Digging the communal way

AT PEACE: Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood founder Robin Allison in one of the food-producing "teardrop" gardens cultivated by residents for everyone in the community.
AT PEACE: Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood founder Robin Allison in one of the food-producing "teardrop" gardens cultivated by residents for everyone in the community.

Do you ever feel you're "over" managing a conventional Kiwi section and garden by yourself and ponder some different form of housing where there's more neighbourly co-operation, sharing of knowledge and skills?

Not to mention the lawnmowing.

Of course, if you've got the money you buy in labour, or shift into a complex where it's all done for you.

But what if that's not your style, and you want to live among households of all ages, without giving over management to some big enterprise?

But still have a beautiful garden setting.

New Zealand has developed on the "quarter-acre" paradise housing principle, with each man and woman building their own castle, then spending endless hours defending it.

That's great for those who want it, but many people are wishing for alternatives.

One of them is co-housing, where a mini-village of relatively small houses on unit titles also includes common facilities - a kitchen and dining room for eating together some nights of the week, meeting rooms, laundry, workshop - whatever the group decides they want.

Plus a mix of private and shared gardens.

It's now an accepted form of housing overseas, especially in Scandinavia where it originated, spreading from there to the rest of Europe and to North America.

Besides a commitment to neighbourly co-operation, co- housing has a strong environmental ethic, and houses are smaller and built to a high standard of resource efficiency and waste management.

While there's some longstanding co-operative communities in New Zealand, Earthsong Eco- Neighbourhood in West Auckland is the only one specifically using the co-housing model.

It has a long history of trials and challenges before the first houses were occupied in 2002 and there are now 32 household units on 1.2 hectares, twice the density of the standard urban section.

They're constructed from rammed earth (hence Earthsong) and natural timber, using a standard design, with differences in quirky details of window shapes and roof features to give individuality.

All have north-facing windows, concrete floors to absorb winter solar heat and pergolas to provide summer shade.

They're mostly duplexes (though some contain four one-bedroom apartments) and have relatively small footprints.

Green space is maximised by restricting vehicle access and parking to one driveway down one boundary. The looped internal pathways are therefore pedestrian access only, very safe for children - and slow walkers.

It's a joyful place for children, with space to rampage, hide and explore with mates from adjoining houses, and to be involved with community work (including gardening) regardless of their parents' enthusiasms and abilities.

In fact it's pretty magic for adults too.

All units have small personal garden spaces directly outside as part of their unit title, while the common land is jointly cared for by those who opt to assume "guardianship".

The result is an eclectic ramble, predominantly native, but also personal exotic touches, including bird-attracting shrubs, colourful touches and food plants, punctuated by lots of outdoor art.

The resident permaculture expert plans the communal food garden plots and organises working bees as necessary.

Everyone can help themselves to produce and the community is pretty much self-sufficient in greens, but other produce is bought in and sold from a food co-op stall in the common house.

The site had been an orchard, 60 years in the same family, who tended it on an unofficial organic basis.

Thus the community inherited clean land, and has been able to keep some of the old trees.

Composting bins are prominent in the gardens, encouraging their use.

On-site water systems include rainwater tanks and stormwater swales (leafy ditches beside paths) which run into a small pond hosting ducks, frogs and other wildlife.

(Residents also care for chooks and bees.)

Waitakere City billed itself as an "eco-city" and Earthsong ticked all the boxes in the plans.

The council even half-funded a composting toilet at the common house for demonstration purposes.

Earthsong founder, architect and social entrepreneur Robin Allison says it does take a bit of tolerance of difference to live in co-housing, but it attracts "socially-minded" people who commit to the co-operative aspirations of a community.

Some are very keen and definitely lead the way, but there's a whole range of tasks people can do to contribute to the wellbeing of the community, she says.

Some do more work that others, perhaps more than they should, but that's just the way life is.

And it can change.

"People can take a couple of years to 'get it'," she says.

"We're all learning, figuring out how to work together."

There are residents who have left because of irreconcilable personal differences, despite mediation procedures, but the turnover has been much the same as the New Zealand average.

And Allison wouldn't live anywhere else.

It's a beautiful life, calm, quiet and peaceful, offering a balance of public and private, she says.

"It's very easy to interact with people if you want to, but to be private if you don't."

But back to the subject of lawns: there's only one lawnmower, which residents take turns pushing round the central "village green".


I'm so sold on the co-housing concept my partner and I have become involved in a proposed community in Dunedin.

The inner- city site at the former High Street School won't permit the same spacious layout as Earthsong, but the terrace houses will have small private areas on one side, and look out over a landscaped courtyard on the other and the town belt behind.

Prospective residents already include households of diverse ages, and keen gardeners - and equally keen non-gardeners and people allergic to lawnmowing.

We are likely to have a community food garden off-site, and I look forward to working alongside people who genuinely know what they're doing.

Story suggestions or feedback on this page are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com.

The Southland Times