Communities Project

Legacy Towns


200 years ago, prior to industrialization, almost all towns and cities in the US were essentially self sufficient and independent. Food was raised on garden farms in and around the communities. Businesses were locally owned and owners lived where their customers lived. Social groups kept people in touch with each other. Most people had skills for self-reliance. Life was harder but satisfying. People counted on not just their families but their communities for help if it was needed, and gave that help if needed in return. Life was local by circumstance.

In the ensuing 200 years the desire to acquire wealth and power commoditized almost every human activity, making a business transaction of everything done in life. People began to specialize, being paid for doing one thing well and buying the other things they needed from those who were proficient at them.

In smaller communities free market laws kept a rough but needed equilibrium in this process. Everyone was expected to provide some skill or service, and work and contribution were expected of everyone. It was unlikely for anyone to get too far ahead or behind anyone else because social pressure wouldn’t allow it. In such an inter-dependent community, anyone that tried but failed would be helped by those more successful, and anyone who benefitted much more than the others would be shamed into taking less.

It was the size of these communities as much as anything else that made this work, because everything was visible. Sloth could be seen and criticized, as could greed and exploitation. It was difficult to do either if you had to look your neighbors in the eye and justify yourself each day.

AS the size of towns grew this balance began to fall apart. There was no way to confirm that each person was productive and contributing anymore, because there were too many to keep track of. The lazy could exploit the good intentions of the middle and still not be shunned, and the greedy could exploit the work of the middle because they now lived in circles where they weren’t made to feel ashamed of their actions.

A Story

50 years ago there was a small town in New England much like those from an earlier time. Nearly everyone was productive. There were a few very rich and a few very poor. Everyone else was somewhere in the middle, and generally happy and satisfied to be there. I grew up here.

Goods and services were sold from one member to another, but there remained a broad set of self-reliant practices that almost everyone knew and valued. Most homes had small gardens, and most homeowners mowed their own grass, cleaned their own houses, shoveled their own snow, and made their own repairs. Neighbors watched children or the elderly, and they made food for each other when someone was sick. In the event of an emergency, everyone stopped what they were doing and pitched in to put thing back to rights.

When it seemed necessary to purchase a good or service from someone, trade took place, between community members if possible. It felt safer and more appropriate giving money to neighbors, who in turn, would also try to spend it with someone else in the community.

In those days this town was a relatively self-contained, resilient community and almost everyone in it was comfortable and satisfied. Then came the great modern experiment with consumerism.


Consumerism overwhelmed us like a gas cloud; why grow vegetables when we can buy all we want frozen anytime, why pay our neighbor to build a new kitchen when we can get a box store to provide one much cheaper. Why buy anything locally when we can participate in exploiting someone somewhere else, and not even be made to feel badly about it.

The mistake wasn’t to embrace the conveniences; the mistake was to not consider the offsetting costs. What did we lose for what we got? What did others lose for what we got?

What will happen now if we break a leg, or lose our savings? Who will care if my house burns to the ground, or if I run off the road into a ditch somewhere? Who will even know?

Except for an enlightened few, we now live in communities with no local communication, no interdependence, no resilience, and no plan for the future. Even though we live next door to each other we have no neighbors. We thought we could insure our lives with enough wealth to buy anything we might need, only to find that it is a ruse; a mirage that we keep chasing but never reach. Only now are we starting to realize what we have given up, and we are scared.


What we have given up is community, and we need to get it back.

A community is a local group of inter-dependent people committed to creating and preserving the bonds that make a self-supporting and resilient group. We don’t have to like or agree with all of our neighbors, but these are the people we need to know we can count on and who can count on us.

Thousands of small towns across the US are still the skeletons of the self-contained communities they once were. Just like we use the name “organic” for food the way it used to be grown, we need a name for towns as they used to function. We are going to call these “Legacy Towns”.

Legacy Towns are not an attempt to turn the clock back to a simpler time; they are an attempt to reestablish community fundamentals and then to carefully add modern conveniences, evaluating the costs and benefits to the community with each addition.

There is no question that the past 50 years has brought hundreds of material and technological changes to our lives; the question is, are they ultimately a net benefit or detriment to a healthy and self-sufficient community. We have the opportunity to choose a lifestyle that combines the best of the old and the new, and we shouldn’t pass it up.

Legacy Towns will look quite different due to size and geographical location. They will make decisions on policies and iniatives differently, but all will start with the same fundamental commitment:

1. Encourage localized business.
Make an effort to do business with vendors in your own community. Keep the money local. Avoid chain stores because much of what you spend there gets sucked out of the community and sent somewhere else. Local vendors need to try to be as competitive as possible with national stores and still work to provide all of a communities needs. Solicit new businesses that will enhance community and discourage businesses that won’t.

2. Create infrastructure needed for self-reliance.
All local government decisions should be based on improving the well being, self reliance and resiliency of the entire community. Encourage locally owned utilities. Value and protect natural habitats. Encourage co-op markets. Encourage holistic agricultural development. Build an economy around local productivity rather than outside development. Create common spaces and benefits for community members and encourage their use.

3. Encourage inter-dependence and dialogue between community members.
Maintain regular newsletters or a bulletin board to keep community members communicating with each other. Schedule community events and planning sessions and encourage community attendance. Have a community emergency action plan that obligates everyone. Encourage neighbors to help each other with food, tool lending, daycare, home repairs, rides, and anything else that can easily be given by one to someone else who really could use the help. Celebrate examples.

4. Support inclusive decision making.
Consensus decisions are harder to get but much easier to implement; work to get them. Be open to diverse opinions and attitudes. Honestly explore objections. Find a third way and common ground. Set up a Council of Elders and a Council of Youth to advise decision makers. Make community decisions based on multi-generational impact. Commit to making decisions that are made to benefit all and not just an influential few.

What we do

Sustainable Environments is pleased to be part of the revival of legacy towns. As LEED certified Community Development Planners we help guide the process of moving towns back to a condition of self-sufficiency and resilience.