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Ecovillages are intentional communities in which residents strive to minimise their impact on the environment, and maximise their connection to community. The ecovillage movement first surfaced in the 1980s in Europe and spread across the world. In recent years, climate change pressure has invigorated the ecovillage movement as people seek a way to live more sustainably. At the same time, many are looking to address the increasing disconnection they feel in an individualistic world.
The defining characteristics of an ecovillage are: it is small enough for everyone in the community to be involved and feel heard; residents live lightly on the land and make use of renewable resources; it has enough services and resources so people can live, work and play close to home; and it provides a rich and fulfilling lifestyle, which can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.
The individual features of ecovillages vary, but in most cases they boast energy and water efficiency, sustainably built housing based on passive solar design, a small ratio of residential to communal land, community facilities and lots of opportunities for people to contribute and get involved. It’s this community focus that makes an ecovillage more than just a sustainably built housing development.
The benefits of living in a community range from the practical – such as sharing resources – to social, including security, support at times of illness or stress, and friendships made within the community. However, the no-fences nature of ecovillages can take some getting used to for those more used to the high-fence, family-isolating development, according to Dr Vanda Rounsefell, an eco-social sustainability consultant who has been involved in Aldinga Arts Eco Village in South Australia since its early stages.
Hannah Morton, senior ESD consultant with design firm Cundall, says, “Community building and social sustainability is often described as the third pillar of sustainability, without which environmental and economic sustainability would not be complete. Community building is gaining focus in the field of sustainability and is critical to the success of any occupied space.”
A different way to live
There are around 20 ecovillages in Australia, ranging in size and scope. One of the earliest and best known is Crystal Waters Eco-Village at Conondale in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, Queensland. Formally established in 1987, Crystal Waters grew from a commune into what is considered one of the best-practice ecovillages in the world.
There are 200 residents at Crystal Waters, 50 of them children – diversity of population is an important factor for sustainability – sharing 263 hectares of private land managed under permaculture principles. Residential lots take up just 20 per cent of the land and the village teems with wildlife, thanks to a by-law banning domestic animals. Community life centres around the Village Green, with its cafes, entertainment deck, op shop, rammed-earth bakery and monthly market. A diverse range of businesses flourish within the village, ranging from natural therapies to organic bread and sustainability training.
Most ecovillages, including Crystal Waters and Aldinga Arts Eco Village, grew from a community of inspired individuals and, through trial and error, developed into true ecovillages. In recent years, as the ideas behind the ecovillage movement have gained momentum, developers have stepped up to the sustainability challenge. One shining example of this is The Ecovillage at Currumbin, south of the Gold Coast. The 269-hectare village, which has won multiple awards, is currently home to around 150 people, with a maximum population of 500 once complete. The Ecovillage is completely water self-sufficient – it is the first development of its kind to be disconnected from council water mains – and most homes generate surplus energy and use up to 80 per cent less electricity than traditional homes. The village has 20 km of cycling/walking tracks, an underground fibre-optic network, lap pool, gym, halls, community kitchen, meeting rooms, playgrounds, orchards and productive gardens, with a cafe, bakery and store planned for the Village Centre.
Other ecovillages-in-progress include Cape Paterson Ecovillage, 140 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. The 190 eco-friendly homes are designed to be carbon neutral and will be arranged in clusters with a shared court and connected to the cyclepath to encourage a child- and pedestrian-friendly village. The development will feature a community hub and bowls facility.
Governments are getting in on the act, too. Lochiel Park in Campbelltown, Adelaide, is a showcase ‘green village’ developed by the Urban Renewal Authority. With a mixture of houses and affordable apartments built amid protected parklands, Lochiel Park is a tangible demonstration of the South Australian Government’s commitment to sustainability. The houses are built to a minimum 7.5 star energy rating, and community space is provided in the historic Lochend House, with community gardens and an internet portal planned.
Other ecovillage developments around the country include Illabunda Village in Sydney’s Winston Hills, a 22-lot development on a hilly piece of land owned by the Cox family since the 1950s; Sydney Coastal Ecovillage near Gosford; and Tasman Village, to be built around an existing holiday village in Nubeena.
Beyond the village
As well as providing immediate benefits to the residents within the community, ecovillages play an important role for the wider society – as models of sustainability. University of New South Wales academic Ted Trainer says the best way for people concerned about the global situation to contribute to the solution is to demonstrate what he calls The Simpler Way, as with ecovillages. Dr Rounsefell says, “On a bigger scale, we should give up waiting for governments to lead – they always follow community pressure. So step one is community engagement, education and modelling. Ecovillages provide that modelling.”
