Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I
By Russell Austerberry
Well, that was an effort! Altogether Steph Zannakis and I visited 18 communities in 6 states, conducted 35 interviews, and logged 7,500 kilometres. And all in 31 days — not including preparation and recovery time.
This was our whirlwind tour of ecovillages, cohousing groups, and other intentional communities on Australia’s East Coast, from Brisbane to Hobart to Adelaide and back. We made a pile of friends, picked up plenty of tips for developing sustainable settlements, and generally came back buzzing from the adventure.
We found people who build for each other a stable sense of belonging and purpose. Durable and resilient in the face of difficulty, they inspire others. They build a solid sense of self-reliance and cooperation with one another, and navigate difficult or uncertain situations with common sense and humour. First and foremost, the communities we visited are socially sustainable, and from that bedrock they generate many options for ecological sustainability. In fact, a major impression from the trip is that whether a group started from an “eco” perspective or from a “social” perspective, they always evolved toward a fusion of both.
Steph and I live in Brisbane, which has some of the feel of a big country town, but very little in the way of sustainable community housing.
For me, one of the most significant realisations from this trip has been how well it works when a small team of competent people direct the wishes of a larger group of intended residents. Creative community development is a tricky field, and amateurs pooling ignorance usually fail. On the other hand, existing developers who have many professional credentials often bypass the “community development” part — leaving us with professionals pooling ignorance, often failing in more subtle ways. Developers get stuff built — but their housing developments have only a fraction of the sense of camaraderie, self-reliance, and sense of making a difference that can be achieved by community founders taking affairs into their own hands.
There are other options. In 2002 in Bega, New South Wales, near the border of Victoria, a nonprofit organization Bega Eco-Neighbourhood Developers (BEND), formed to create an affordable, ecologically and socially sustainable 13-hectare housing development based on permaculture principles. BEND, which is also the name of the project itself, is being developed with 22 lots, one of which is planned for community facilities — and they’ve just lodged their first development application for housing with the Bega Valley Shire Council, the local consent authority. (See BEND’s website for a detailed history of their progress.)
The word they chose to describe their project, “econeighbourhood,” combines the intent of both ecovillages and cohousing neighbourhoods. The project is like an ecovillage because of the emphasis on permaculture design, food production, passive-solar house construction, solar panels, and other aspects of ecological sustainability. And it’s like cohousing because the founders set up their own development company, they’re creating shared ownership of common land and the community building, and they make decisions by consensus.
A major factor in BEND’s ongoing success has been a core team of about half a dozen people, all competent in some area of housing development — and all wanting to live in BEND itself! They look out for each other, identify areas of training needed to fill gaps in competency, pass the baton from one to the other if someone gets tired — and are pretty flexible about how they get paid (a mix of sweat equity, the “Sapphires” local currency, hard cash, or even foregoing payment by not counting all the hours put in.
Obviously these people are not amateurs — but neither are they normal developers. They are community members first and foremost, with an intimate understanding of the values of the group and the constraints of the land itself and who wish to live there — insiders. As insiders they sometimes lack professional skills, but encourage each other to engage in training to fill the gaps or hire expertise as required. As insiders they are also fearless trailblazers, continually bumping into puzzled looks and tangled red tape as they forge a new kind of settlement. They are a new group for a new enterprise, managing to do what neither normal developers nor your average group of wanna-be ecovillagers could do.
This competent core team is so essential because of the drawn-out and complex nature of pioneering in Australia. Currently we only have a handful of communities we could call ecovillages, and there are such huge distances between them that if another one starts up, it’s likely to be in yet another local council who have, “Never come across anything quite like this before.” In just about every community we visited, we got the same story: the biggest obstacle to success is not the money, nor the design challenge, nor the gathering of people into community — it’s bureaucratic red tape. A persistent and competent core team is needed, time and again, to find a creative way through apparent deadlocks.
The best and most appropriate designs of ecovillages or cohousing communities fulfill all the most stringent policies on ecological sensitivity, and social and economic health — but at the operational level of councils usually run into a pile of outdated regulations invoked by bureaucrats which can kill a project stone dead.
The answer to this — as BEND has demonstrated — is to involve local councils very early as a stakeholder, to continually lobby and educate council officials, and to be prepared to keep doing this even through entire turnovers of staff at successive elections! If the local council is “on board,” then ways will be found — but it might take five years of lobbying! Hopefully as more projects become established the lag time between “bright idea” and “moving in” will come down from ten-plus years (Somerville Ecovillage) or seven-plus years (BEND) to less than two years — and much of the secret of this will be in wooing the local council.
Well, so far Steph and I have learned two principles on our road trip: Gather a core team, and Get council involved early — both of which are really fundamental building blocks to much of the other wisdom we’ve gathered. In future articles about our trip I’ll look at common values and motivations of green community, and attempt an overview of what’s involved in setting one up, including budget.
This is the first in a series of articles about his Russell’s tour of communities in eastern Australia.
Quick Guide to Australian Ecovillage Projects
- Crystal Waters Permaculture Village, Conandale. The earliest; the most famous.
- The Ecovillage at Currumbin, Currumbin. Russell Austerberry describes it as a “leading edge, well designed, award-winning, relatively expensive developer-led project on the Gold Coast.”
- Kookaburra Park Eco-Village, Bundaberg. A more rural and less expensive development than Currumbin.
New South Wales:
- Jarlanbah Permaculture Hamlet, Nimbun. Housing-development style.
- Nimbun Eco-Village Project, Nimbun. Forming.
- Newcastle Urban Ecovillage, Newcastle. Forming.
- Rivendell Ecovillage, North Coast/Northern Rivers region. Forming.
- Illabunda Ecovillage, Sydney. Well-known in Australia.
- Fryer’s Forest Ecovillage, Castelmaine. Founded by permaculture co-founder, David Holmgren.
- Westwyk Ecovillage, Melbourne. Forming.
- Christie Walk Ecovillage, Adelaide. Founded by architect and eco-cities activist Paul Downton.
- Aldinga Arts Ecovillage, Adelaide. Well-known in Australia.
- Sommerville Ecovillage, near Perth. Large and innovative.
- Geraldton Urban Ecovillage, Perth. Forming.
- How Yarrow Ecovillage Got “Ecovillage Zoning” — May '08
- Is The Farm an Ecovillage? — Oct '08
- L.A. Eco-Village Stops Bulldozers! — May '08
- What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me — This issue
- What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden — Jan '09
- Whole Village Moves Ahead — Oct '08
- Will Earthaven Become a “Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu”? — This issue
- “In Grave Danger of Falling Fruit” — Jan '09