At a time when the cost of living is rising faster than wages, a community on the southern outskirts of Adelaide is demonstrating how to combine arts, permaculture and sustainability with affordable living. 

Aldinga Arts Eco Village is home to over 350 people of all ages and backgrounds. It is structured as a community corporation under South Australia’s Community Titles Act.

Each of the owners of the 170 residential and 11 commercial lots have a title to their own property. They also have shared ownership of common lands, which make up around 60 per cent of the area of the village and include an organic farm.

As the name suggests, the 20-year-old community has a strong focus on the arts, as well as social and environmental sustainability. A strong culture of volunteering, sharing and exchange permeate all aspects of life in the village.

The residents, who range from young families with children to pensioners, play an active role in managing the village’s common property.

Affordable entry level homes in the community currently sell for around $250,000 (for a two-bedroom 150 square metre lot), ranging up to over $600,000 for lot sizes of up to 600 square metres.

The community is governed through legally binding bylaws, which are given to each lot owner as they buy their property. Major decisions are made at an annual general meeting, whose day-to-day management is handled by a committee of eight people.

To support wildlife corridors, biodiversity and habitats, the village has a landscape of local native plants and trees. This shade canopy helps to reduce heat and improve the village’s resilience to climate change.

To protect local native wildlife, residents are limited to two domestic dogs and cats per household (with cats required to be constrained to a cat run).

All homes in the community meet passive solar design standards and have an orientation that maximises solar gain. Around 90 per cent of homes have solar panels and hot water systems. Several also have battery technology or electric cars.

The Fifth Estate spoke to longtime village resident and treasurer Tricia O’Donovan bout how the community works.

How it all began

The eco village was originally incorporated in 2001, with building commencing a year later, after around 10 years of planning. 

It was the dream of two different groups of people in the local area, who were each looking to start their own intentional communities.

The first was a group of artists who wanted a space where they could continue to practise their art as they got older, as an alternative to a traditional retirement community. 

The second was a group of people associated with a local permaculture co-op that was keen to start a sustainable village.

After the local council brought these two groups together, they selected the land for the village, legally incorporated it (with “arts ecovillage” included in the name to represent both sides of the community), and began subdividing lots.

Who can move in?

While it was originally partly conceived of as a community for older people, today there are no age restrictions on who can become a resident. 

“We attract people that are attracted to the notion of an arts eco village, but there are no restrictions. Anybody can buy and you can sell to anyone. What we found happening, particularly over the last five years or so, is that most sales occur through word of mouth.

“We have many generations living here – we’ve got as many kids as we have older people, and that’s seen as really beneficial for both. So people will buy in, and their kids will grow up and then they’ll buy in, and grandparents move in. We’ve got a lot of people who have friends within the village or family within the village, and they tend to be buying in more and more,” she says.

“We rely on a diverse mix of people from all walks of life to achieve a balanced community. We don’t want to become an enclave for the wealthy or those who need to work more than fulltime to pay a mortgage! We want and need the gardeners and the artists and the retired, and the young people and young families to live here too.”

Financial and environmental sustainability

The community is financially self-sustaining, and receives no regular external funding from governments.

To pay for the maintenance of common lands, each of the residents pays levies to the community corporation, which are slightly lower than the equivalent council rates. The rates are decided based on a per-square-metre basis.

“We actually get very little from anyone. So even with the council, we pay council rates at whatever the going rate is for the value of our property, but the council doesn’t maintain our roads or in-ground infrastructure,” she says.

“The community corporation owns and maintains its roads, its lighting and all its facilities. We have a collective waste management approach. So council, with the rubbish collection trucks, just stop at one point in the village, because we don’t want trucks driving through the village.

“The level of service we get from the council is quite low. So as a consequence, they always encourage us to submit applications for grants. We’ve been quite successful but the grants are $3000 for a new trailer or something like that. So it’s a drop in the ocean really.”

To reduce waste, residents share wheelie bins. The village also has compost systems, worm farms, and provides education on waste reduction and recycling. 

“We have an internal management system, where about five or so households share a bin and take it to the collection point each week. We do a lot of recycling and try to keep as much green waste, for example, as possible on site. So we mulch and we compost, and we’ve got a worm farm and all that sort of stuff.” 

Stormwater management is done through designed swales and retention ponds, which regenerate the aquifer, filter run-off and improve soil moisture retention.

The village is self-sufficient in water. It has a mains water connection as a backup water supply, with a requirement that all households collect at least 15,000 kilo litres of rainwater. 

However, most people have more than that. So water bills are minimal O’Donovan says.

“We don’t pay the supply charges of the water utility authorities—or sewerage charges for that matter—because we have our own wastewater treatment system. So the day-to-day costs of living here are a little bit more affordable than you’d find in a regular suburb.”

