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Collaborative housing the theme of Anitra Nelson’s new book

Collaborative housing the theme of Anitra Nelson’s new book

I LAST SAW HER in a cafe in Denpassar. When was that? Twenty-five years ago? Must be. She was sitting at the far side of the cafe, coffee on the table in front of her. She looked over, wondering why this person, me, was looking over at her. Then we recognised each other.

Now, here we were looking at each other over another table in another city. She would occasionally glance at me in the way people do when they are trying to remember a face from long ago. And it was long ago, all of those twenty-five years.

Ariel Salleh was here to facilitate the launch of Small Is Necessary, a book about the possibilities of alternative housing. She was now Associate in Political Economy, University of Sydney, and Fellow in Post-Growth Societies, Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

A familiarity with alternative living

Ariel introduced Anitra Nelson, a slightly-built woman perhaps in her sixties. She is not what anyone would call tall, her grey hair is cut short, her skin tanned by exposure to the weather, her manner relaxed and confident, her speech calm and considered, her mind sharp.

Anitra spent a decade living on an intentional community and lived in other shared arrangements. She is familiar with collaborative housing and the culture of those who inhabit it. Her research took her to Europe and the US where, in New York, she spent three months living in an urban community. All of this experience she fed into her book, Small Is Necessary, a documentation and interpretation of her research into what she calls ‘eco-collaborative housing’. That includes not only intentional land-sharing communities but shared households, cohousing and ecovillages.

Intentional community — a brief excursion into collaborative housing

Let’s take a short diversion into definitions and history to learn that intentional communities were a core part of a social movement in the 1970s, a manifestation of the constructive energy coming out of the social ferment of those years, ferment that started in the latter half of the preceding decade. The communities pioneered rural land-sharing settlements and in doing so prepared the way for today’s ecovillages.

Community building on a northern NSW intentional community established in the 1970s and still home to residents.

According to Anitra there is a strong link between intentional communities and what we still quaintly call ‘alternative technology’, although that is now mainstream renewable energy and other technologies. It was on those rural land sharing communities that residents tinkered with and prototyped those technologies.

Shared households were another product of the times and continue to be temporary home to students and others today. Some people have a poor experience of share housing. My experience is the opposite and many of the people who occupied that old terrace house in inner-urban Woolloomooloo are still friends, scattered along the east coast we might be. Shared housing is commonly associated with university students, however only one of the residents of our sharehouse was a student.

The most successful shared household I know of is Selli-Hoo in Black Forest, a leafy suburb between Adelaide CBD and Glenelg on the Spencers Gulf coast of South Australia. Started in the 1970s in a large suburban house, the household is home to those who bought a share in it as well as a couple renters for whom rooms are set aside. Renting is a way for prospective shareholders to find out if communal living really is for them. Outside this large, car-free house, bicycles hang from the grape-covered pergola, vegetables and fruit trees grow in the dehydrating air under Adelaide’s hot summer sun and chooks roam their enclosure.

A car-free household does not need a driveway, so the driveway at Selli Hoo sharehouse was turned into a vegetable garden.
The Selli Hoo kitchen where residents share cooking and mealtime.

Cohousing is a Scandinavian model of medium density intentional community found mainly in urban areas. It came to Australia in the early 1990s as Cascade Cohousing in Hobart, Tasmania. Residents share facilities such as laundry and in some cohousing meet weekly or more frequently for shared cooking and meals in a community dining room. The model has garnered a degree of popularity and there are now a number of cohousing developments in our cities. It is nowhere near its potential as an alternative to the urban sprawl of detached housing.

Dwellings at Earthsong, a large co-housing settlement in suburban Auckland, Aotearoa-New Zealand.
The communal kitchen, dining, meeting and lounge area in the community building at Earthsong. Residents meet weekly for a shared meal and take turns prepering food in the kitchen. Dwellings have their own kitchens.
The Earthsong cohousing food co-op.



Ecovillages are a modern rendering of the rural intentional community. The first in the world made its start in the 1980s when people in the Sydney permaculture scene and others set up Crystal Waters Permaculture Village in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Like the fruit trees the residents plant, the number of evovillages in Australia has grown and the model has been replicated in the US and Europe.

A family’s small cottage at Crystal Waters Ecovillage in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

The activist-scholar

Anitra describes herself as an activist-scholar. Now living in Castlemaine in central Victoria, she is affiliated with the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne. Anitra co-edited Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies that was published in 2011, and coedited Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities.

