History part 1
It has been a long journey to create Earthsong; exhilarating, arduous, and intensely satisfying. The Development Process section describes the tools and processes that helped us along the way. This section gives the human story.
Ecovillage 1992 - 94
In the winter of 1992 a series of meetings were held in Auckland to explore the idea of building an ecovillage. Robin Allison joined this group, and over the next 2 ½ years this rather loose and changing group explored environmental issues, ethics, consensus models and group dynamics, legal issues, financial structures, planning, land and eco-design. We wrote a Mission Statement, put out 21 issues of the Ecovillage newsletter, and met for weekend meetings every 6 weeks. We shared our visions and ideas, and struggled with how to progress towards the reality of an ecovillage while still allowing sufficient time for interpersonal relationships and the building of community within the group.
Although some wanted a more remote location, there was a significant group who pictured establishing the ecovillage on semi-rural land within one hour's drive of Auckland. This group found a property on Te Henga Road in August of 1993, and visited the site with Waitakere City councillor Helen Haslam, Community Board chair Penny Hulse and manager of the Strategy Unit Ann Magee. Although this property was eventually bought to extend the Centennial Park, this first personal contact with Helen, Penny and Ann, at the time establishing the eco-city policy for Waitakere City Council, was the start of a supportive relationship with WCC that later led to WENT (Waitakere Eco-Neighbourhood Trust, as Earthsong was first known) deciding to seek land in Waitakere City.
One of the biggest challenges for the ecovillage group was finding a balance between task and process; honouring both what needed to be done and how we worked together. Another major drain on energy was the continual turnover of people joining and leaving, with the need to revisit old ground when new people came on, and the uncertainty about people's level of commitment.
In response to these challenges a small vision group formed within the larger group at the end of 1993 to build deeper personal relationships and a shared vision from which the ecovillage could grow. This 'hedgehog' group included 3 future members of Earthsong, Geraldine Hughes, Peter Scott, and Robin Allison, and met for 6 months until personal issues and the task/process dynamic again proved too much. By the end of 1994 the ecovillage group had effectively ceased.
While an ecovillage didn't arise directly out of those 2 ½ years, it was an enormously useful time of exploring ideas, learning about group dynamics, and developing skills and experience to move the concept towards reality.
Waitakere Eco-Neighbourhood 1994 - 1997
After a major reassessment Robin decided to put her energies into developing an urban sustainable community or 'eco-neighbourhood' based on cohousing principles. This was boosted in March 1995 with the visit to Auckland of Dr. Robert Gilman, founder of 'In Context' magazine and author of the report "Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities". Robert lived at that time in Winslow Cohousing in Seattle, and gave several illustrated talks describing the layout and workings of the community, including the coloured card consensus system. His many useful insights and advice were very inspiring.
With support and encouragement from friends, Robin drafted a proposal to Waitakere City Council to establish an eco-neighbourhood on the Harbour View Estate on Te Atatu Peninsula, then being prepared for development by the council and their property arm, Waitakere Properties. A couple of people including future member Mary Rose helped Robin to hold a public meeting on 14 June 1995, and Waitakere Eco-Neighbourhood Project was born! The meeting generated a high level of excitement and interest, especially from Cathy Angell and John Hammond who immediately got involved and have been an integral part of the project ever since.
The small core group formed from that meeting met weekly over the next few months. We discussed basic meeting procedure and agreements and adopted the coloured card system. We agreed on our Vision Statement, essentially adapting the Ecovillage Mission Statement and adding three statements on environment, interpersonal relationships, and education. A germ fund of $100 per member was started. Monthly Sunday pot-luck lunches were started as a way of reaching out to interested people and drawing them into the group. We wrote the interpersonal relationship and communication guidelines in response to some conflict within the group, but several left anyway, leaving Cathy, John and Robin to carry the project forward.
We three met generally once a week (sometimes more!) for most of 1996. After the upheaval of the past few months we agreed to stay working as a small group of three to put the basic framework together, including our internal organising agreements and setting up a Trust, before attempting to attract other people into the group. We wrote up the key aspects of our project as a WENT Handbook, giving a comprehensive summary of what we were working to achieve, invaluable in confirming our own direction, enrolling new members and explaining our project to council and other bodies.
We also wrote detailed submissions to the Waitakere City Council Proposed District Plan. Some of our suggestions were adopted, including one about density that later was directly relevant to our subsequent design.
Towards the end of the year we felt ready to include more people, and were keen to explore the physical aspects of the project so that both potential residents and council contacts could more fully understand what we proposed. In November 1996 the first Design Group meeting was held, subsequently meeting every two weeks to work on concept plans on a theoretical site at Harbour View in order to help clarify what we wanted and to boost our enthusiasm.
Ongoing negotiations with Waitakere Properties had continued all year over possible purchase of a site. As the year progressed the prices firmed up and moved further and further out of our reach. At the end of 1996 the decision was made to let go of that particular part of the dream and to look around for other suitable sites in Waitakere City, primarily around town centres and transport nodes in line with eco-city and urban sustainability values.
Work continued through the first part of 1997, with more meetings with various developers and council officers, and several sites investigated. We drafted a set of criteria for site selection and visited numerous properties around Waitakere. Numbers slowly increased through word of mouth and occasional displays at events. A property we found in April precipitated an enormous flurry of research and meetings with council, lawyer, bank manager, developers, and members to reach the position where we could put an offer on the land, only to decide that there just wasn't enough support to put an offer in. We were exhausted, and took a much-needed break.
