center within walking distance from any spot in the neighborhood, where people can go for recreation, civic events, group meetings, and the like. The centers will also contain businesses selling basic products and services. This decentralizes consumer product distribution, minimizes shipping activity, and encourages self-sufficiency. There will be certain areas, between each neighborhood and the beltway, that will be set aside for people to grow their own crops, and these areas will be managed by a central community group that will instruct and assist citizens who want to actively grow their own food and fuel. 

Whenever possible, development and living activities will be mindful of the rich diversity of life that the tropical rainforests hold. Forest plants and animals, especially birds, will be allowed to go their way, with as little disturbance as possible, unless that activity threatens something major - such as a bird's nest in an air duct, or a plant taking over an important building wall. In these cases, instead of just removing or destroying there will be another community group that will move the plant or animal back to the wild, trim the plant back, etc. The exception to this is the management of dangerous wildlife in the community. Big cats will be captured and released back into the Corcovado National Park. Poisonous amphibians and reptiles will be trapped and released into the forests outside the community bounds. Poisonous insects, when reported, will either be trapped and released in the same way or else destroyed. This community group will also be responsible for rangering the parks, providing instruction and knowledge on the wildlife and plant life inside and outside the community, organizing information tours and other events, and maintaining the greenways and the wild outside areas bordering the beltway. In some areas of the internal parks and in some areas in the wild outside the community, there will be informative walks and nature trails that people can enjoy. These policies fully support Hester's principle of Connectedness, and also partly support Hester's principles of Particularness and Naturalness.

We will pay special attention to water management in our eco-community. Even though water in the form of rain is abundant in the tropics, it is so abundant that it can be destructive. Therefore, to support Hester's principle of Connectedness, at the building level we will enact building codes requiring proper water drainage such as working gutters. At the street level, storm water drainage and sewage will be kept separate, and at the community level, stormwater and sewage will be routed to different treatment plants and treated differently. Treated stormwater will then be routed back to the rivers, while treated sewage water will be recycled, minimizing drainage into the sea. Inside the community bounds, some waterways or parts of waterways will have to be diverted, but on the whole we will attempt to leave major rivers in their natural state, especially along the greenways and outside the beltway, supporting Hester's principle of Sacredness. In some cases, where water has to be treated at the neighborhood level, we will use decentralized water treatment methods. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, we do not have to be extreme in our eco-methods and we can use the power of high technology to help, heal, and improve. So for example we could implement AquaCube Containerized Water Treatment Plants (159)[8] in some neighborhoods where routing sewage to the central treatment plants is not feasible or practical.

We will use renewable/reusable/recyclable containers for consumer products as much as possible. Similar to cities such as Phoenix, we will have a robust recycling program and a treatment center for recyclable materials northwest of the community.

Finally, we will prohibit gasoline-burning vehicles and instead allow only biodiesel-burning vehicles inside the community (gasoline-burning vehicles will still be allowed on the beltway). To make this Impelling and convenient, a vegetable oil fueling station will be available at every neighborhood intersection. The central recycling area will be prepared to receive waste cooking oil from restaurants and citizens, and equipment in the area will then clean the oil of debris. The clean oil will then be delivered to the fueling stations. We will encourage, through tax breaks and other incentives, the installation of enhanced solar panels on buildings, and our solar power will be supplemented by wind power from impellers installed on the mountaintops.

Figure 1: Detailed drawing of proposed eco-community

Section 3: The Solutions: My Eco-Community

As discussed in various ways above, one of our most important tenets and principles is that of living simply, self-sufficiently, and with a particularness to the tropical rainforests that surround the community. We want to keep from having to import anything as much as possible. One of the big reasons why I chose the communities' present location is because the weather allows the cultivation of almost any edible or useful plant, with the possible exception of plants that grow natively in extremely arid and sunny climates. We will hold the soils in the agricultural areas of the community sacred and manage them carefully. We will use high technology to minimize soil leeching and erosion while minimizing the use of harmful pesticizes and fertilizers.

