Many of us have these secret dreams. Dreams that don’t fit into our current experience but we can’t get them out of our hearts.
Dreams of a life without alienation. Where we live close to our relatives but not in their laps. Where the daily drudgery of traffic is replaced with a jaunty walk to work along a promenade where the only wheels are those of bicycles, buggies and prams. We dream of living in a village where we know almost everyone. Where artists colour our streets and children are safe to play. Where our waste water is used to fertilise the village farms and create biodesiel to run our small, quite, community buggies. Dreams of living close to the land and close to each other. Dreams, dare I say it, of community.
For many years I’ve been praying for village life. With three children under 6, stuck in a tiny box in suburbia, I was so lonely I thought my heart would break. I was lost in the needs of my children and there was no outlet, much less any one to share the joys and burdens of mothering with. I dreamed of planting a garden with sisters while other sisters took turns at holding babies. I dreamed of sending boys off with my brothers to become men.
We moved to Byron Bay to try to capture some sense of village. We rented a large house close to the beach and invited others to live with us. It was a great improvement from the Gold Coast where a visit to my friend took 3/4 hour of bumper to bumper traffic and the soundtrack to a swim in the kid-safe creek was grinding highway roar. Here in Byron Bay, we’ve shared our home with a menagerie of brilliant souls dedicated to the idea of community. Together we’ve stepped, sometimes bumbling, into the dark unknown of communal living and we’ve certainly tread in some bogs. Learning, learning we’re finally beginning to create the experience we always hoped for. The next step is creating a long term option for those who, like us, see the idiocy of suburbia and who hope for a return of the village.
Enter stage left, Claude Lewenz.
Born of 16 years researching, brainstorming with friends and colleagues, experimenting and finally living his dream, Claude Lewenz’s book, “How to Build a Village”, answers our prayers. It’s all there. How to use architecture to encourage inclusion, safety, beauty, diversity; to discourage alienation, untenable local politicians and business people, and best of all how to discourage traffic? Simple, limit population to 10,000 people, the space to 100 acres, the streets to fit only people. Wall the village in so cars can’t enter. Build open plazas which belong to everyone, not just caffeine and alcohol pushers. Plazas where children can play, teens can hang and artists can work, unaccosted. Everyone can walk to work. Village buggies are available to cart large items. Car parks on the outskirts of the village store your car. Hire a ‘village car’ for long drives to nearby villages, cities or natural attractions. But primary to what Claude calls the Human Scaled Village is the strength of the local economy. Food is grown by villagers, local businesses keep the money in the village as does one the most underutilised assets of our generation - telecommuting.
Where did Claude Lewenz get all these wonderful ideas? I asked him..
I grew up in a supportive neighbourhood where not only did no one lock their doors, but after school I could walk into a neighbour’s home and visit… no knocking, just a welcome. As I got older, I found that slowly vanishing, and when as an adult I began to look for such a place to call home for my family, I discovered it no longer existed. I began asking questions. I want to live in a Village with my family. I want to visit other Villages. As I spoke with others, I found they wanted the same thing. Gradually those dialogues emerged into a calling.
Was there a moment you realised you must be part of changing the way we live together to save our world?
If we build ten thousand of these Villages we may very well save the world… or at least save humanity’s place in the world, but “the world” is abstract except for people who don’t live in reality. A friend of mine, Elisabet Sahtouris, says she found a dictionary that defined reality as a non-derivative experience. That means that almost all we are told, see on TV, read in books and magazines and now on the web, is not real. We have to learn to discern what is likely to be real and many of us spend most of our lives in a non-real construct. This is made easier when we engineer our own non-derivative (real) experience so it becomes standardised and flavourless: Wake up in a heated or air-conditioned room, turn on the TV, shower in treated water, microwave our packaged breakfast, listen to the news in our car on the way to the office.. We hardly notice what is real anymore as we get excited by the news we see on TV, but ignore the slow decay of life around us in our real world.
For me, saving the world is not real, because it is a derivative experience.
Building a village is real, as long as it is our village. But if we build those villages based on universal patterns - what Plato calls the forms, which for him is the highest form of reality, then our local work may enable humans to live on earth in a way that ensures both parties (humans and earth) get along a lot better.
