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.
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:
- "Green" infrastructural capital;
- autonomous building or clustered housing, to minimize ecological footprint;
- renewable energy;
- local purchasing so as to support the local economy;
- local food production and distribution;
- moral purchasing to avoid objectionable consumption;
- consensus decision-making for governance;
- a choice to respect diversity.
The term ecovillage should not be confused with micronation, a strictly legal, not infrastructural, concept.