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"Rules of Thumb" for Starting an Ecovillage

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(My Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II)

By Russell Austerberry


(Nov/Dec 2009)

Author Russell Austerberry visiting the off-grid Bundagen Community in New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Steph Zannakis
Editor’s Note: In the 1990s I visited dozens of intentional communities across North America and interviewed founders to learn what made ecovillages and other kinds of intentional communities succeed or fail. What I learned went into the book 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


Checking out a house under construction at Moora Moora Community, Victoria, Australia. Photo: Russell Austerberry
The journey Steph Zannakis and made in 2008 through eastern Australia: visiting 6 states and 18 communities, conducting 35 interviews, and travelling 7 500 kilometres in 31 days (what were we thinking?) was to learn — from people who are living it — how to establish sustainable community. Now, two years after our return, I wrote this quick outline of what we learned that seems to work well in establishing sustainable new communities:

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.

Visiting an owner-built home at Fryers Forest Ecovillage, Victoria. Photo: Steph Zannakis
2. Prioritize process skills. Take the time to explore interpersonal conflict issues and find resolution.

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.

Russell visits a rooftop garden at Christies Walk Ecovillage, Adelaide, South Australia. Photo: Steph Zannakis
5. Manage council (that is, your local regulatory agency). If you’re doing anything “out of the box,” get council on board very early — and be prepared to continue to educate them, possibly through two or three terms of office different councilors (regulatory officials).

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.

At a barbeque at Aldinga Arts Ecovillage, South Australia. Photo: Russell Austerberry
8. Value the community-building process. By far the biggest resource any group has is not land or money, it is people — and specifically, a group of people who can achieve much more together than they could alone. Design for sustainablity and community simultaneously.

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.”

Crystal Waters Ecovillage (Queensland) member Morag Gamble (left) and Russell's traveling partner Steph Zannakis (right). Photo: Russell Austerberry
10. Take your time. It will take many years for people starting from scratch to create anything resembling a sustainable community because of how many decisions and how much work is involved. From scratch to settlement the process is likely to take 2, 5, or even 10 years — and that’s not counting the next 20 years or so of maturing as a society.

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.

Morag Gamble's house at Crystal Waters. Photo: Russell Austerberry
13. Budget for trainings to build new skills. Allocate funds for trainings in meeting facilitation, conflict resolution, ongoing management, and quality design, as well as for earthworks and buildings. Communities run on people, and people need training in how to get along.

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.

Notice the framework of this two-story home at Bundagen. Photo: Russell Austerberry
17. Laugh. Belly laughs in a meeting are a good sign of health in the community!

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.

Steph sketching a scale-model house at Pigface Point Educational Facility in New South Wales. Photo: Russell Austerberry
20. Screen potential members. In addition to self-selection processes, you can evaluate prospective members. Do they put in more than they take out (money, warmth, chores, whatever)? Are they prepared not to get their way all the time? Do they tolerate others? Have an idea of what disqualifies someone from joining the community, and be prepared to say “no” when necessary. Turning someone away before they come in is much easier than evicting them once they have caused havoc.

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.

"Invest more in beauty," advises Permaculture co-founder and Fryer's Forest Ecovillage co-founder David Holmgren. Photo: Russell Austerberry
22. Tax entry and/or exit. On the occasion of a member joining or leaving, consider levying some chunk of money — perhaps a percentage of the sale price or a set fee — as a means of keeping funds in the community.

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.

He wrote about Bega Eco-Neighbourhood Developers (BEND) in New South Wales in "Our Whirllwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I", in the May 2009 issue of this newsletter.


Related articles:


Also in this issue:


Coming in Future Issues:
  • Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
  • Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
  • First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
  • Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
  • Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
  • ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)
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Newsletter Staff

Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US