As for the book, there is a big difference between chattering about an idea and actually working through the details so ordinary people can make the idea manifest. At this time, books still are more tactile for people than web sites. You can take them to a cafe and read, or share the pictures with someone. Buying a book is like taking the first step on a long journey, it is a commitment saying “Yes, I am going to do this.” It’s a way of gifting an idea to someone else, where the content far exceeds the purchase price.
Remember that to build a Village, one has to get permission from elected and appointed officials. They are expecting car-scaled designs, so the idea of a 5,000 to 10,000 population community without cars is unfamiliar. Better to give them a book they can take away and read at their leisure; otherwise their mind can go on overload.
If a group of people decide they not only want to live in a Village, but to design their own plaza, they all need to get on the same page. A book helps them do that, and then the book shows them how to actually position themselves so they can design their own plaza (it requires at least 20 families capable of buying homes and workplaces, and capable of committing to the design process).
All those circumstances led me to conclude the best way I could proceed was to put my findings into a book.
Reading your book, I find my self saying, “of course”, “why not”, “it’s so simply”. And yet we don’t live this way. The adage “It takes a village to raise a child” rings in our ears, it seems we hear it daily. What do you think stops modern people from creating their own village? Why aren’t we doing it already?
Short answer: Energy flows where attention goes.
First reason we don’t build our own villages is the power of America. Americans passed zoning laws that forced separation so people had to use cars. And when you are poor, getting to own a car is great stuff. So the Depression era kids who came back from war loved it: a car, a kitchen where pressing buttons accomplished what took their Depression-era Mom all day to do and then a drive in burger joint. The suburbs were so seductive that few noticed their true cost. Fifty years later we are so dependent on the American system (which was voluntarily adopted by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and more recently the old countries of Europe) that most people who seek changes can only think of tweaking the system… a more efficient car, biofuel, or going back to rail.
There was a fellow in California who tried to build an environmentally friendly suburb. He succeeded, but it was so difficult no other developer wants to go there. The hassle he had with the authorities over health, safety, fire, etc, was so difficult, other developers said it wasn’t worth it. He was trying to tweak the suburb.
What I have done is to start from scratch. I look at as many details as I can, and then come up with solutions that avoid the problems. For example, you don’t encounter the same fire department regulations, needing wide streets to accommodate big fire trucks, if you build out of fireproof materials with sprinklers so nothing will burn. If you create your own local economy, the Village can sell out in months, because your target market becomes millions of people not the few hundred who might find jobs on offer in that region. This overcomes a major investment challenge faced by normal developments. It adds a whole new meaning to the phrase The buyer comes first.
Finally, one of the biggest things is that people need permission. Strange, but true. Apple Computer is successful in part because 25 years ago, on the first new-employees orientation lecture, Steve Jobs would welcome new recruits by literally saying “I give you permission to innovate.” A lot of the book is to give people permission.
In your book you state that villages are becoming viable again. What do you mean by that?
Economically viable. Meaning that technology shifts makes it possible to have a thriving local economy.
Villages emerged when nomads settled down. Most died when industrialisation needed to buy huge, expensive machines that needed hundreds or thousands of workers living nearby… thus the cities rose to prominence and the young left the village. White collar workers needed to be near their lawyers, accountants, bankers, advisors, suppliers and even near their competitors. Now my laptop can write a letter or even a book, do all my accounting, make copies of documents… in short do all the things that in 1980 requires an office staff of twenty and hundreds of thousands of dollars in office equipment. Now, when I need research done, I post it on guru.com, and an expert bids for it from Oxford, England. Now telecommunications means that we can select where to live based on quality of life. Soon we will get to the Star Trek screen, where you and I will have this conversation in front of a large video screen - perhaps even simulated 3 D - supported by fast enough broadband (and smart enough software) to emulate a face to face meeting. When that happens, distance is irrelevant, thus selection of location becomes based on quality of life, not proximity. This shift in technology makes villages become viable once again.
