Eco-villages: hippy town, or way of the future?

G Magazine

Planned communities with an underlying philosophy of sustainability are on the rise.


Credit: Currumbin Eco-Village

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Over 30 years ago, a wandering band of hippies led by a charismatic English professor called Stephen Gaskin picked out a plot of land in Tennessee, USA. Pooling their resources, they bought the land, put their rainbow-coloured buses into park and started building houses.

"The Farm", as it became known, was perhaps the first dedicated eco-village - a low-impact housing development. But these days, eco-villages are springing up like grass-shoots after rain.

Fuelled by issues such as climate change and a growing environmental consciousness, there are now hundreds of eco-villages around the world ranging from the Eco-village at Ithaca in upstate New York to the remote rural settlement of Findhorn in Scotland.

There are also dozens across Australia. And although these eco-villages differ in size and flavour, they are all based on three key principles: the communities must be socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.

"We're heading down a path where we need to make a change as a community, as a species, and we need to live sustainably," says Lou de Leeuw, head of Ecobusiness Consultants and director of Aldinga Arts Eco-Village, a sustainable development on the outskirts of Adelaide that started in 2001.

"And some of the easiest ways are to have a house and a lifestyle that are sustainable."

Peter and Jan Taplin never considered themselves to be particularly 'green'. The Queensland couple recycled where possible, avoided using plastic bags and tried to conserve water, but for the most part they were ignorant of their environmental footprint. That is until they bought a plot of land, built a house and moved into the Ecovillage at Currumbin in south-east Queensland.

"We weren't particularly environmentally minded before buying here but since we have it's completely changed our focus and everything about the way we live for the better," says Jan who works as a nurse at the John Flynn Hospital.

Model eco-village

Situated on an 11-hectare site in the picturesque Currumbin Valley, the Eco-Village at Currumbin is the creation of Gold Coast husband and wife property developers Kerry Shepherd and Chris Walton who decided to design a project that would be environmentally sound.

The couple formed a development company called Landmatters and, assisted by a team of specialists, they designed the Currumbin eco-village which has won more than 10 awards for its innovative design in the past year alone.

There are currently only eight homes in the village, including the one-bedroom cottage built by the Taplins. However, the village will eventually hold 144 houses divided between three residential areas, and the majority of lots have already been pre-sold.

"These homes are really diverse," says Martin Jackson, sales manager for the village. "They range from courtyard homes for people who may have specific mobility issues through to home studios, designated one- and two-bed plots and open home parcels. This way we get a diversity of people in each hamlet."

As with most eco-villages, the houses must all adhere to strict architectural and landscaping codes that include requirements for solar design and appropriate building materials.

"It is harder to build your own home here because you have to comply with the code and the code is literally 300 to 400 pages long," says Peter Taplin, who took time off from his job as a mechanic in order to build his dream house at a cost of five to seven per cent more than a 'normal' house.

In addition to being self-sustaining in water, energy and waste, the entire village has been structured to encourage social interaction. The village centre forms the economic and social heart of the community and facilities here include a community centre, a café and bakery, workshop spaces, a buy-back shop and a tool library.

This is also where residents must come to collect their mail and drop off their rubbish at the recycling centre. The roads are smaller than those in conventional housing developments and with 80 per cent of the site retained as open space (and more than 50 per cent as an environmental reserve) the layout encourages residents to get outside.

"It basically works how suburbs used to work but don't anymore," says Jackson.

Community living

It's this sense of community in particular that initially appeals to many prospective eco-village buyers and was one of the motivating factors behind Jodie Goldney and her husband Stuart Gibb's decision to sell their house in Ashbury, in suburban Sydney and buy a duplex in the Illabunda Eco-village, 25 kilometres west of Sydney.

"Being at home [in conventional neighbourhoods] with two children and with no real family close by I've found it quite lonely," says Goldney, who has a three- and four-year-old. "You have to work hard to establish a community for yourself and I don't think it quite works. Whereas the idea of living in close proximity to other people who are committed to working towards the idea of community is really fabulous."

Located on One Tree Hill overlooking Parramatta, Illabunda is something of an anomaly in Sydney. Conveniently positioned for schools, shops and motorways, the five acres of bushland is surrounded by traditional McMansion developments and has been subject to numerous offers from developers over the last 30 years.

However, the Cook family, who have owned the site since 1954, have always refused to hand over the land. Keen to keep the property, the Cooks decided to develop the land themselves, but do so in a sustainable manner.

