THE FIRST SIGHT is impressive indeed. A few minutes' walk from Hackbridge train station through a rather dull South London suburb, and suddenly there are the familiar glass-enclosed blocks standing tall, the multi-coloured ventilation flues bright and cheerful against a grey, November sky. This image has become almost iconic in the sustainability movement, so, although this is my first visit, even as I turn the corner it already feels familiar and welcoming. The design feels all the more daring and distinctive given the unassuming nature of all that surrounds it. It has the feel of a great liner sailing into port with all flags flying.

This was a visit I had been looking forward to for some time. I have lived at the Findhorn Foundation community in the north of Scotland for a number of years and have been co-coordinator of GEN-Europe (the Global Ecovillage Network) since 2003. During this time I have been following the BedZED story with much interest and a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I have often looked enviously at BedZED's success in getting the attention of mainstream policy-makers and planners. During John Prescott's recent Sustainable Communities review, for example, BedZED was an important player with much to contribute while GEN-Europe remained largely below the official radar.

On the other hand, I have wondered about the sacrifices that such a development might have had to make in terms of its social vitality and the clarity of the shared vision of its residents to be so attractive to mainstream developers. I have also wondered whether indeed this was even important, provided BedZED did truly succeed in its declared raison d'être of enabling people to significantly and substantially reduce their ecological footprints.

BedZED aims to be a model and demonstration centre for 'one planet living'. This refers to the finding emerging that if all people on the planet were to live at the current level of consumption of the average Westerner, we would need multiple planet Earths: around five and a half to sustain North American lifestyles globally, three for European lifestyles. BedZED was created to demonstrate that it is possible to design our communities in such a way that people, irrespective of their personal beliefs and values, may live sustainably within their 'fair share' ecological footprint, even in the heart of the industrialised world. To quote from the website, BedZED is seeking "to show that eco-construction and developing green lifestyles can be easy, accessible and affordable, and provide a good quality of life".

I like this notion. It is why I prefer paper community currencies over LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems). While only those who are convinced that there is a problem with the way that money currently works tend to subscribe to LETS (resulting in a surfeit of aromatherapists, life coaches and masseurs and a shortage of blue-collar workers), the only belief required to participate in paper-money systems is that one will be able to spend the notes that one receives. It is a tangible way of enabling people to support their local economy with very little effort and little need for prior transformation in worldview. BedZED's attempt to apply this principle to the design of settlements is of the greatest interest and importance.

THE DEVELOPMENT comprises eight blocks, oriented towards the south for maximum solar gain, that contain eighty-two homes and 2,500 square metres of work-space together with private gardens, community play-space and allotments. I joined a group of around ten people that visited some of the more innovative design features of the eco-neighbourhood. The contrast with Findhorn was immediately striking. While we charge £2 for our tour, the BedZED version (of similar length and content) costs £30! Lesson number one was immediately recorded in my notebook!

The tour was of a high quality: an eloquent, intelligent and accessible guide talked us through the BedZED experience in a manner entirely lacking the evangelical fervour that can be so off-putting about many would-be frontier-extending initiatives. In short, she was believable.

A sizeable chunk of the European footprint relates to personal travel and this was a key area for consideration in the design of BedZED. Through a variety of measures - provision of workspace onsite reducing commuting needs for some residents, a car club of which forty residents are members (it is estimated that each of these schemes has replaced between five and six personal cars) and the negotiation of discounts for residents with a local cycle shop - it is claimed that car use for BedZED residents is 65% below the local average. BedZED is designated as a Home Zone, with cars parked around the periphery of the site. One car space is provided for every 0.8 households - around half the local average.

Another major chunk of the European footprint is associated with food, an increasing proportion of which is transported thousands of miles by air to land on our plates. The BedZED approach here has been to seek to link up residents to local community-supported agriculture (CSA) box schemes. Some 25% of BedZED's residents subscribe to such a scheme.

Solar gain, super-insulation and the inclusion in the design of huge thermal mass combine to create the potential to reduce the heating requirements of BedZED homes to around 10% of that of a typical home (though residents are free to install and use their own heating appliances as they see fit). There is also a combined heat and power (CHP) plant for the entire eco-neighbourhood. At present, electricity use is around 25% lower than the local average.