Modern ecovillages lead the way in building design, wastewater management, energy generation, permacuture and organic agriculture. New construction technologies and materials have been tried and tested at Crystal Waters and Lochiel Park, big-name developers have visited the education centre at The Ecovillage in Currumbin, and city developers look to WestWyck in Melbourne for ideas on high density sustainable living in an urban setting.
Urban villages in the concrete jungle
It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a sustainable city, but a city of sustainable villages is another story. Although it’s not exactly ‘human scale’, Central Park in downtown Sydney is an example of the ideas behind the ecovillage movement moving into mainstream. Central Park is a huge development – 11 blocks providing about 1900 apartments – however sustainability is addressed with water recycling, solar panels and energy plants. Community initiatives include car-sharing programs, pedestrian paths and cycleways to reduce traffic.
The Commons, in Melbourne’s Brunswick, is more true to the ecovillage movement. The developers have poured eco-features into the striking building, hoping to prove that you can have an incredibly sustainable city apartment block that is commercially viable. The Commons will comprise 24 eight-star rated apartments with solar power, natural ventilation and reclaimed materials, a rooftop garden with vegie patches and barbeque area to hang out with neighbours.
Meanwhile, residents of Triptych apartments in the Southbank cultural precinct are similarly encouraged to interact in Vertical Villages – eight three-storey atriums that also serve to provide natural light and ventilation to the luxury apartments. Triptych employs ecologically sustainable design principles that exceed the minimum requirements in Victoria, including rainwater harvesting for the pool, the re-use of waste heat, a living wall to purify the air in the atria, and the use of low-VOC finishes and other sustainable materials.
CASE STUDY: CREATING AN INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY
You don’t have to live in an ecovillage to create an intentional community. Get together with neighbours for bulk purchasing, get involved in neighbourhood projects, share tools or labour, remove fences, create a community garden.
Waterworks Valley is a tight-knit community of 230 homes just 10 minutes by bike to Hobart. The Waterworks Valley Community (WVC) was established in 2006 by Chris Harries and two others. “That’s all you need, just a few people. You then start collecting others along the way,” says Chris. The objectives of the WVC were nourishing community spirit and reducing the Valley’s carbon footprint. Three great achievements so far are a Walking School Bus, where a group of children walk to school together, accompanied by parent ‘drivers’; a bulk solar hot-water systems purchase; and the Climate Connect project, which educates the community on how to live more sustainably – an initiative that won a Tasmanian Award for Environmental Excellence.
Other initiatives include a community garden and two successful Waterworks Harvest Fairs. WVC has been an inspiration for other community groups, sharing its experiences with many interested parties.
Harries says, “Culturally, we’ve been brought up to believe that the family is the sacred unit, but it’s actually the community.”
CASE STUDY: WestWyck: An urban ecovillage
Located within the grounds of a former school in Brunswick, Melbourne, WestWyck is a demonstration ecovillage in an urban location comprising five terrace houses, rated up to 8.5 stars, and seven warehouse-style apartments in the Victorian schoolhouse.
Fiona Barker, 35, bought one of these apartments in 2007. She was drawn to WestWyck because of its environmental features, which include on-site blackwater treatment, solar hot water and reclaimed materials. “But the sense of community is the major benefit. WestWyck is designed to encourage interaction; I’ve never known my neighbours before!”
“While this is the biggest advantage, it can also be a downside. Anything involving community has its challenges. We have tons of decisions to make together and they can be quite complex. It can be hard living in a community, but as a society we need to share more, and to do that we need to learn to talk to each other.”
CASE STUDY: The Ecovillage, Currumbin
For Travis Quennell, 41, and his wife Amanda, the major advantages of living in The Ecovillage at Currumbin are the lifestyle, the spectacular environment and living among people with similar mindsets.
As a sustainable building designer, Travis Quennell, 35, always wanted to build a house, so The Ecovillage was the perfect fit. The couple moved into their new home three and a half years ago. The house meets the Ecovillage’s stringent standards, thanks to its basic, passive solar design, Travis demolished two houses to harvest the materials, saving up to $60,000.
Travis says The Ecovillage is incredibly safe and a great place to bring up the Quennells’ two children. Homes are clustered into hamlets, and building requirements stipulate that the living room and kitchen should be oriented to face the shared greenway. It’s the perfect neighbourhood-watch situation, says Travis, as children play in full view of the adults in the hamlet.
Travis says, “I couldn’t imagine life without knowing my neighbours. It takes two hours to walk through the village because you end up chatting to everyone.” At the Ecovillage, neighbours look out for each other in a way not seen for decades. “When we had a baby, we had meals delivered every day for a month. It’s things like that that make it so amazing to live here.”