This interview is a good example. We have never met. You send your questions from Byron Bay, Australia to a 17 character series of letters separated by the @ and a dot sign that finds me on Waiheke Island in New Zealand. Magically, it popped up on my screen as I was doing something else. Sitting on a South Pacific island in an earth brick office with one of the world’s finest views, where we drink and shower in rainwater and the air is so clean rare lichen grows on the trees, I am able to answer you. I could not have done that 20 years ago when my office was in a city and we had 17 people working there to be economically sustainable. My book is for sale on Amazon on a server somewhere in the world. When your readers place the order from a PC on their desk at home, a company in Tennessee sends it to them in Australia (or wherever) and pays me in NZ so I can continue to live on an island on the other side of the world. Those new conditions make it possible for Villages to once again become viable.
What’s the difference between a human-scaled village and a 60s commune or a 80s ashram?
Size, scale, scope, character, purpose, longevity, to name but a few.
A human-scaled village requires a critical mass of 5,000 to 10,000 persons. Such intentional communities as a commune or ashram would be likely to have a few hundred people.
A village would have at least 2,000 buildings at 20-30 buildings per acre, reflecting a capital value around $1 billion or more. Most people would have mortgages and own title to their home.
A village would have a huge infrastructure with dozens of plazas, many streets, a sophisticated water and sewage treatment system, advanced technologies and so on.
A village would have thousands of people working at jobs everyday - mainstream jobs including ones a commune would abhor, like consultants who advise Fortune 500 companies how to make more money.
A village would have a vast range of people with different politics, philosophies, economic status, and personalities. A cross section of society.
A village would have a wide range of activities on at all times. On one plaza, the actors guild would run the theatre. On another a group of believers may build a church, mosque or temple. Down in the youth zone, kids would be dancing in the street to loud music. On my plaza the outdoor cafes would be the centre of connection. I would be enjoying slow food, long dialogue, perhaps a game of chess.
A village is intended to last for centuries and never get boring.
Communes, ashrams and similar intentional communities tend to attract like-minded people, not unlike gated-golfing communities. They serve an entirely different purpose in the tapestry of human life. Many tend to be small, transient and non-durable (meaning the kids often move away and don’t come back). They tend to be based on a particular, although sometimes vague, philosophy often with heavy use of the word should - expectations about what people should and should not do. In many cases, they tend to be reactive, often made up of middle-class, voluntary refugees, reacting to and rejecting the sanitary middle-class life of their childhood.
Forget apples and oranges, the commune/ashram and the human-scaled village are as different as a family orchard and a rainforest. Different scale, different scope, different systems, different ecology.
Tell us about your plan to ban motor vehicles from villages?
Human scale or machine scale - you choose, but you can’t have both. Prince Charles’s village of Poundbury tried to domesticate the car; it didn’t work.
How to do it? Easy. Walls and gates. Ever been to a fancy new mega shopping mall? The one with hundreds of stores and nothing worth buying? They don’t have cars driving up and down between the stores. Of course they have a tarmac moat, a wasteland of cars parked outside, but that’s because people only shop in the mall, not live there. I bring up that awful analogy because local government officials get it, when I remind them that they approve car-free models all the time.
Banning them is simple. Build a wall, have gates and bollards so they can’t get in. Put a big motorpool outside the Village gate, and stock it with whatever cars people want. Soon most people will figure out its easier to rent a car when you need to go from the Village to somewhere else, but a few will need to own a car… either because they really do need it, or because the car is their identity, and that’s OK. They can rent or own a space, just like people in cities do. If you live on the 20th floor in a city apartment house, you don’t park your car in a two-car garage next to your bedroom, you walk to it in the 300-car garage down the street.
The Village will allow small golf-cart sized electric vehicles inside the village walls. Load up your suitcase, skis and a weeks worth of food, drive the golf cart to the motorpool, load it in the back of the rental SUV (that you really do intend to shift into 4 wheel drive to get to the skifield) and you’re sweet. But after that, for the next 20 weeks, you may discover you are so active and enjoying your Village life, you haven’t seen a car, much less sat in one. Oh, by the way, the SUV was powered with B-100 biofuel made from the sewage treatment plant using algae - one acre of algae produces 10,000 gallons of biofuel. One acre of corn makes 18 gallons, but it requires 9 gallons of diesel to plant and harvest. So your tailpipe is sweet too. Poo power.