Our farms will grow well-known foodstuffs such as berries, bananas, coconuts, legumes, squashes, and the like, year-round. We will also encourage semi-commercial growing of fruit and nut trees, such as apples, mangoes, papayas, walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, cherries, citrus, pistachios, and many many others. There are other plants and vines that are not so well known whose fruits we can process to create things that we then do not have to import. Plants and vines in this category include vanilla, coffee, cacao, rubber, agave (for distillation into tequila), Sassafras (root beer), and many others. No slash-and-burn farming here: there will be some trees and underbrush that we will have to clear, but we will keep many trees in special areas where we can grow plants that require shade and/or are sensitive to too much water, such as plants native to arid climates.

We will also attempt to reserve a third or more of our arable land for the growth of fuel plants, such as corn, canola, and peanuts, for the production of vegetable oil for our biodiesel fuel stations. This fuel will supplement waste vegetable oil from the restaurants. We will practice good crop rotation, such as the use of different families of crops, and the use of alfalfa and soy bean. This reduces the likelyhood of insect pest contamination, and also regenerates nitrogen back into the soils. We will recycle as much as possible, but also keep our recycling process convenient and easy to follow. For example, we will provide a tax credit for those buying kitchen and industrial-grade compactors. The community centers will have available information on how to compact big bags of aluminum cans into 1 foot - by - 1 foot blocks of aluminum that are then easier to return to the recycling area because they are not so bulky.

Water management will be a top priority, primarily to combat soil erosion and to minimize pollution outflow into surrounding waterways, estuaries, and the ocean. As mentioned before, sewage effluent and stormwater drainage will be treated separately and recycled. Solid biowastes will be returned to the soil of the farm areas, and treated stormwater will generally be returned to waterways and the sea. Marine estuaries will be held sacred and managed by a committee headed up by one or more scientists specializing in marine estuary management.

Respect for nature and especially the rainforest will be encouraged, in the form of information available at community centers, and as mentioned before a central organization will retain forest rangers specialized in the management of tropical rainforests.

Decision-making and government affairs will be participatory on several levels. At the neighborhood level, representatives will be elected and retained, and proposed ordinances and changes in neighborhood design will be discussed in the neighborhood community centers. Participation by the residents will be encouraged and made convenient.

At the community level, representatives for each neighborhood will be elected, and they will meet at the central civic center from time to time to address issues, proposed ordinances, and proposed changes in community-wide policy and design .

Probably the most challenging issue that the community will face is that of managing community growth. Since the community is situated on a peninsula and with most of the peninsula being inside the Corcovado National Park, it will be very difficult to annex new land to the community. Therefore, we will need to have building codes and building design policies in place that will encourage building design that allows for population flexibility. For example, condominium structures that can be expanded easily upwards without necessarily having to expand outwards while retaining structural integrity and safety.

Finally, we will have to plan for sustainability and resilience. Laws of property inheritance will have to be designed to ensure convenience of inheritance from one generation to the next, and outside inheritance will have to be managed. The educational programs of the children of our community will include area history and tradition, respect for nature and the rainforest, environmentally sustainable practices and ways of living, agribusiness, recycling practices, and living for simplicity.




Works Cited

  1. Hester, Randolph T. "Design for Ecological Democracy". Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010, Print.
  2. The Nature Conservancy. Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. 2012 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  3. Wilson Botanical Garden.  Las Cruces Biological Station. 2012 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  4.  Cantons and Urban Districts - Statistics and Maps. 2012 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  5. Daniel Elkan, The Ecologist.  The Rainforest Saver. 2005 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  6. Committee on Tropical Soils.  Soils of the Humid Tropics. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1972 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  7. Bunch, Roland.  Nutrient Quantity or Nutrient Access? A New Understanding of How to Maintain Soil Fertility in the Tropics.  1995 (accessed April 17, 2012)  Web.
  8. Comazzi, John.  design4haiti: a repository for documents and related to the graduate seminar at UMN Spring 2011 (accessed April 18, 2012) eBook | Website.
  9. Delaney, JM. Benefits of Bamboo. 2011 (accessed April 18, 2012) Web.
  10. El Yunque National Park River Education Program. El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest. 2011 (accessed April 18, 2012) Web.
  11. Arthur, Kobina Patrick. "'Eco-Tropic' Building Design - My Ideal Home in Tropical Ghana. 2011 (accessed April 18, 2012) Web.
  12. "A ‘GREEN GUIDE’ TO BUILDING YOUR HOME IN THE BVI’S. 2011 (accessed April 18, 2012) Web.