Eco Vista: Building a Transition Town in a Student Community in California

To put the announcement first:  to hear more about Eco Vista and to meet some of its organizers, please join Jessica Alvarez Parfrey and myself in a discussion on Tuesday, April 21, at 11 a.m. California time in a webinar sponsored by the Politics and Policy in Transition working group.  You can register for it here.

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Eco Vista” was the name chosen in 2017 by a group of students at the University of California, Santa Barbara acting together with long-time community members to describe their vision of turning their rather unusual community of Isla Vista into an ecovillage in the next ten years.  Unusual because 23,000 people live together in an area of just .54 square miles, with eighty percent of them between the ages of 18 and 24.

In March 2020, the Eco Vista Transition Initiative became the 169th member and the newest link in the Transition US network.

We aim to encourage and inspire the foundation of an eco-village with renewable energy, a flourishing and regenerative agro-ecology of public urban gardens, cooperative, affordable eco-housing, a circular eco-economy based on solidarity and meeting the real needs of the inhabitants, radical self-governance and community priorities determined by all who reside here, nested within and built by a vibrant web of visionary cultural creativity.

We know that to achieve this aspirational aim will require significant political organization, social movement building, and visionary policy proposals, including the design of and strategy for achieving a systemic alternative and perhaps even the invention of a new kind of party!

Isla Vista, a 50-year experiment in community built on five centuries of indigenous dispossession in the Americas

The land on which Isla Vista and the adjacent university and city of Santa Barbara sit is Chumash land, and the crime of their dispossession by white settlers is a history we are acutely aware of, as seen in this video on Eco Vista’s real foundations made by Sierra Emrick.  There will be no climate justice in California or anywhere in the Americas until this monumental injustice is overturned by making common cause under the leadership of indigenous and other frontline and fence-line communities everywhere.

Built on this tragedy and sold again by the Regents of the University of California to unscrupulous private landlords in the mid-1950’s and early 60’s with the inception of the UCSB campus, for the past half-century the unincorporated college town of Isla Vista has been a site for radical experiments in alternative ways of living, civil disobedience to authority, community governance, and environmental stewardship. As an epicenter for both youth culture and intergenerational solidarity, Eco Vista consciously draws on these histories of struggle, which are well narrated in the book Isla Vista:  A Citizen’s History, written by Carmen Lodise and a number of other community members who lived there from the 1970s onward.

Today, the community presents many opportunities for active engagement that touches upon some of the most critical issues facing U.S. society – food insecurity and injustice, landlord rip-offs, houselessness, and tenant struggles, mental health, sexual violence, free speech, and police-community interactions.

After a forty-year battle against landlords, college administrators, and the county of Santa Barbara, in late 2017 Isla Vista finally won the right to establish its first locally elected government – the Isla Vista Community Services District; two years later another referendum empowered the new government to tax utilities, drawing revenue to a $1 million annual budget by 2019.  This would soon be followed by an even more surprising development as community interest in carbon-neutrality, just transition, critical ecologically post-sustainability, and systems change from below has started to grow deep roots.


The Eco Vista Project

In 2017, two UCSB undergraduates, Jessica Alvarez Parfrey (now a member of the permanent community) and Valentina Cabrera (who graduated and moved on to do this work elsewhere) started a project whose goal was to lay the groundwork for an ongoing effort to turn their community, Isla Vista, into something along the lines of an “eco-village” through a thoughtful bottom-up process of engagement with others.

Over the summer and fall of 2017, the project was named Eco Vista, and activity began.  Since then, students and community members, both inside and outside classes on topics such The World in 2050:  Systemic Alternatives, What’s Wrong with the World?  How Do We Fix It, and a regular group studies called, simply,  Eco Vista – have worked in the community on projects around food issues, housing, energy, transportation, local cooperative start-ups, a newsletter/zine and a website, community outreach, and a rich set of cultural creations.  In the fall of 2019 my Environmental Studies/Sociology 134EC class “Earth in Crisis” engaged in a two-week process culminating in the inaugural Eco Vista Popular Assembly, a mechanism from the Extinction Rebellion movement that produced the beginnings of a Green New Deal for Eco Vista and resulted in a 27-page list of projects for aligning Isla Vista’s next community development planning process with the most progressive versions of the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s visionary concept, such as the indigenous Red Deal, the U.S. Green Party’s plans, the feminist GND, Bernie Sanders’ detailed platform, and ecosocialist ideas.

There are now more than 250 people on the Eco Vista e-list, with biweekly General Assemblies, now continuing to meet on-line due to the corona crisis.  There are on-going working groups involved in projects including a food forest, community gardens, tenants’ rights (including in UCSB housing), and more.  As we imagine the future, we also have the precious legacy and ideas of the late resident scholar and activist Michael Bean to freely draw upon and play with in the form of an Eco Vista Sourcebook of imaginative ideas and detailed proposals for bringing about Eco Vista.

Conceptually our efforts also take nourishment from the latest thinking about Transition Towns, degrowth, buen vivir, just transition, radical climate justice, and the many worlds to be found in the path-breaking Pluriverse:  A Post-Development Dictionary, edited by Alberto Acosta, Federico Demaria, Arturo Escobar, Ashish Kothari, and Ariel Salleh.  Another approach that guides our thinking and practice is adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, which counsels working from the bottom up in an inclusive and un-predetermined way to generate a collective analysis enabling members to articulate their desires and most sought after outcomes.

Image by: Charlotte Götze, www.charlottegoetze.de

This image is from the work of Extinction Rebellion, but it is so vivid and beautiful that I have openly stolen it as I find it so magically evocative of the feel of what we are trying to nurture with our own project.  Some of this comes through in the community values we have embraced and our invitation for participation, open to all who agree with them:

Community values and principles

We are inclusive.
We are democratic.
We are non-violent.

We work collectively whenever possible, and all are free to organize their own activities and projects.

We are open to all points of view that are aligned with these values and supportive of the Eco Vista Mission.

We act and live out of love for the dignity of all living beings, and base this love on social and climate justice, and on radical hope.

Conclusion:  A Far-Reaching Significance?

We are aiming high: to assist in and lay the foundations for the establishment of an ongoing, multigenerational, student-community project for an equitable and just transition in Isla Vista, California, and to put the result, Eco Vista, forward as an experiential model that other small towns with college students might want to emulate in their communities.  We consider what we are trying to do as experiments in sustainable, resilient, participatory development, in a place we call Eco Vista, a very real place and also a timeless, cosmic community of radical visionaries and seekers.

I close with this passage from our mission statement:

In the end, Eco Vista is … a promise, a pledge, a dream, a future.

The promise of Eco Vista is that together we might create a place that is life-affirming for all its inhabitants and that might inspire others elsewhere – particularly young people in their own communities – to use their imaginations to create the innovative future communities we all want to live in, right now!

Our pledge to each other is to co-create, imagine, dream, and transform our community into a place that matches the name of Eco Vista. We want to dream and make manifest this vision together with you!

The Eco Vista dream is a communal, shared, joyful adventure – may it transport us to a place worthy of the love we feel for it.

The future of Eco Vista is … well, that’s what we hope and aim to find out!