Can we convert current suburbs to villages?
Yes, but it will be painful. We have to wait until circumstances change. A cull-de-sac and a Village plaza are about the same size. Where a cull-de-sac has eight McMansions around it, we would get about 50 or 80 homes and workplaces. To do this, the suburb’s supporting infrastructure will need to collapse, something likely to happen if the price of fuel rises to the point where people can no longer afford it. However, I leave that to someone else to figure out. If you want to see how to do it, look at how they rebuilt Beirut after the war. All the landowners pooled their properties into a single corporation where they exchanged title for shares. This allowed them to do a comprehensive rebuild. Great idea - a Lebanese banker friend of mine put it together. Sadly, it was made possible because they had bombed the old buildings into rubble. But suburbs are so badly built out of such flimsy material (compared to old cities), that one won’t need a war, just a shift in the economic realities.
What do you say to people who are frightened to share their children with their own parents much less strangers? Is the cultural divide between the generations able to be breached?
Kids are a lot more durable than we realise. Someone who is that frightened for their children and so unable to relate to others will seek out an environment that accomodates those needs - probably one more dependent on TV, computer games and franchised services and entertainment to keep children occupied and separated. Such parents will self-select. They won’t chose a Village, or if they do and are uncomfortable, they will move out.
To answer the last question, considerable thought went into how to create a safer environment for children.
They are physically safer. They can play on the streets and not get run over because there are no cars. Because the Village is walled, young ones are less likely to wander off.
They are in public, and the public will define what it deems as acceptable conduct. At all times, thousands of people will be around. If someone starts acting weird, others step in.
The pressures that make adults violent are less. Who ever came up with this stupid idea that two parents (or one solo) can raise a family alone and not break under the pressure of it? (hear hear - Ed)
Scale is important. In 5,000-10,000 population communities, especially organised around neighbourhoods (plazas), people take responsibility. Only when communities grow larger do people become apathetic. If someone is hurting a child, Villagers will speak up, and the Village, through the right of public auction after due process of contract law, has the ability to take action if a citizen is of danger to children.
You suggest village based decisions are made by a Village Council. What do you say to people who argue that a 4th level of government is the last thing we need; more bureaucracy will make life harder not easier?
Bureaucracy is something that occurs when the population gets over 10,000 persons. That’s why we have the absolute population cap, and set out the Village walls, so it simply can’t get beyond that size. When you have a population 5,000 to 10,000 the people in public service are your neighbours. You run into them, and they can’t get away with the same nonsense. They know it and you know it. I know this because I have lived in such places. It really does work. They call it grocery-line democracy.
In your book, you say those of the Baby boomer generation should consider village living as retirement services will be scarce because of longevity trends. While it is statistically true that we are living longer, for the moment, the increase in morbidity puts a dampener on the idea of baby boomers being of much use in these villages. What will we do with the disproportionate percent of invalid, chronically ill people? (Henderson’s Increased Morbidity observations) Will they be able to even walk well enough to use the promenades and plazas? Will their minds hold strong enough to offer any wisdom as Dementia increases? And what of the local insurance program? Will it be taken up with ailing elderly hip replacements?
The book proposes that the Village fund the construction of nursing bed facilities out of the savings from not having to put in a vehicle-standard roading infrastructure. It proposes that the Village then fund the supervisory staff out of an annual assessment (AKA rates or property tax). This would be in lieu of shipping such people outside their community where they find themselves in an alien place that is depressing to the point of making life not worth living. That’s all it proposes.
The Village would not be paying for hip replacements, medical services or any of the other things for which we have national or private medical insurance systems at present. If the state pays for nursing home care, the Village would get reimbursed from the state, thus placing a lower ongoing burden on the Villagers. If Villagers wanted to form a co-op to buy medical insurance at wholesale rates (5,000 people can negotiate a discount, just as a corporation employing 5,000 workers can), this would be encouraged to lower the cost of living. But the insurance they would purchase would be normal. It is unlikely that the Village would be large enough to support a hip-replacement hospital. However, it may turn out that over decades of living in a pedestrian Village, fewer Villagers will need new hips because they walked more - use it or lose it.