Water use at BedZED currently stands at about 100 litres of water per resident per day compared to the UK average of 150 litres. When the 'Living Machine' waste-water treatment system is up and running this can be reduced to around 70 litres. Recycling is the area in which the eco-neighbourhood has had the least impact: levels are only marginally lower than in comparable surrounding communities.

While BedZED may not have achieved the scale of reductions in resource use required for 'one planet living' in South London, this is nonetheless a prodigious list of achievements. Moreover, the model was designed in such a way as to facilitate ease of replication. Settlements based on the BedZED model are planned for the Thames Valley and Portugal, and the medium-term aim is to establish five One Planet Living Communities around the world on every continent in both developed and developing countries by 2009.

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of this ecovillager, two feelings were uppermost during the tour. The first was respect for what has been achieved in such an unpromising setting and a recognition of the importance of overall neighbourhood design if we are seriously to reduce our resource use. The tendency in recent years within the ecovillage movement - with some notable exceptions - has been for communities to become less communal and more individualistic in nature. A growing number of ecovillages, for example, have moved away from the shared economy model - whereby economic decisions are taken by the collective and all members earn the same income - to a greater dependence on the individual for house-building and making a living.

This has had two results that have, arguably, eaten into the social fabric and reduced the ecological radicalism of many ecovillages. First, disparity between members in terms of private financial wealth is now more apparent. Second, and crucially in terms of our capacity to reduce our ecological footprints, decisions concerning design are increasingly taken at the level of the individual household rather than at the level of the neighbourhood.

This has made significantly more difficult the kind of common design features that the developers have been able to build into the BedZED model. At Findhorn, for example, most of the new 'eco-houses' built in recent years stand alone and detached, missing out on the potential for heat-sharing through common walls and district heating. Nor do we have a formal car-pool, and although there is a certain amount of informal car-sharing, we have achieved nothing like the rates of reduction in private car ownership claimed by BedZED. A small group of Findhorners is exploring the creation of a Home Zone within the main community campus. However, the sheer number of private vehicles dotted around the site continues to be an embarrassing eyesore.

Do not misunderstand me: there are areas in which Findhorn scores highly in terms of its ecological footprint. We have what I believe to be the UK's oldest and still Scotland's largest organic CSA box scheme. We also have the UK's oldest human-waste Living Machine sewage treatment plant, which significantly reduces our consumption of water. And the three additional wind turbines we are in the process of erecting should make us 100% self-reliant in terms of electricity. Moreover, since we have created our own community currency and bank, our internal economy is vital, with a high level of community ownership and control.

Nonetheless, and especially in the area of buildings, energy use (at Findhorn we have the additional, distinctive problem of having a large number of residents living in caravans through Scottish winters) and transport, my feeling is that ecovillages tend to miss out on many potential dividends - which BedZED has succeeded in identifying and reaping - to be had from intelligent, collective design features. Additionally, it needs to be conceded that relatively few ecovillages are as well equipped in the various other areas I have just listed as is Findhorn.

The second impression I had on walking around BedZED was, frankly, just how cold and sterile it all felt. Even in the bleak mid-winter, a tour of most ecovillages would stumble upon people working in the gardens or chatting in groups in the community spaces, children in the playgrounds, music and singing emerging from behind doorways, and mandalas and hand-crafted mosaics underfoot. At BedZED, the only person I saw on the tour was a lone child standing forlorn in a tall second-floor window, looking down on us as we passed. The common space we were taken to for a question-and-answer session at the end of the tour was cold, white and uninviting. It was hard to believe that this space really is used by the community as a meeting-place.

IN SUMMARY, while my intellect was excited by the visit to BedZED, my heart remained closed. This brings to mind a quote I recently found: "If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work; but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." It is hard to imagine that BedZED would succeed in communicating to visitors a longing for the endless immensity of the sea of sustainability.

This, on the other hand, is precisely what we in the ecovillage family do rather well. Students come to visit and, more often than not, they leave deeply transformed and radicalised, having had an in-depth experience of the quality of life to be had in small-scale, self-governing communities that are seeking to provide for more of their own needs. In consequence, it is in the field of education that ecovillages are having by far the greatest success in reaching and communicating with the 'mainstream'.

