Narara Ecovillage, Narara Valley
Talk about the unexpected! Even though Mike has been receiving e-newsletters from Narara Ecovillage for quite a while, both of us were under the impression the village was already built and fully functioning… um, not quite! But we weren’t disappointed – far from it!
As soon as we stepped out of the car to participate in Narara Ecovillage’s open day, we were greeted with a friendly welcome by one of the village members. We were then given a brief rundown of the day, issued name tags, and introduced to our tour guide, Lincoln. (I was already starting to sense how organised these guys are!) For the next 45 minutes or so, Lincoln led half a dozen of us on a walking tour of the property.
Narara Ecovillage is situated in the Narara Valley just north of Gosford on the Central Coast of NSW. It consists of 64 hectares – 12 zoned for residential development, another 12 for agriculture and community gardens, and the remaining hectares of native forest dedicated to conservation.* As we meandered along tracks, we were able to appreciate the property’s natural beauty: gently sloping land on which to build homes with a view, a dam, a creek, and several large grassy areas – ideal for camping, festivals, or meditation. Lovely.
But what makes this property especially unique is it’s history and legacy. For 100 years it was the home of the Gosford Horticultural Institute. As a result, there are over 50 existing structures and buildings, including greenhouses, outbuildings and workshops – perfect for the Ecovillage’s food production and cottage industries.* I was particularly attracted to a group of buildings nestled in the hillside that would make fantastic workshops for glassblowers, carpenters and many other artisans. What an inspiring place to practice your craft!
The Institute has also left behind a number of residential dwellings, offices and other buildings ideally suited for community facilities. The members of this future village have a great head-start!
Vision and values
After the tour we were given afternoon tea on a verandah overlooking lush vegetation, before being ushered inside to hear a couple of presentations on the ecovillage.
It was hard not to be impressed by everything these folks have thought of and are working towards, such as their “smart grid” energy system whereby all houses will be supplied with energy from their own solar panels with any excess fed into the village grid, leaving no need to be connected to the outside grid, and their means of supplying the whole community with water by obtaining a wica license (the first community to do this) to treat and use water from the large on-site dam.
In line with permaculture principles, the members hope to reuse existing infrastructure as much as possible, eg the green houses and hot houses for food production, the heritage house as a community space, and the old science labs and offices as potential guest rooms. They also plan to have a mill on site to make use of the trees they fell (to provide room for housing and roads), turn the excavated earth (when installing civil infrastructure) into building material, and of course create community gardens.
All these things are great, but what really caught my attention was their emphasis on community and social cohesion, which I didn’t expect. From the little I know, an ecovillage often focuses solely on environmental sustainability, with little thought given to establishing a strong sense of community. It is possible to live in an ecovillage but have very little to do with one another. Not here. Narara is also an intentional community.
Lyndall Parris, the primary founder of Narara, spent several years traveling the world, researching many ecovillages and intentional communities. As a result, this community is deeply committed to the idea of “people before houses” – a theme we heard repeated numerous times in different forms throughout the day.
The members have thought of many ways they can encourage social interaction, from making pedestrian access a priority and having no fences between houses, to establishing a library, cafe and other social spaces. They want Narara to be more like a traditional village – a place where you live, work and play, a place where all of life can happen.
It has taken the community five years to get to where they are today – ready to start putting in civil infrastructure and start building their homes. During this time they’ve held many events (open days, community dinners, film nights etc), worked through difficulties, established how to make decisions and resolve conflicts, all with the aim of building and strengthening community.
With regards to governance, as a means of ensuring no individual is left feeling disgruntled by a decision, Narara employs sociocracy. I am yet to fully understand this concept, but suffice to say, decisions are worked through until there is complete consensus. I appreciate this process can often be arduous, but it totally resinates with my value of fairness.
I’m so glad Narara have put community first, rather than simply building smart houses. I have every confidence that they will succeed and not fall by the wayside as so many ecovillages do.
Throughout the course of the day, from both speakers and individual chats we had with members, it became clear that this community wants to be an example to others – not in a superior way, but in a very encouraging, down-to-earth “you can create this type of community too” way.
Narara is situated right on the edge of suburbia where they can more readily interact with and inspire others, and one way they are doing this is through their Ecoburbia Festival. This annual festival, held at the local high school, is a means of both educating the broader community about living sustainably and strengthening ties with them. It has attracted stalls from all over the region and become a huge success in just two years.
Richard shared how they want everyone to feel welcome and respected at this festival, including those in the broader community who may hold different views. He spoke very inclusively, acknowledging that just as “we have things to offer them, they have things to offer us.” I love their desire to connect and work with others.
“It’s all about being positive, especially regarding what’s happening locally, whilst not forgetting what’s happening in the world.” Richard said. And in the words of Socrates:
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
The community meal that evening was a great opportunity for us to further our conversations with different members and hear their thoughts on the advantages of establishing this type of community.
As Tony pointed out, some individuals and communities become so disillusioned with mainstream society and the state of the world that they disengage with the wider community, often physically distancing themselves. Narara, however, has chosen to operate with a positive mindset and remain engaged. I admire this stance as I know how tempting it is to simply walk away and do your own thing.
Room for growth?
I noticed during one of the presentations that spirituality wasn’t mentioned as an important aspect of community life. And in a personal conversation, there seemed to be a slight uneasiness when we mentioned being impressed with another community that happened to be faith-based. I found this surprising considering every other community we’ve visited, including both non-religious and faith-based, acknowledges the importance of spirituality in some form. Perhaps Narara has some growth to do in this area? To be fair we weren’t really with them long enough to say.
Providing affordable housing to those on a low income has always been part of Narara’s vision, hence their plan to build a number of co-housing clusters. However, a couple like Mike and I will never be able to afford even their cheapest option – a one bedroom flat starting at $270,000. Is Narara really a model for all demographics in Australia?
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Overall, we had such a positive experience of Narara during our brief visit. The community members were extremely friendly and welcoming (okay, I guess they may have had their recruiting hats on at times, but still!) and they seem to be taking the right approach with most things. It was great to enter their space at the beginning stages and I look forward to returning one day to see all their dreams manifested!