Village living might sound quaint, even dull to some, but according to Beautility Developments, networks of zero waste, small regenerative settlements don’t mean a return to pre-industrial lifestyles.
Imagine a tech-enabled village lifestyle where all your basic needs – food, shelter, water, energy and mobility – are met affordably and without waste, allowing you to pursue what matters most to you.
This is the bold vision of husband and wife team Steven Liaros and Nilmini de Silva – a new paradigm of land development that they say is sustainable, affordable and attractive to a mainstream audience.
Liaros, who has a background in urban planning and infrastructure, and De Silva, a water engineer, moved into a motorhome in 2015 to showcase their “Circular Economy Village Network” model to councils around the country. So far, one of these circular economy villages looks set to go ahead in NSW’s Bellingen. The fire ravaged East Gippsland region in Victoria is also interested.
Both with backgrounds in local government, they recognise getting councils on board from the outset is key to the model’s replicability. Because unlike ecovillage-type concepts of the past, this model isn’t intended as a one-off.
“We’re talking about it being systematic not just with the design but also the process of planning and development,” de Silva told The Fifth Estate when the couple dropped into Sydney last week.
Put simply, the idea is a network of villages that will share the resources within a bioregion (a region that has a similar climate and geography).
Each village will be about 40.5 hectares and house around 150-200 people, a number based on the Dunbar number, the cognitive limit to the number of people one can maintain stable social relationships. The idea is that settlements of this size will help foster community and reduce isolation, and also help keep the governance structure flat.
Each village will reserve land for conservation and wildlife, land for agriculture, and in the middle, an urban zone for work and living. Critically, the villages will be entirely circular and self-sustaining – with their own renewable energy microgrids, water sensitive infrastructure and circular waste management.
The size of a village or precinct also lends itself to self-sufficiency, according to Liaros. At this scale, it’s possible to have a microgrid to share energy with the community, and on rural land you can have reservoirs and wetlands to support a sustainable water system.
Some of the work in the village will be associated with managing waste, such as processing excess food into jams and relishes.
“It’s just this idea of thinking about the whole system, instead of creating all this waste and needing to deal with it, you reduce the waste or the pollution you are creating in the first place.”
People would also share resources and facilities, such as tools of events space. This is something we’re already getting used to with the sharing economy, de Silva says.
Although trips inside the village should be mostly close enough to walk or cycle, interestingly, mobility between villages would be road-based, using electric buses and cars.
Liaros says that rail typically assumes that there’s a commute – that people live in one spot and work in another, and need to be transported between the two at pace. But he believes this model of work is dismantling.
“People don’t necessarily have to live and work in the city in order to get an income, and not just on YouTube, there are all sorts of jobs online.”
As such, there will be work hubs in each village.
“It’s that balance between mobility and stability.
“We tend to anchor people to a house and job permanently, and a mortgage for 30 years. Whereas there’s growing mobility and willingness to be free from that debt trap, essentially.”
The pair also want facilities for nomads – the thousands who live in on the road, from grey nomads to van-lifers.
These people bring income from buying goods at the local shops and often help on community projects, not to mention a bit of excitement and dynamism.
Liaros says it’s all about giving people the basic necessities, the food the housing, energy and water, as efficiently as possible so there’s “more time and space for things that are more meaningful in life, your passion, rather than just being stuck in a job because you have to pay off your mortgage.”
This is what happens when you employ systems thinking
If this sounds like it’s solving several problems at once – food security, climate change, housing affordability, long commutes and more – that’s no coincidence. These ideas are embedded in the systems-thinking philosophy, where problems are tackled in unison across disciplines, rather than in silos (the typical approach in modern societies).
As such, the model is anchored CSIRO’s mega trends, of which climate and species lost is only one of six.
Concerns over job security, for example, are eradicated when there will always be jobs available in the local economy managing food, water or waste management.
An ageing population is another mega trend, which is why the villages would have a diversity of housing options so that there’s appropriate homes for every stage of a person’s life.