We are finding that students, schools, colleges and universities are falling over themselves for a slice of the ecovillage action. Living Routes, a US-based affiliate of GEN, provides the opportunity for students at colleges in the US to undertake accredited further education programmes in Australia, Brazil, India, Mexico, Scotland, Sri Lanka and the US. Many individual ecovillages have also developed on-going collaborations with schools, colleges and universities in their own back yards. They are able to do this because they have succeeded in developing models that can act as inspiring, joyful, experiential learning centres in a way that BedZED, for all of its technical achievements, has apparently not. (This conclusion must, of course, be qualified by a reminder that it is drawn from one single visit on a drizzly November afternoon.)

Of course, it is true that this has never been BedZED's intention, so the above needs to be described as an observation rather than a judgement. Nonetheless, the lack of vitality and 'community juice' for want of a better phrase was striking and may be of significance in terms of BedZED's effectiveness, even in terms of its own objectives, a theme to which I shall return below.

I was also concerned that two of the key technologies for reducing resource-use at BedZED - the Living Machine and the CHP plant - were out of operation when I visited. Discussions with friends who have also visited BedZED confirmed that these plants may frequently be in a state of disrepair. Question marks were also raised as to the level of take-up by residents of the opportunity to occupy the work-space on site or to use the allotments provided.

I am left wondering whether this might in some measure be because of a relatively weak social fabric within the neighbourhood. Certainly, at Findhorn, we need to be engaged in an ongoing process of educating community members about the results of blocking the Living Machine's pumps, or of flushing anything other than paper down the toilets. Similarly, much community-supporting behaviour at Findhorn, including participation in our CSA box scheme, shopping in the community-owned store, and the substantial amounts of voluntary labour needed to keep the place looking and feeling its best, are in some measure dependent on strong feelings of solidarity and shared values within the community. Could it be that the performance of even the best technologies is to some degree at least conditional on a shared understanding and commitment on the part of the residents?

The boat-building metaphor seems to fit well. Perhaps we can best contrast the role and purpose of ecovillages and developer-led eco-settlements as being, respectively, creating a longing for the open seas and providing ship-building skills. However, I think we can go further than this. Even if the roles of the two models fundamentally differ, there is I believe much that we can learn from each other.

Ecovillages have much to learn - in terms of both reduced resource-use and ease of replication - from the adoption of collective (as opposed to individual) design features. This calls for the mobilisation of financial resources on a communal level, permitting the integration of settlement-wide strategies for, for example, reducing energy demand, supplying power, and cutting back on the use of private motor vehicles. I see this as an emerging trend within the ecovillage movement, with a number of recent ecovillage initiatives drawing on co-operative principles, the collective body taking responsibility for the building of dwellings and workshop spaces that are then rented back to members. I believe that we would also be well-served by the development of some 'off-the-peg' templates, along the lines of BedZED, that would greatly facilitate ecovillage replication.

Developer-led initiatives such as BedZED might also derive some benefit by consciously strengthening the social dimension of their neighbourhoods. The desire of eco-developers to make sustainability easy and accessible for everyone, and not dependent on the kinds of social 'bonding activities' that might sit more easily with ecovillagers, needs to be respected. Nonetheless, there is surely more that can be done to strengthen the community glue.

Many of the 'social technologies' that ecovillages have excelled in developing may well help with this. These include group-building activities, working creatively with conflict so that it becomes a resource rather than, as all too often, an impassable obstacle, the creation of community art and performance, and community-level governance techniques. Several ecovillages, including Findhorn, have established consultancy wings to share these types of skill with the wider world. Could such social technologies have a role to play in helping developer-led eco-neighbourhoods like BedZED become more alive and fully featured communities that also see an improvement in the performance of their eco-technologies?

There is a motto we use a lot here at Findhorn: "If it is not fun, it is not sustainable." Is there more we can do to make the task of living in communities dedicated to living lightly on the Earth more fun? If not, I fear we may not succeed. In the final reckoning, the heart needs to be as engaged as the head. Perhaps even more so.

Jonathan Dawson is the Executive Secretary of GEN-Europe.