Any of us would be hard pressed to name even one major system of our complex industrial society that is sustainable, that is, one that uses fewer material resources than are annually produced by natural systems. Human settlement patterns in the 21st century are one of the most significant examples of our unsustainable culture.
Given the lack of effective government action in dealing with the many looming challenges posed by our unsustainable ways, the future of cities as desirable places for human settlement has to be questioned. How will basic infrastructure such as water and sewerage systems, for example, be maintained when per capita energy availability is significantly reduced due to fossil fuel depletion? How will basic goods such as food be transported thousands of miles to feed urban dwellers? How will electric power be generated to provide lighting and power essential equipment? Where will the energy come from to transport people and critical goods over long distances?
The potential for alternative energy sources to allow for a smooth transition away from fossil fuels must be seriously questioned, as none match the energy dense characteristics of fossil fuels. Conservation will be the most important response to the decline of fossil fuels, even with increased efficiencies and improved technologies. But are modern metropolitan areas designed to conserve energy and materials, or can they be redesigned to function with the reduced amounts available from renewable sources? How much energy might even be required to make these conversions?
The general lack of attention to these questions by political decision makers should be raising alarm bells for all of us. It is unclear whether cities, especially large cities, can be modified to meet the constraints of a low energy lifestyle. It may be time to begin building an alternative society that allows for living well sustainably. One alternative approach is to turn to a historically more sustainable form of human settlement – the traditional village.
The Atamai Village project is one example of doing just that. The basic idea is to develop a sustainable village that can serve as a model settlement of self reliance. The idea is to design and construct a small village where people can live well sustainably by harvesting, and where possible, enhancing, the energy flows from the land itself. Meeting essential human needs requires water, energy, food, shelter, employment, and social supports.
Setting a goal of ensuring basic needs might appear primitive or unambitious, but we feel that providing for these needs sustainably is something our current society is not doing; we also believe it will become increasingly difficult to ensure these basic needs are met as the unsustainable practices of our current society continue.
The design of the village considers the uncertainties of climate change and energy descent, so that the village can be as prepared as possible, and provide useful information and examples for others.
The location is the Motueka Valley in the north of New Zealand’s South Island, an area surrounded by national parks and farming operations of various kinds – some sustainable and others not.
The area also has the advantage of having been a destination for alternative lifestyle settlements for several decades, providing a broad social support network, and useful examples to learn from. The site is also within easy biking distance from the small town of Motueka, and less than an hour’s drive from the much larger towns of Nelson and Richmond. As it turns out, Motueka and several neighbouring communities are also engaged in Transition Town initiatives (www.transitiontowns.org). Whereas the Atamai project is an attempt to design a new settlement pattern, the Transition initiatives seek to transform existing settlements into sustainable ones. Each initiative is learning from the other and it is fortunate that these projects are juxtaposed and share experiences.
The New Zealand location has a number of other features relevant to the project. While NZ’s ecological footprint is high by world standards (about 7.7 hectares per person), NZ is in the enviable position of having a biocapacity excess. This is due to a combination of its natural features, and its small population (about 4 million). There is also a significant rural component to support NZ’s major economic sectors - agriculture, dairy, forestry and tourism. However, the first three of these also involve the ongoing export of NZ’s excess biocapacity. Over time this excess biocapacity will decline and jeopardize NZ’s potential to have a sustainable economy. Settlement patterns such as Atamai Village will be needed to retain this excess biocapacity advantage. While NZ currently has a number of intentional communities and small ecovillages, none have all the features integrated into the Atamai design.
The future of this excess biocapacity will also be determined by changes in population. A current bilateral agreement with Australia (pop. about 30 million) allows for residents of either country to obtain residency in the other. The current trend is for New Zealanders to be drawn to Australia by higher wages. But Australia’s environmental problems are significant, and the flow of people could easily reverse in the future.
The 100+ ha Atamai project site makes use of land that is currently not highly productive, having been previously used for grazing and plantation forestry. The project design involves enhancing the productivity of the land with the application of permaculture principles and sustainable forestry.
What are the features of Atamai Village that we hope will make it sustainable? First of all, a long term view – the intent is to design and build the physical infrastructure not only with the smallest footprint possible, but also in a way to minimize maintenance and increase durability.
