Rebuilding connection – community and sustainability
by Robin Allison
In September I was one of the presenters at a book launch in China, home to 1.3 billion people and one of the most rapidly urbanising countries in the world. It was held on the 28th floor of a new ultra-shiny high-tech building in the centre of the Beijing business district, rising above motorways amongst a forest of other sky-scrapers. Another presenter spoke before me; and there, on the screen was a photo from 1970’s Waitati, of my old mate Bill sitting in a bush bath surrounded by the light, space and beauty of the New Zealand landscape. The contrast couldn’t have been more extreme; and yet this back-to-the-land New Zealand experience was relevant and interesting to the Chinese people in attendance.
How did this come about? What relevance does Waitati’s self-sufficient hippie culture of the 1970s have for 2013 China? What can we learn from our own history and experimentation with community forms that will serve us with the challenges we now face in our world?
My own association with Waitati began in 1974 when, as a 19 year old Otago University drop-out looking for a meaningful life, I bought a little house and 2 ½ acres on the Orokonui river flat for $6,500. Many other “alternative lifestylers” bought homes in Waitati at that time and, while there was no formal association or community organization, the relationships that developed over time between neighbours provided fertile ground for a number of cooperative activities. There was a food co-op in a little shop along Doctor’s Point Road; a community garden was started in Erne St; the Spring Festival of 1975 was held on my back paddock. The first issues of “Mushroom” magazine were put together on Alan Admore’s kitchen table, reporting on self-sufficiency projects and ideas from around New Zealand and the world. A few of us bought the old Warrington Railway Station, spent a couple of weekends chainsawing it into sections, brought them back to Waitati on a trailer and propped them against my hedge intending to rebuild it as a community house (I left Waitati shortly after this, and I can only presume they composted back into the ground). We milked cows, had chooks and gardens, and sat together on our verandahs in the long summer evenings discussing the state of the world. It was anarchic, random and sometimes chaotic, but there was a real sense of camaraderie, belonging and possibility that came with living close to others on a daily basis and building ongoing relationships.
Although I only lived in Waitati for 1½ years it was a formative time, and seeded my yearning for connected community that led me on a journey of travel, study, planning and perseverance that resulted in the completion of Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood in Ranui, West Auckland 34 years later.
Unlike Waitati, Earthsong is an intentional community. It came about after many years of planning, working together, design and construction, by a group of people who believed it was important and possible to create our own housing model. We incorporated design aspects and organizational systems that best served our vision of a socially and environmentally sustainable community.
Earthsong is a cohousing eco-neighbourhood of 32 homes nestled amongst gardens on only 3 acres of land, on the western edge of the Auckland suburban area. The founding vision, still strongly held by residents today, is based on the twin principles of cohousing and permaculture and has three equal components – sustainable design and construction, respectful and cooperative community, and education by demonstration.
At Earthsong people own their own homes and small gardens, while also sharing ownership of common buildings and common land. Clusters of two-storey attached dwellings are arranged along the common pathways and shared courtyards, surrounded by old fruit trees and lush new plantings. Rammed earth and natural timber give the houses a solid and timeless feel, with plenty of windows to let the sun warm the coloured concrete floors by passive solar gain. Solar water heaters, non-toxic materials, natural oils and paints all add up to low-energy and healthy houses.
Community can take many forms, with different ways of organizing shared space and resources and many possible combinations of cooperation and autonomy, rural and urban, existing and purpose-built. Waitati and Earthsong represent only two of these, and the fledgling community of Urban Cohousing Otepoti in Dunedin is another. I see all iterations of community as wonderful crucibles of social experimentation, growth and learning; training grounds for the evolutionary leap we need to make as a species into healthy interdependence with our planet.
I’m not the first to argue that an underlying cause of the environmental devastation created by the human species is a profound loss of connection and relationship with all other parts of our planet. Similarly, many of our social ills derive from our loss of inner connection with ourselves, and from seeing ourselves as independent of and in competition with each other. It suits the profit-culture to keep us separated and disconnected, consumers rather than participants, pawns in another’s game.
Community arises when we start to care about and feel in connection with others around us. Community is about fully embracing our own life in relationship with the lives of others and valuing a sense of belonging and support. Community is vital to learning to live healthy and fulfilling lives in balance with other parts of our earth.
Sometimes close neighbourliness happens despite the separateness reinforced by most housing and urban design. Functional communities can develop organically, as in Waitati, when independent neighbours identify common values and start working together. And there are many models of community such as cohousing which do this much more intentionally, through design, group agreements and organizational systems.
One of the keys to intentional community is having a shared vision that unites diverse individuals and encapsulates the highest values and aspirations of the group. As humans we have the ability to envision something that doesn’t exist yet, and when we can articulate a clear vision of the best, most flourishing form of human settlement that we can imagine, we can take steps towards it. If we share that vision with others, even more is possible. In the words of the first peoples of the Americas:
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a group.
One thing we have learnt at Earthsong is that social and environmental sustainability are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Many of the sustainable design aspects of our neighbourhood were made possible not only in addition to a social and cooperative structure, but because of our social cooperative structure; the two have always gone hand-in-hand.
One example is our car-free neighbourhood: we place a higher importance on our relationships with each other than with our cars, so we designed the carparks at the edge of the site. This has both social and environmental benefits – an enormous amount of land area that would otherwise be driveways or road is freed up for productive gardens and community living space, with pedestrian pathways where children play safely and neighbours interact as they come and go from their houses. A range of trolleys, carts, bikes and wheelbarrows can be used to move heavy loads or groceries (just look to China for many versions of un-powered wheeled transport), and even in wet weather I have never heard any of my neighbours complain about not being able to drive their car right up to their house, such is the benefit we all feel from our pedestrian environment.