A culture of volunteerism

At the heart of the community is a strong culture of volunteering, with residents responsible for most of the maintenance work.

The village is divided into nine neighbourhood groups who make decisions about community needs.

The neighbourhood groups are supported through a closed Facebook group, the village website and regular get-togethers. 

“They do weeding, spreading mulch, putting compost down, pruning fruit trees, picking fruit, processing fruit, sharing fruit, establishing collective vegetable gardens fixing, irrigation drippers and all that sort of stuff,” O’Donovan says.

To help out with maintaining the grounds, the village also has three paid workers who supplement the volunteers’ work.

“We don’t employ anybody to do admin or anything like that. Volunteers also do all the admin. For example, I’m the treasurer, so I look after the budget.”

Strong community means a lower cost of living

The spirit of volunteering and strong community lowers the cost of living for residents, by providing them with services that they otherwise would need to obtain through governments or the private sector.  

“So for example, there’s huge costs and issues with aged care. Within the village, we have an informal support network that has been effective as people age. So we’ve supported that person, and we’ve supported their family, as they’ve aged,” O’Donovan says.

“Similarly with kids, we’ve got a supportive network of families with young kids. So for example, when a baby’s born, the artists will collectively gift a handcrafted rug or blanket, we have a meals roster so the family is provided with meals for the first week that baby’s home, and there’s active support and visits.

“If that sort of informal but strong community existed throughout our cities, then it would take pressure off the more formal services like aged care and childcare.

“It’s something that you could stack it up against the cookie cutter development, if you looked at the long term, ongoing day to day costs to both the householder and society, rather than just looking at the building costs of squeezing however many houses you can on the block of land.

Affordable housing

The village is conscious of sustainability in its broadest sense – including social sustainability. 

And while it’s not an affordable housing community in the same sense that a housing co-op is, it has participated in programs that promote lower-cost homes. For example, around 2010, the community built 23 homes as part of the Affordable Housing Innovations Fund. 

“They were built specifically to be affordable, and while there’s no regulations on them, they have maintained their affordability because they are higher density than other parts of the eco village,” O’Donovan says.

“But they’re still really well designed. They still comply with bylaws, so they’re passive solar design, so that ongoing operating costs are really low. And they’re houses that attract first home buyers and older singles.

“We’ve got another group of 11 homes that were built in accordance with the South Australian affordable homes guidelines, but they weren’t part of that programme. So they were built to be affordable. And they were promoted with local people who were looking for affordable housing.”

According to O’Donovan, the community is currently looking at community land trusts as a way to provide more affordable homes to people, perhaps through long-term leasehold.

The idea is that it would slash the cost of home ownership.

Challenges

While the ecovillage has many benefits, it isn’t a perfect utopia and still faces many of the same issues as the broader community.

“All of those issues that you see in the broader society are alive and well here. We’ve got over 300 people living here, so of course we’re just a reflection of the broader society. We’re not all greeny hippies, for example,” O’Donovan says.

“Each AGM, we have to make a collective decision on how we’re going to spend our money. We’ve got a five year forward budget. There’s always good healthy debates about how we spend our money. Putting money into arts versus the environment.”

The area around Aldinga is rapidly developing. A 1000 house subdivision and a new superschool are opening next door. This is likely to accelerate with the recently elected Malinauskas state government pledging to upgrade Main South Road, which is the major arterial road that connects Adelaide to the Fleurieu Peninsula.

However, O’Donovan is confident the community will survive the growing pressures of suburbanisation.

“At the end of the day, we hold the title to a parcel of land. We’re not gonna be taken over by the government and it’s not gonna be further subdivided because it can’t be, because we own it,” she says.

A better way of doing suburbs

O’Donovan says that the ecovillage model is an option that governments and private philanthropists who are concerned about housing affordability should look at.

“I do think there’s scope for philanthropic and government investment in eco villages. And the key really is to raise the profile of eco villages. It’s an inspiring place to live. And eco villages themselves are unique because of their focus on community and environment. That’s a thing that resonates with a lot of people.” 

She thinks more such developers would be beneficial for society and environment alike. 

“It’s a demonstration of so many good things at so many different levels, that it is worthy of a closer look so that it can be rolled out in more places.

“I think, instead of just giving tracts of government land to private developers that do the cookie cutter approach to development, you could look more holistically at the intangible benefits that something like an eco village provides to broader society.”

“You could look at it as a better way of doing suburbs. This is this suburb that we all really aspire to, or those of us that do live in suburbs.”

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  1. Yes, Aldinga is a great example of doing suburbs better. We need more of these but there are a number of challenges. We will be running a workshop through the Planning Institute in early May…https://www.planning.org.au/events/event/2022-planet-online-planning-for-a-network-of-circular-economy-villages-two-half-day-workshops