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Ecovillages: a viable idea constrained by poor rural economies

By Russ Grayson - posted Friday, 10 January 2003

Max Lindegger had a good idea - why not, he proposed, set up a community that brings all of the benefits of life in a village as well as sound ecological design? It just so happened that he was setting up such a place in the hills behind Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

The idea sounded a good one. He talked about how, as a child in his native Switzerland, he would walk to the village bakery to buy fresh bread. So why not recreate that possibility in Australia? After a few years of proselytising, Max's village was set up. It became known as Crystal Waters but it would take nearly 15 years for Max to be able to walk to the local bakery to buy his bread.

Now, with more than a decade and a half of existence behind it, is Max's rural village a model that could help revitalise rural Australia?


So what's different?

There was something familiar with Max's idea, something that took me back to the 1970s when parts of the Australian countryside saw an influx of city youth searching for a new way of life. The 'intentional community' - rural settlements based on the cooperative, land-sharing model - were an outcome of this minor demographic shift. While many collapsed or faded away as residents sought livelihoods elsewhere, some still persist today. These were the more organised, more socially cohesive communities.

Crystal Waters learned from the experience of these early intentional communities. The project was set up in a professional manner and, unlike many of the earlier land-sharing communities, Crystal Waters offered freehold title to residents, not simply a share in the land.

Max and his collegues went out of their way to get their proposal through their National Party-dominated rural council. They wanted to appear as mature people interested in a new form of rural development, so they produced a comprehensive landuse plan that was based on ecological design principles and which ensured there was room for both development and natural systems. Their houses were to be adapted to the subtropical climate, take advantage of solar energy and would be energy efficient. Wastes would be dealt with on-site. These ideas appealed to the emerging environmental consciousness of the time and earned the project its environmental credentials, leading to Max's village model became known as an 'ecovillage'. Crystal Waters gained council approval.

Making the leap, creating livelihoods.

As Crystal Waters attracted people ready to make the leap from city to country, potential residents knew that developing a livelihood might be a challenge. Those with appropriate skills envisioned making a living from home while others with experience in government or service industries thought they could find employment in the nearby town of Maleny.

Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond confronted the livelihood problem when they moved from Brisbane. With backgrounds in landscape architecture and community work and qualifications in coastal management, life was frugal at first and involved short periods of working in the city. But they had plans and set about developing a livelihood as providers of residential courses, one of which focuses on the design of ecovillages. With Max Lindegger, Morag and Evan have now tapped into an international tertiary education market involving a number of overseas universities, whose students spend time at Crystal Waters as part of their studies, and which recognise their courses.

"This summer we launched an internship programme for university students of various environmental planning, design, management and science courses. We arrange short workshops for international groups of public-policy makers, architects, planners and the like who come looking for inspiration and guidance," Morag says.


Thanks to the success of their courses, Morag, Evan and Max have set up Crystal Waters College which is housed in its own energy efficient, solar powered building. This year, Morag and Evan have been invited to teach at Schumacher College in the UK. Max went on to develop a livelihoood as a consultant in ecovillage design and his work has now taken him overseas. A few years after setting up Crystal Waters, Max was hired to design a new ecovillage, Kookaburra Park, near Gin Gin in south-east Queensland.

Two other people successful in developing livelihoods are Francis and Jeff Michaels, one-time Sydney residents with a background in horticulture. They built a house overlooking one of the water storage dams at Crystal Waters and, in a building next to the house, set up a small business, Green Harvest, specialising in mail-order horticultural supplies. Unexpectedly, Green Harvest became so successful they had to hire another Crystal Waters resident to help process the orders.

Jalanbah was a later ecovillage on the edge of Nimbin in northern NSW designed by local woman Robyn Francis and Maclean planner Peter Cummings. Established in the early 1990s, Jalanbah won the approval of the local council and was cited as a desirable type of development for the future. More recent and similar developments include plans for the Aldinga Ecovillage near Adelaide and, south of Perth in Western Australia, Rosneath Farm, which is already underway.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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Global Ecovillage Network
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