By sharing resources, we have access to more facilities and “common wealth” while using less overall. At the heart of the neighbourhood is the common house, our much-loved community building owned jointly by all the householders and providing shared spaces including a large dining/meeting hall, sitting room, large kitchen, childrens’ room, guest room and shared laundry. The individual houses are well-designed but compact because we don’t each need a spare bedroom for occasional guests, a living room large enough for large parties or meetings, or our own washing machine (though some choose to have their own). Even eco-friendly construction uses significant energy and materials so building smaller houses and having shared facilities makes good environmental sense.
Living within a diverse and supportive neighbourhood makes it easier for individuals to make low-energy, sustainable choices. With good systems of management, tools and equipment such as lawnmowers, garden and workshop tools can be shared. Car pooling and car sharing is much easier to organize and manage when we already know and trust each other.
Working alongside my neighbours on a cooking team for a common dinner or a working bee in the garden is a great way to build the social glue of relationships that maintains community. Cooperation also happens on a daily informal basis, from child-care arrangements to moving furniture or watering the garden when a neighbour goes away. It’s all about building connections between people and valuing the sense of belonging.
Another powerful way that being part of a cohesive community can facilitate environmental responsibility is that we learn from each other. Designing eco-friendly buildings and neighbourhoods is an important first step, but the behaviour of the occupants is at least as significant when it comes to the overall impact. It takes extra effort to live a more sustainable life, to resist the gravitational pull back to doing things the ‘normal’ and therefore easier way, but in community we can help each other with information, support and accountability.
One example is electricity use, which can vary widely even between identical houses with similar numbers and ages of inhabitants, because of the habits and behaviour of the residents. As a cooperative neighbourhood we can facilitate behaviour change in a number of ways: through information exchange and education, sharing ideas and tips about how to manage the systems more efficiently; internal pricing plans that reward low users and discourage high use; built-in information feedback mechanisms; and accountability by making individual house use transparent to all. All of these mechanisms are in place in some form at Earthsong, with the result that 32 homes and the common house are functioning with an electricity supply of the size that usually supplies 6 houses in New Zealand.
All of this has come about through the efforts of ordinary, extraordinary people who were willing to work together as a cohesive group to bring into being an inspiring and strongly held vision. Earthsong has never selected its members – there is a defined membership process, after which individuals make their own choice whether to become members by signing up to our collective vision and agreements. And all of the significant decisions over the 18 year life of the community to date have been made by consensus of members, using simple but powerful social technologies.
Being in community is the willingness to be in relationship with, to support and be accountable to others. But it’s not Utopia - community isn’t easy! It’s hard enough sometimes getting along with your partner, let alone 31 other households. Conflict and difference are part of the fabric of being in relationship and will always arise in community. Conflict can be seen as the growing edge of relationships, and it’s not comfortable. Part of the work of community is to acknowledge and attend to conflict, being willing to work it through rather than walk away or firing shots from a distance, and there are many social tools available to help with this.
There needs to be ongoing acknowledgement and attention to the balance between the individual and the collective – valuing both privacy and community, individuality and cooperation, both self-responsibility and responsibility to the group. At Earthsong we are relearning the skills and benefits of belonging to a community, and rebuilding a healthy interdependence with each other and with earth.
So what does all of this have to do with China? Taking the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing and seeing the rate and scale of development and urban intensification is jaw-dropping. There are people in China who recognize the extreme social cost of the loss of community that this causes, and are looking for models to rebuild connected communities and relationship with the land. There are permaculture ventures, social entrepreneurs, and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms. There is a small but active “rural reconstruction” movement that seeks to regenerate viable local villages with local jobs and businesses so the young people don’t all get pulled into the cities for work.
The event I attended was the launch of a journal written by the artist Ou Ning, based on his trip to New Zealand this year where he visited several intentional communities. I was invited to talk to the seminar about Earthsong and cohousing, and Robert Jenkin from Rainbow Valley Community in Golden Bay, founded in the 1970s by folk from Waitati, talked about their journey – hence the photo of Bill in his bath. We really do live on one connected planet, and the ripples from one small place and time can keep moving into the future in ways we can never predict. It does matter what we do and the choices we make in each moment, and the attempts we make to live in connection with ourselves, each other, and earth.
Community is about valuing the strength, belonging and resilience of being in connection with others, and being willing to give up some of our isolation for richer relationships with our neighbours.
Communities such as Earthsong add another layer of belonging into the standard suburban model – a layer of community relationships and governance, that doesn’t reduce our personal autonomy in our own homes, but adds the enormous richness of a cohesive neighbourhood within the wider suburb and city.
Like a healthy organism with healthy organs made up of healthy cells, sustainability needs to operate at all levels: the individual, the household, the neighbourhood, the village and city. A flourishing, sustainable “eco-city” or “eco-nation”, by definition, would include many flourishing, connected eco-neighbourhoods and villages, each of an appropriate scale to encourage co-operation and healthy relationships. It is increasingly apparent that we are all part of one vast, complex organism that is our planet, and eco-neighbourhoods and communities offer fertile environments to re-learn the skills of interdependence and co-operation that will contribute to the health of our beautiful earth home.