Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Atamai Village

Dear Family and Friends,

I hope the warm seasonal gatherings of this time of year have brought you much joy, and I send you my best wishes for 2008.

On January 2nd, I'll return from my visit to Australia to live in the house you might dimly discern in the centre of the second photo. Jack is already there, together with a young family with whom we'll share the dwelling. The fields you see here will begin to be cultivated over the coming year and will eventually be an important component of the food supply for Atamai Village. This part of the village lands is known as Te Mara - Maori for 'the garden, orchard, cultivation'. The first photo is of the very pretty stream at Te Mara.

The pine woods you see here are also part of the village lands. They are a Pinus radiata plantation. They are non-native, bad for the soil and do not sequester carbon. They will slowly be replaced by native forest trees and bushes and ferns.

Over the ridge of the pine forest is more village land - a fairly steep bowl of former grazing land. Most of the dwellings will be built in this bowl, including the village centre complex. Some of it has been terraced and much of it has been planted with 7000 fruit, nut and forest trees.

Let me describe in more detail the intentions for this village. You already know that designs for the village have grown out of a need to respond to the threats of climate change, oil and other resource depletion. It is intended to provide for the growth of a settlement that will:

  • show that 'living sustainably within our means' on Earth is both feasible and attractive

  • contribute to ongoing learning about how this can be done

  • withstand possible coming economic and resource shocks, and demonstrate to others how this can be done

Planners work with the idea that settlements evolve in response to their environment and to changing human needs and that, in the words of a scholar of settlements, Christopher Mare, 'A truly sustainable village must be skilfully designed to create itself.' It will need to be revised and changed over time, yet should be built to last centuries.

Atamai Village can be considered in relation to the following dimensions:

Scale: Optimal scale is a tension between two needs:

  • big enough to have a complex economy with specialization of function, enabling a high degree of self-reliance in basic needs

  • small enough that everyone knows everyone else, more or less, enabling safety, accountability, and increasing moral responsibility for the common good.

Atamai can grow to a population of several hundred people. It may be too small. Many writers suggest that 500-5000 is optimal.

Food provision: An experienced UK organic gardener and an experienced French land manager are involved in this group. They consider that Atamai can produce a food surplus beyond its own needs before long. There will be communal fields on the land you see above, private gardens around dwellings and the food-bearing trees planted all over the property. Domestic animals may be involved. (We already have some resident chickens at Te Mara.) The above folk, Adrian and Jacques, will soon produce a land management plan for agriculture. Permaculture and French intensive gardening methods will predominate. Both methods pay close attention to soil. The 'terra preta' system of soil enrichment is already in use with the recent tree plantings, and will continue. This may evolve into a small business providing for other regional farmers and gardeners.

Water, waste and sewage: Water will be from rainwater collection and from wells. Gravity will be used as much as possible in water arrangements eg tanks from house above supply house below and so on. Composting toilets will mean no so-called 'blackwater' to take care of. 'Grey water' from household use will be used for garden irrigation. There will be an effort to move towards a 'no waste' economy of materials.

Health: I anticipate that people will be healthier. They will be doing more physical activity (walking, cycling, digging, hoeing) and they will eat better. A village structure as described fosters healthy human relationships - people cooperating in common endeavours and caring for each other. This fosters good mental health.

Forest: Another person associated with the project is Helle, an expert on regeneration of New Zealand native forests. He will produce a plan for conversion of the pine forest to native forest, outlining (I hope) the uses of the pinewood eg construction and fuel.

Dwellings: A team of architects, green builders and designers is working on plans for construction of some dwellings in the early New Year. There will be some mandatory specifications - limit on size, use of locally available building materials (clay, mud straw, stone, wood), passive solar design to minimize heating costs, rainwater collection, composting toilets, possibly wood stoves, photovoltaic panels. The houses will be aesthetically pleasing. Some of us hope for designs that intrude minimally on the landscape. There need to be family homes, space for extended family, eg aging parents, rental accommodation, places for people in the WWOOFer system (travelling organic farm helpers), places for seasonal workers, possibly co-housing areas with some shared facilities. Diversity of design will be encouraged; aesthetic unity will be imposed by the local construction materials. It is hoped that villagers will learn to construct and repair their own houses

It is expected that many houses will have their own food gardens. Common areas will be landscaped for beauty as well as productivity.

Village Centre: This may comprise a meeting hall, performance area, AV facilities, central laundry, restaurant and bakery, perhaps a centre for spiritual activities. Some houses and workshops will be clustered in this area.

Transport: Private cars will be discouraged; there is no provision for them in the settlement arrangement. Much movement will be by foot and bicycle. There will be a system of paths throughout the village, and electric vehicles available when needed. A small company will operate a shared car system, and possibly provide regular trips to Motueka (the town 6 minutes away) and Nelson (the city 45 minutes away). The bike trip to Motueka was timed by Jack the other day - 30 minutes. Soon we'll have our electric battery-assisted bikes to help with the hills. (Jack and I haven't had a car of our own since leaving Canada.)

Economy: It is hoped that from an early stage at least half of Atamai Villagers will find employment in the village. The community will own the infrastructure; some livelihoods will be directed to village maintenance, and some to goods and services beyond the village. Other people may earn their livelihood in the local town or nearby city, but it is hoped this will not be a general pattern. It may be that a local currency system will evolve.

Child development and education: There is a considerable focus on having the village be a safe, loving and stimulating place for children to grow up. With no cars, children should be able to move freely throughout the village, to enjoy and learn from many people. There will be many economic activities proceeding, involving skills that children could acquire. Some children will be home-schooled. Others may go to the local school.

Lifelong learning and research: In the shift from our highly consuming, fossil fuel-dependent way of life to the way of life described here, there is an enormous amount of learning to be done. The group designing this village already has been holding potluck dinner-seminars and workshops. The group includes experts in a range of areas. We are eager to learn from each other, from an abundant literature and from the experience of other similar efforts. Subsequently we hope to engage in research relevant to the village and to contribute to the learning of others. This latter function will be carried out by a planned Bioregional Institute, which we hope will serve settlements in this region and others.

Arts: Arts are seen as an important aspect of village life and will be encouraged. There is an aspiration to have occasional artists in residence. There will be a performance space and audiovisual facilities.

Leisure: Much leisure equipment can be shared eg kayaks, camping equipment. This has to do with a value held in this group to minimize material acquisitions, but maximize quality of life.

Values: The above value is part of attempting to live with minimal harm to the Earth and within the biophysical limits of the planet. Nonviolence to both people and Earth is a paramount value. Sharing, cooperating, helping each other, caring for the less able, respect for persons and for diversity; organizational values of honesty, transparency and accountability are all held to be important. It is not supposed that those who join this endeavour will be unusually highly moral or spiritual people. The hope is to create a social structure which will foster the good inherent in everyone and minimize the potential for bad behaviour.

Social structure and governance: This must ultimately evolve with those who live in the village and cannot be designed or prescribed. Those currently involved value participatory democracy with consensus decision-making and close attention to dealing constructively with conflicts.

Process: The group working on the village shares an understanding that supporting the process of village evolution is important, rather than having a clear vision of the final form. Living organisms are self-organizing; a village will be so. It is hoped that Atamai will be the first of many. Each will be different and will learn from and support the others.

As you can imagine, dear friends, this is an enormously interesting project, and the people involved are for the most part, delightful to work with. Jack's business skills give him an instant niche to fit into. My skills are more in the social area; my role hasn't crystallized yet. That's OK for now. I'm grateful to be working with people with high degrees of knowledge and expertise on a project that offers hope for human survival and thriving.

Warmest wishes to all,