Conventional wisdom says Orange County is a land of sad superlatives: the most sprawling housing developments, the most pedestrian-confounding shopping centers (which, paradoxically, often have no discernible center), and the least quenchable thirst for oil. And with all those insouciant Housewives, how could a term like "sustainability" ever really enter the regional lexicon? But sometimes the reality of the place doesn’t match the "reality" of it, and the best hope for a sustainable future in the O.C. might come from within: on the impeccably designed grounds of The Ecology Center.
Not far from the centuries-old arches and fountains of the San Juan Capistrano mission, The Ecology Center aims to flip the script on SoCal clichés. Unpretentious and inclusive, the center holds weekly workshops, produces books and other media, and partners with local schools to unite the community "in a solutions-based educational setting" designed to "create a healthy and abundant future for all of Orange County."
The Ecology Center not only teaches local residents how to retrofit their homes, but also how to embrace more sustainable lifestyles. And it’s a lot of fun.
"I think the design challenge coming to Orange County was to create something that was accessible and inviting to everyone at every level within their journey for sustainability," says Founder and Executive Director Evan Marks, who studied agroecology at U.C. Santa Cruz and has worked in sustainable agriculture in California, Costa Rica, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria, and Peru. Although many of the visitors to the Center’s weekly workshops might not be familiar with terms like grey water or watersheds, they leave with toolkits to retrofit their homes--and spread that knowledge throughout their neighborhoods and communities.
The ripple effect concept is central to how The Ecology Center operates. Next year the center, which is based in the stunning 130-year-old Congdon House, will launch an apprenticeship program, enrolling 12 to 15 people in two six-month courses on retrofitting, urban gardening, grey water, and the production of media around those skills. Those apprentices will then be equipped to retrofit their neighborhoods and teach workshops on the center’s behalf.
Additionally, the center will share its Food Lab, an organic teaching garden, with four local schools, training teachers and holding monthly events designed to not only foster a better understanding of where food comes from, but also get kids’ hands dirty and give them a space to grow their own vegetables. Those are the kinds of experiences that keep people coming back--and promote enthusiasm for the skills the center teaches. And for those who like the idea of retrofitting but aren’t inspired by the DIY ethos, you can hire the team to design and implement a solution for you.
"Four years ago, our facility was a dirt lot and an empty house. So the first questions were, 'Will this work? Can we get this off the ground and finance it?'" says Marks, who answered the financial question through a combination of corporate partnerships--notably by creating content with the surf lifestyle brand Hurley (centered around clean water initiatives) and with Chipotle (centered around healthy food initiatives)--as well as through memberships, donations from local foundations, and countless sold-out events.
"But now the question is: 'How do we continue to organize the greater community--not just the 15,000 that come through our center every year, but the hundreds of thousands within the county and beyond?'" When they answer that, the real O.C. will be better off for it.