In October 1997 the group restarted with new vigour. The Design Group swelled to 7 with the addition of Rowan Bell, Peter Scott, Geraldine Hughes and Robin Lightfoot. With our increased numbers we felt able to divide the tasks into 3 areas of Legal and Financial, Membership and Promotion, and Site and Feasibility. Each member became involved in 1 or 2 of the specific task groups and only met as a full group every second week.
An additional boost came when we heard that Mission Bay Cohousing, the other cohousing group in Auckland led by Jill Whitmore, were paying for Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett, the authors of the Cohousing book, to come out to New Zealand in February 1998 to give a public meeting and run workshops with their group. This generated a flurry of activity. Katie agreed to run a one-day workshop for our group while they were here. A new handbook and flyer were produced. We agreed on a new name, "Waitakere Eco-Neighbourhood Cohousing Project" (WENCP) just in time to print the flyers for the public talk.
Gaining Momentum: WENCP 1998
The public meeting and Katie's workshop with us were pivotal and inspiring events. Katie addressed many issues that we were grappling with and gave clear and simple guidance as to ways of dealing with issues, in particular with development and financial issues, membership process, and cohousing design. She showed slides of many different projects in the USA and Denmark to illustrate design issues. The combined wisdom and experience of the many cohousing groups that Katie brought with her was fantastic and gave our project a tremendous boost.
With the media coverage of Katie and Chuck's visit and public talk, WENCP attracted new members and moved into higher gear. We worked on a detailed Information Booklet and a Members' Resource File, including short biographies of members. We developed our membership process and agreements along the lines that Katie suggested, and drafted a one page document that we called the Initial Organising Agreement (IOA), outlining our vision and agreements about membership, decision-making and financial contributions.
At a hui in May 1998 we acknowledged a major milestone with a ceremonial signing of our Initial Organising Agreement, in the order that we had joined the project: Robin Allison, John Hammond, Cathy Angell, Rowan Bell, Robin Lightfoot, Peter Scott, Geraldine Hughes, Eric Gill, Lynette Loffel, Eve Campbell, Barbara Thomborson, Clark Thomborson, Narelle George, Poul Lauritzen, and Fenella Gill. We were 15 people, and growing!
Progress proceeded apace. All task groups were working hard on various aspects of the project. We started promoting the project more widely, with various articles and advertisements in the local paper and magazines and a stall at the Titirangi market, and held monthly Orientation meetings for possible new members. Our systems developed and refined as numbers increased.
Another key event at that time was playing the Timeline Game to create a development timeline. This is a planning tool developed by Bruce Coldham (an Australian architect living in cohousing in the US) specifically to assist cohousing groups to understand the many tasks involved in developing cohousing, and their sequence and relationships to each other. As well as being lots of fun and a great team-building exercise, this was enormously useful in creating a map to follow that lead to the beginning of construction.
We engaged a lawyer and accountant and got legal and tax advice, and began work on our major legal and financial document, the Cohousing Agreement, to define our agreements about putting money into the project. Alongside that went extensive research into legal ownership structures and development entities, and we eventually chose to use a Unit Title ownership structure. We refined our requirements with questionnaires to members on financial issues, housing, and site location. We refined our site rating system and site feasibility check-list, and visited many sites over that year. We talked with various developers, learning about development budgets and looking for potential joint-venture partners willing to work alongside us in the development of this project. There was a building sense of energy and momentum, but with 3 - 4 meetings a week, the pace was hard to sustain.
Ranui Land 1998 - 99
In December 1998 the group visited an old orchard in Ranui that had been managed organically by two generations of the Prideaux family. It felt "right", and fulfilled our criteria better than any other site we'd seen. It was adjacent to the local neighbourhood shops and railway station, and was in a township where it was felt our project could be a real catalyst for positive change. We put in an expression of interest to buy the land and then worked on a feasibility study of the site, engaging Robin (an architect) to do a quick house and site sketch plan, get it costed by a Quantity Surveyor, get a valuation on the site, and then refine our development budget to determine a reasonable price to pay for the land, all in the space of one week!
Investigations, negotiations, and many late night group meetings followed. We decided to form our own company, Cohousing New Zealand Ltd (CNZL), to develop the project. We put our feasibility together, talked with our lawyers, corresponded with the vendors' solicitor, and did much soul searching within our group. At one pivotal late night meeting, we debated whether to go ahead. Ranui was not a suburb that everyone felt they could live in, and some members gracefully withdrew. However there was enough interest and enough money was pledged that this time we felt we could go ahead. Five members put up their hands to be the "front group", putting in equal shares to pay the deposit on the land and becoming the first shareholders of CNZL, on the expectation and trust that many others would contribute funds further down the track once the Cohousing Agreement was finalised. We made an offer on the orchard in Ranui.
Two weeks of negotiations, setting up the company, raising funds, meetings, uncertainty and strain followed, culminating in the signing of the Agreement for Sale and Purchase of the property for $660,000 on 15th March 1999. After all those years and all that effort, we'd finally bought some land! It felt like we'd scaled a huge mountain, and there was huge exhilaration and sense of achievement. But we were also aware of the range of mountains in front of us, rising higher than the one we were on, also unexplored and with who knows what crevasses and slippery slopes to challenge us.
In a project of this sort, the part that is visible is merely the tip of a pyramid buried deeply in the ground. All those years of planning and group building are somewhat intangible and invisible to those who haven't been through it. In many ways, all the preparation and planning was the hardest part, relying on vision and persistence and belief that it would happen, and this built a very solid and stable foundation for the whole project. Once we'd bought land and were engaged in the design process, it became much more tangible and credible to people, and this was reflected in the huge influx of people into the group after we committed to buying our site in Ranui.