All homes, for example, will be constructed largely of local materials (straw bale, compressed brick from on site materials, etc). All homes will have a passive solar orientation and design to minimize the need for heating and cooling resources (the area is one of the sunniest in NZ). Buildings will be designed to last for centuries rather than decades. Domestic water will be supplied from rooftop collection (the area has adequate rainfall to ensure supply). Water use will be minimized with the use of composting toilets, and grey water will be used in orchard areas. The land also contains a stream and potential well sites. Several ponds have been constructed for irrigation and recreational purposes, and more are planned.
Aspects of traditional village designs are being incorporated, based on the fact that traditional villages have proven to be the most sustainable forms of human settlements in the widest range of settings for the longest periods of human history. The plan is to provide employment within the village as well as dwellings, minimizing the need for commuting, and making the village as self reliant as possible.
Most areas of the village will be car-free. The design of the village will allow for walking and cycling to be the dominant modes of moving about. A car sharing program will allow for economical travel outside the village, and an electric vehicle internal transport system will supplement the walking and biking. This pedestrian friendly environment should be attractive to all age groups. Electric power will be generated by renewable means, largely photovoltaic.
Food security is an important part of the plan. Newly cultivated gardens allow for food production to supplement individual families’ home gardens, and provide employment for some residents. We anticipate that food processing activities will also provide additional employment. The gardening is accomplished largely with manual labour, and as much care is given to improving and maintaining soil fertility as is to food production. The raw and processed foods produced will be available both to village residents and the broader community.
Other employment opportunities involve builders and various trades people to construct and supply the 40 plus dwellings for the village; architects and engineers are designing homes, community buildings, communication and electric power facilities; and various professionals such as accountants, lawyers and IT specialists are involved or needed to provide the services required by the village residents and businesses.
The concept of using a “layered technology” is part of the plan. All essential services such as food, power, cooking and heating, and water will be provided using the simplest and easiest-to-maintain technologies. More sophisticated technologies, such as hi-speed broadband and communication services are being used to supplement the basic services. While we wish to enjoy sophisticated technologies while we can, we do not wish to have our essential requirements dependent on technologies that may be increasingly difficult to maintain.
All machinery used in construction of the basic infrastructure is diesel powered if at all possible ( eg. excavators, trucks, cars, farm equipment, etc), allowing for the use of biodiesel fuels when available. Taking the long term view that we are constructing infrastructure that will endure for centuries, we feel this use of our remaining fossil fuels is justified. Indeed, we argue that using the remaining fossil fuels to build a sustainable infrastructure is one of the few justifiable uses of this precious and dwindling resource.
In order to achieve our goal of creating a carbon neutral village, we are planning to develop power generating equipment that will make use of biogas from wood, producing biochar in the process. The biochar sequesters carbon for an extended period, and if used in gardening, enhances soil fertility. Biochar production is yet another of the employment opportunities available.
The Atamai Village project falls within the category of an ecovillage; one designed specifically with climate change and energy descent in mind. More details are available at www.atamai.co.nz. Consent from the local council for the first phase of construction has been granted. The charitable trust that is developing the site is committed to providing educational and research facilities, to both enhance the operation of the village itself, and to assist others interested in similar ventures. Purchasing a freehold title in the village entitles the purchaser to become part of the trust, which is the governing body for the common lands under trust control. By owning and taking responsibility for the basic services of food, water, shelter, energy and employment, trust members will be in a more secure position than those relying on municipal decision makers who are far behind the curve in recognizing the enormous adjustments required as climate change and energy descent become more apparent. Indeed, the social structure required to successfully manage a commons is one of the characteristics of a resilient community.
A number of covenants attached to the freehold land titles are designed to ensure the continuation of the initial vision, most focusing on physical features of house design and materials used. But we also recognize the social challenges in blending private ownership with shared assets. Two social items are included in the covenants: acceptance of an approach to conflict transformation, and commitment to a consensus model of governing the commons.
An additional social aspect of the village is the issue of the diversity of resources required to make the village successful. We recognize the village’s need for practical skills as well as financial resources. Consequently we are open to skilled people without financial resources contributing skilled sweat equity to obtain a title and become members of the trust (see the website for details).
We recognize we do not have all the answers to living well sustainably, but we believe making an active and common effort to understand the challenges ahead will provide valuable learning experiences for ourselves and others. We are open to suggestions and support of various kinds, and welcome the participation of any interested parties that share our vision.