This will also result in a more diverse population and community that’s mutually supportive.
“We’ve made all our relationships transactional, you have to pay for everything … so it’s about creating that village environment that facilitates connection rather than separation and transaction.”
Everything hinges on common ownership
None of this is possible, Liaros explains, without the right land ownership and leasing structures.
Central to the vision are Community Land Trusts (CLT), where the community owns the land and holds it in trust and perpetuity, so there’s no land speculation. Critically, common ownership creates incentive to do everything as efficiently and affordably as possible, because you own it
“If someone owns it from the outside, they are looking to extract as much profit and as much out of you as possible. Whereas if you own it yourself, then you are seeking to minimise your costs.”
It’s also important to engage councils from the outset. Instead of purchasing land and then approaching council with the plans, De Silva says you approach council and work together on the plans.
Because, she says, once it’s written into the planning policy it gives certainty to investors and developers about what needs to happen.
Developers then just simply follow the pathway to approval. They may need to shift tactics a little, however, but Liaros says it’s already headed that way.
“That’s why developers are looking at build-to-rent instead of just build-to-sell, because the cost of buying land, going through approvals, building it, means the end product is unaffordable to most people they want to sell it to.
“It’s a lifecycle financing project, rather than build and sell, it’s about hold and manage, and get steady income from rental.”
When owned by a CLT, everyone would be renting. But unlike the short term, unstable leases that renters are used to, long term leases of twenty years would be on offer (short stays would be available well).
It also minimises housing costs by keeping the rent as low as possible.
“Housing affordability is really important to us.”
Adjusting zoning practices is also part of the plan. At the moment, when rural land is rezoned, value goes through the roof. “We want to capture that land value lift by rezoning after the shared infrastructure goes in place.”
“That’s another way to bring the price down.”
Big ideas, so how’s the execution going?
Since the pair hit the road five years ago, they’ve managed to convince a number of councils to try something new. Bellingen, located on the north west coast of NSW, is one of them.
Liaros and de Silva are working with the local council and various community groups interested in housing affordability. They will be working towards the development of a pilot “circular economy village”, which has been enabled by the recently adopted housing strategy.
They are also talking to council staff and community members in East Gippsland, an area that has suffered greatly in the bushfires. They want to know how these ideas can be tailored to the bushfire rebuild.
De Silva says the village model is bushfire resilient because the agricultural land can serve as a bushland buffer.
There is room for retrofitting existing settlements into this model, De Silva explains, and it’s not necessarily about starting everything from scratch. However, in order to demonstrate the entire idea of an integrated energy microgrid, water microgrid and food system, the early projects will need to be in the rural areas.
“You need a clean slate so that you can test what can be done on site.”
It’s unclear what such model would mean for cities, however, and the pair stop short of forecasting what mass take up of this land development model would mean for major urban centres.
What not to do: Learnings from failed ecovillages
Before getting into the motorhome, the pair spent six months living in European ecovillages to work out some of the challenges.
Liaros says the language is really important. That’s why they don’t use the term “ecovillage”.
“It’s different form communal living,” De Silva says.
“It’s very much about choosing your amount of private space and shared space, and how much you want to spend doing those community things.”
There would be a variety of opportunities to work in the gardens or attend community meals, and “you would gravitate to the ones that speak to you”.
That was one lesson from communal living in the sixties: Some people felt exhausted living with the same big group of people all of the time.
Governance is another reason communal ecovillages have come unstuck in the past – particularly the tricky problem of people not pulling their weight.
Liaros and De Silva suggests flexibility in approach: people might contribute time, or money, depending on their interests and life stages.
“Because once you put the solar panels up, the energy is virtually fee, but in exchange for getting there, people living there must contribute something.”
Common ownership also helps: “If people are responsible for their own resources, they manage them carefully, because it’s in their interests.
“We want people to sort their governance system out themselves.”