The idea is simply that we don’t throw away our old people. Longevity is not the issue. I was on an Indian reservation where to earn a living they made pottery sold to visitors. There was a very old lady, probably over 100, who was almost blind, weak and shaky. As she got older, the children she taught pottery got younger and younger, since her skills diminished as her infirmity grew. Her pottery was the only piece I bought that day. “Being of much use” is the wrong standard.
The reason Baby Boomers get attention is the stark reality facing them, as it has faced previous generations ever since we invented the nuclear family and began farming old people out to retirement homes. The Village is designed to accomodate all stages of life. If an old person loses their wits and begins wandering, the walls mean they are likely to stay within the Village where they won’t get run down by a car. Hundreds of neighbours will see them wandering, know who they are, and make sure they get brought back home again. Dementia is part of life. We have, as of late, invented a life where we want everything to be sanitary, not inconvenient or unpleasant. It’s not making us any happier.
What happens if a village’s population grows too large for it’s border?
No homes for sale, no new ones can be built. Using the biological model, the cell bifurcates. Build or move to another already built village. When we run out of empty good land, buy a suburb, rip it down and build one there. The only non-negotiable is the Village walls and the 10,000 population cap. Breach either of those two and you get bureaucracy and sprawl.
Tell us about food. How does living in the human-scaled village help us to be more ethical, eco friendly and healthier in our food choices?
The Human Scaled Village brings in 5,000 to 10,000 new mouths to feed. That’s a lot of food. I recommend selecting a place where the Village land is marginal for agriculture, but surrounded by good farmland with farmers struggling to make a living because of yo-yo global commodity prices, rising fuel costs, and other variables.
Contract with those farmers to grow a wide range of foods. Set an organic standard not because its PC, but because it tastes better and is good for our bodies. Using part of the infrastructure budget to train the farmers, to loan them money to plant the trees and plants. The reason to chemically grow is to increase yield. Farmers getting paid a fair price are happy to get a lower yield not using chemicals. Did you know that in NZ the number one death cause is cancer, and the highest cancer rate is among farmers? That’s probably the best way to convince a farmer to go organic, provided you pay them more… which is easy to do if you cut out the middleman, transport, packaging, financing and overhead.
Put an “intranet” in every home, so food orders are handled by smart software. Shift from a measures system to a units system. Instead of buying 20 kg of apples, make a standard set of reusable boxes, bottles, etc. You buy a red box of apples, and one time it is 20.5 kg and the next 19.5. Who cares as long as the red box looks full? But from a management standpoint, the kid filling the box with fresh-picked apples just does it by eye… no need to worry about the precise KGs (we belong to a food co-op, and this constant worry about weights and measures drives me nuts… when I eat the apple, I don’t weigh it first). When you build the Village require a food box in front of every house, next to the mailbox. In this way, the food is picked at the farm, the intranet identifies where it goes. It is brought to the motorpool/depot, transferred to smaller electric floats in street number order (first in/last out), and placed in the food box. Billing is on-line with automatic bank or credit union debit.
Bottom line, most of the food is grown on the nearby farms including solar hothouse growing. Because the middleman, packaging and transport charges are removed, the farmer earns more, and the Villager pays less. Set a fixed price irregardless of the variables of the global market. Establish a farm bank where Villagers loan farmers money to plant seed in the Spring. When farmers want to sell up, the Village may elect to buy the farm, and run it as a co-op. Build the sewage treatment plant as an algae biofuel plant (B-100 = diesel) and give farmers first priority on biofuel purchases. Sell it to them at the production cost, not at the current spot market for diesel (do not amortise the capital cost of building the plant - that is part of the infrastructure paid for at time of construction). Simple stuff really. All you need is permission.
Become a Slow Food community. See slowfood.com if you are unfamiliar. In slow food, it embraces all the ethical, eco-friendly and healthy aspects of food, but its selling point is the wonderful taste of food, the art of preparing, the oft-forgotten wonders of local and heirloom varieties, and of course, the art of eating. Food is to be enjoyed with others. Allow hours to dine, to engage in dialogue, to enjoy the company of others. And to do all these things affordably. Go to a Greek island, and dine for hours. The bill will not break you, for they do not look at food that way. That’s slow food.
