"Rules of Thumb" for Starting an Ecovillage
(My Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II)
By Russell Austerberry
Creating a Life Together. In 2007 Russell Austerberry interviewed dozens of founders as he visited ecovillages and other ecologically oriented settlements up and down Australia's East Coast. He plans to complete his outline below — rearranging and fleshing out each point — for a primer on sustainable community development. What I find amazing and wonderful — my jaw dropped as I read his pithy aphorisms — is that Russell's research in the Down-Under South in 2008 uncovered the very same foundational principles and best practices I found in a different decade in a different hemisphere. Wow! —Diana Leafe Christian
1. Early on, agree on a decision-making procedure. Some variant of consensus in the whole group is common, but initial stages may be served better by a small group of founders making all the decisions themselves.
3. Determine your mission first. It’s too easy to rush into looking for land before you’ve hammered out your group’s identity.
4. Know how you want the community to function before choosing a legal model. It’s tempting to settle on a particular legal model before you've worked out exactly how you as founders want things to run in the community.
6. Spread the load. Find ways to pass the baton amongst various founders with leadership ability, and to get the whole group to mobilise in concerted action. A “one-man band” will fail, period.
7. Build common facilities central, first, and big. Central means they will be visited often and used naturally; first means people don’t have to build workshop or guest quarters or install laundry tubs in their own house; big means there will be plenty of options for usage. All of these physical layout decisions help promote a strong sense of community.
9. Use systems design. Design so the village can be at one and the same time a farm, a school, a residence, a workplace, a safe haven, and a place of beauty. Each element should contribute toward a robust and resilient society; toward rehabilitating and nurturing the land itself; toward conviviality; toward security; and toward a deep sense of place and belonging. The key phrase here is “Permaculture design.”
11. Be flexible. Every location has a unique set of challenges and a unique collection of people (which means there is no McSustainable Village franchise across the world). Creating a better place to live involves continual creative thinking, consultation, and commitment to hearing all voices. Flexibility is essential.
11. Aim high.
12. Hear all voices.
14. Design for resilience. Consider local food production, local business possibilities, local power generation, energy efficient homes, and a “car-lite” lifestyle.
15. Design physically for community spirit. Include large, central, multipurpose common facilities; cluster houses together; have many houses looking out onto common greenspace and a play area; prioritise for pedestrians rather than cars.
16. Design structurally for community. Factor in time for social, business, and “heartspace” meetings — and consider how to separate these functions; train or hire meeting facilitators; and embed rites of passage and celebratory rituals in the culture of the community; do work bees (work parties) together.
18. Define the group’s identity. Create a shared story which attracts people, and keep telling and tweaking the tale.
19. Make it hard to get in. A waiting list, a trial period, a solid deposit required, and an orientation process all slow the membership process down and give potential members more time to work out if they are compatible with the group. If they jump all the hurdles, they are likely to fit in well and be keen to stay.
21. Make it easy to leave. Things change, people move on. Make the transition as painless as possible — pay attention especially to the legalities and finances regarding how a member may leave the community if they want to. Will they get all or part of their equity back? Make this clear so as to avoid the trap in which a member wants to leave but cannot — and becomes toxic to the group.
23. Guard group identity. A community can only handle a small number of emotionally disturbed people, so guard your membership process. I distinguish between people who need more care and attention than most but who are not hostile, and people who persistently drain community goodwill and finances. Once your community is up and running and doing well, you may be able to absorb some of the former. But never the latter.
Since 2002 Russell Austerberry, who lives in Brisbane, Australia has been researching and visiting ecovillages and cohousing neighborhoods — which he sees as providing practical ways “to relocalise, retribalise, and reclaim a sense of empowerment in our lives.” He is writing a book about his community travels, and he and his wife Gabrielle and three others hope to share a large house in Brisbane as the first step toward community in the city.
- Robert Gilman on "Multiple Centers of Initiative" - Sep '08
- Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I – May '09