"We wanted to preserve the place but we couldn't afford to continue just living there," says One Tree Hill project director Jonathan Cook. "So we started out trying to do some development that would preserve the trees and beautiful open spaces and it seemed like the eco-village model would be a good one to follow."

Although the Cooks have been researching eco-villages for the last ten years, it's only since 2003 that the project has started taking shape. Approval from Parramatta Council is expected shortly, after which construction will begin on the roads and water infrastructure followed by the houses. The first residents are due to move in early in 2009.

As in Currumbin, water tanks are mandatory and wastewater will be treated on site for re-use. Natural building construction methods such as rammed earth and straw-bale will be encouraged and all houses will be expected to have photovoltaic cells.

Community-based facilities include fruit and vegetable gardens, an open play space, a village hall and a naturally filtered swimming pool. Of the planned 23 homes, nine have already been purchased and a "few hundred people" have registered their interest in the remaining 14 lots.

"And that buys a house that's twice the size of the house we're living in at the moment," says Goldney. "But our footprint will be less."

The economic issue

However, while many eco-villages successfully address the issues of environmental and social sustainability, it seems the third criterion - economic sustainability - is the most difficult to achieve, and is therefore often ignored.

Even the eco-certification scheme established by EnviroDevelopment to help purchasers recognise more environmentally sustainable housing developments and lifestyles, does not fully address the issue of job creation within the villages. Yet sustainability experts deem this to be an essential element.

"If you just design eco-villages for the sake of being places where people live and the residents living in them are still travelling large distances to go to work and then come back, then it defeats the purpose of having these eco-villages," says Usha Iyer-Raniga, manager for sustainable built environments at the RMIT Centre for Design in Victoria.

"There are a lot of eco-villages appearing at the moment but there's a danger with what's happening out there," says Paul Antonelli, action visionary of Greenedge Projects and founder of the SomerVille Eco-Village project, based in Chidlow, WA.

"There are developers who have added a greywater recycling system and say it's a green development. We're very particular and see that an eco-village needs to deal with issues in parallel and holistically across a project. We do need to look at issues of how people are going to earn money. Business is clearly linked to transport...and if you can create a way so that people don't have to travel far then that reduces car dependency."

SomerVille Eco-Village has already created 30 jobs according to Antonelli and is on track to develop a further 80. This is on top of being 'eco' in the truest sense: with 100 per cent water and power self-sufficiency, 100 per cent composting toilets, and a greywater system.

Way of the future?

However, the question remains, do these villages really reflect the housing landscape of the future or are they a passing fad for a niche market? With their green credentials, old-fashioned community values and car share schemes, it would be easy to dismiss eco-villages as being the neighbourhood of choice for hippies and idealists alone.

"The people who are buying at Currumbin are all frighteningly mainstream," says Jackson. "We have solicitors and doctors, teachers and nurses, mums and landscape gardeners. . .They understand that the communities don't work where they live and secondly, they have a little bit of imagination."

Although eco-villages still sit on the fringes of urban development, their design and increasing popularity seems to indicate that these models could become the blueprint for future housing developments, or at the very least influence how neighbourhoods are designed in the future.

What's more, these villages reflect a desire by homeowners for something other than the 'cookie cutter' housing developments that have been on the market up until now.

"What these eco-villages have demonstrated is that people want an identity and a neighbourhood and this does not necessarily go against mainstream paradigms," says Yurie Tyblewych, a town-planner with Urbis, an independent advisory firm focussing on the built, economic and social environments.

"What it does is change the thinking of how you design these master-plan communities. Rather than designing the roads, the shops and then the houses, what this has shown us is that while you need to be fully aware of the economic drivers which are the roads, shops and houses, you have to plan and design for the people who actually inhabit those houses in the first place."

Although there is still some resistance from traditional developers and investors, there is already evidence that eco-villages are being replicated on a larger scale abroad. In the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has set out plans to create five 'eco-towns' with up to 20,000 homes in each of them. And in early 2009, China will start building the country's first 'eco-city' - the Dongtan development - near Shanghai.

"What we should be doing is learning from the eco-village paradigm because if we don't then I feel very strongly that the reality is that we're going to destroy this planet," says Tyblewych.

"But if you put the hyperbole to one side, what we believe is driving this sustainability argument is not simply the environment - it's social, environmental and economic sustainability. They're not just catchphrases; they're the mantle upon which we need to build."