Identify Villagers who love to make food and pay to send them to the old world where people still make great food - the best cheese of Italy never gets down here; it’s great because of how they make it. Bring knowledge back. Invite some of the people from there to come live in your Village for a year to teach you.
Go to the indigenous people of your area, invite them to become both food suppliers and food teachers.
Start a seed saving programme, bring back a hundred varieties of apples.
“How to Build a Village” is filled with delightfully sensible advice such as this.
My favourite part is where Claude talks about avoiding current trends of upgrading deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people. :
“The Village needs many artists. Many artists need the Village. To keep its artists, the Village must prevent gentrification. It must have a plan where artists become homeowners and never get priced out of the market. Why? Creative and performing artists hold an important place in any community, they hold the mirror up to society, showing not the image we want to see, but the masks we wear, and what lies behind the mask. The artists transform a community into vibrant, interesting place. ”
We know this story well here in Byron Bay. In the 90s our streets crawled with hippies and ferals, artist and musicians, peace activists and professional protesters. People flocked here for the Blues Festival to taste the freedom of expression and dynamic idealism the locals exuded. But then early retirees and lifestyle hunters began swarming in from Sydney and Melbourne and began to buy the lovely old beach houses and do them up. They wanted a taste of the past with the vibrancy of that special Byron energy. Hundreds came. Hundreds followed the property boom and prices for housing soared. And guess what. Ten years later, much of the colour has gone. The Ferals and artists, unable to afford the rent hikes left; replaced by franchise clothing stores you see at any mall any where, hordes of drunk schoolies and back packer tourists, terrible cafe food and service mixed with poorly planned infrastructure. Many of us still hold the dream though. Will we make it back to community? I certainly feel more hopeful since reading Claude’s book.
I also loved the idea of Parallel Market Home Ownership:
‘In creating the overall business plan to finance the Village, some funds are set aside to subsidise the price of some of the homes – perhaps 20 - 33% of them. The original sale price is set at an “affordability price” for specific target buyers such as youth, artists, elders, and workers in service where income would not compete with the open market demand or Village housing (see the chart below where income determines affordability). The targeted buyer gets to purchase the home at a substantial discount, but when they go to sell, they must sell only in the “parallel market”, meaning to another buyer in their target market. For example, if a target market includes public servants and teachers, a police officer moving on could sell to a teacher, but not to a stock broker who would be prepared to pay more. In this way, the average wage in the target market determines the average home price in that parallel housing market, and gentrification is minimised. Cheating is discouraged by a simple mechanism. If a buyer is found to have fraudulently claimed to be in the target market, the Village retains the right of public auction – it notifies the buyer their home will be sold at a no reserve auction if not sold privately to a proper buyer in the target market within a reasonable period of time.’
Such sense! Claude writes about the ridiculousness of calling the average house price of $500,000 affordable. For a teacher, who’s income is around $40,000 affordable would be around $200,000. Why should teachers live many suburbs away from the children they teach because they can’t afford the homes nearby. Keeping housing for service oriented professions near the plaza’s where the school class rooms are within walking distance is much more sane.
‘The appeal of this approach is in its self-regulation. If due to inflation, the earnings band jumps from $50,000 a year to 100,000, then the market price of the house will also double. The collective Village will benefit by being assured its teachers and public servants will always be able to buy a home in the Village.’
I don’t know about you, but this little Nourisher is inspired. I’m buying the book and dreaming it up. Dream charts, affirmations, sharing the dream with powerful members of my community. I haven’t been so excited by a book since Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. You can get a copy at VillageForum.com
About the Author...
Joanne Hay, Editor of Nourished Magazine, Chief Nourisher and Mother of three is very grateful to live in Byron Bay and be able to share all she has learned about Nourishment. She has trained as an Acupuncturist (unfinished), Kinesiologist (finished) and parent (never finished). She serves the Weston A Price Foundation as a chapter leader. She loves sauerkraut, kangaroo tail stew, home made ice cream, her husband Wes and her kids Isaiah, Brynn and Ronin (in no particular orderâ€¦well maybe ice cream first).