In 1991, Robert Gilman set out a definition of an ecovillage that was to become a standard. Gilman defined an ecovillage as a:
- full-featured settlement
- in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world
- in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and
- can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.
In recent years, Gilman has stated that he would also add the criterion that an ecovillage must have multiple centres of initiative
Ecovillages are "urban or rural communities ... who strive to integrate a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life." Although there is no blueprint for realizing this goal, ecovillages may integrate various aspects of ecological design: ecological building, alternative energy, environmentally benign manufacturing or production, permaculture (landscaping designed to mimic nature and to provide the community with food, fibre and fuel), and community building practices. It is argued that the ecovillage movement provides some of the most relevant work and knowledge available for moving into a more sustainable future.
The principles on which ecovillages rely can be applied to urban and rural settings, as well as to developing and developed countries. Advocates seek a sustainable lifestyle (for example, of voluntary simplicity ) for inhabitants with a minimum of trade outside the local area, or ecoregion . Many advocates also seek independence from existing infrastructures, although others, particularly in more urban settings, pursue more integration with existing infrastructure. Rural ecovillages are usually based on organic farming , permaculture and other approaches which promote ecosystem function and biodiversity . Ecovillages, whether urban or rural, tend to integrate community and ecological values within a principle-based approach to sustainability, such as permaculture design.
An ecovillage usually relies on:
The goal of most ecovillages is to be a sustainable habitat providing for most of its needs on site. However self-sufficiency is not always a goal or desired outcome, specifically since self-sufficiency can conflict with goals to be a change agent for the wider culture and infrastructure.