The session took the form of Anitra delivering a short talk on her research followed by responses to questions by Bronwen Morgan, Professor of Law at UNSW who is researching the legal and regulatory pathways for new economy initiatives and who is a member of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance and the New Economy Network Australia. Cameron Tonkinwise, at the time Professor of Interdisciplinary Design at University of Technology Sydney where he researches design-enabled change for sustainable societies, also asked questions.

The publisher’s brief for Anitra’s book was for a work that would appeal to anyone interesting in collaborative housing as well as an academic readership. This she has delivered.

Anitra’s life experience as well as her research discloses that eco-collaborative housing can produce sufficiency not only in accommodation but also in food and healthcare. Community-based and with shared governance, the different forms of community eco-collaborative housing takes are, essentially, versions of residential co-operatives. They might be land-sharing communities, they might take the compact, medium density form of cohousing with its attached dwellings or they might be communities in taller, higher-rise buildings. Hearing this, I was reminded of the Institute for Cultural Affairs some of whose members, in the 1980s, lived in a vertical community, a 1960s walk-up apartment block they owned in inner urban Marrickville.

In Germany, the national government supports collaborative forms of housing. When tracts come onto the market a segment might be set aside for dwellings of the type, and historic buildings have also been used for this form of accommodation. What we need in Australia, Bronwen Morgan said, is financial change to enable people to more easily access collaborative housing.

Financial questions arose in the years after Neville Wran’s government introduced the Multiple Occupancy Act which in the 1970’s legalised land sharing communities in NSW. The settlements might have been made legal, but the banks would not make loans to people wanting to build in the communities. There was also the difficulty of selling houses and shares in the communities when people moved on. That was solved with the introduction of the Community Titles Act in NSW and with similar acts in other states. The legislation gave freehold title to the area of land around the dwelling, enabling house and land to be bought and sold as a package with rights to common land and common infrastructure.

The need to sell dwellings when people move on calls for a delicate balance between disconnecting collaborative housing from the market while retaining some market connection, Anitra said. It is important to design both entry and exit structures. Also important is a mix of ownership and tenancy. Tenancy allows prospective buyers of collaborative housing to try before they buy.


Pioneers of collaborative housing of the back-to-the-land movement. An early tiny house, more a shack or cabin, on an intentional community in rural Western Australia in the 1990s.

A good idea for seniors

It was from Robyn Francis that I first encountered the idea. Robyn is an elder of the permaculture design movement who has taught it for decades, and since the mid-1990s from her Djanbung Gardens education centre on the edge of Nimbin.

We were sitting in her mudbrick classroom one afternoon in what must have been… what?… 2000, 2001? I don’t recall what we were talking about but the topic moved on to the intentional communities that made their start in the region with Tuntable Falls community in 1973, I think it was.

You know, Robyn said, there are all these aging hippies out there in the hills. To provide easier access to services in town as they age, these pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement would benefit from living in an ecovillage on the edge of town. She had been thinking of a ‘hippie retirement village’ for some time.

The idea again surfaced at the book launch when Bronwen suggested that cohousing for seniors is a better alternative than the conventional retirement village. Two people in the audience, one an architect, said they are currently working on just this type of project and it is now in its early stages. Their plan is for a cohousing community in Sydney’s Inner West, perhaps something like an apartment building where people can live independently as they age and where they share some facilities and support each other.

They also talked about networks of people, activities and services that, according to the brochure they distributed, would “wrap around” older people living in their existing homes and create connections to the larger community. Appropriately, they call their proposal the AGEncy Project, ‘agency’ being defined as “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices”. They describe the project as “…a community of people who want to create a place where they can live actively and independently ‘together’ in the future, as they grow old. The housing concept is ‘cohousing’ and we are calling our group The AGEncy Project because we want to retain personal agency as we grow older.”

On to solutions

In the big cities, the big backyard in which homeowners can gain a measure of self-provisioning in food is fast becoming a relic of Australia’s past. It exists mainly in the middle-ring suburbs where even here it is not safe. Urban infill housing and large-scale apartment development are eating it up. As for the new tract housing on the urban fringe, that offers big houses on tiny lots with detached houses often built so close together it resembles more a sprawling medium density development and less traditional suburbia.

One solution is cohousing. It is neighbourly and cooperative, compact and shared. With its small footprint and medium density design it makes best use of costly urban land. It is potentially a cheaper form of housing. With urban sprawl paving our city-fringe market gardens and orchards, and in doing so reducing our urban food security, and with 30 percent of the average households’ income spent on mortgage repayments, cohousing seems the ideal model for urban living.

The extensive, rural ecovillage model is not viable in the cities because of its extensive land area and the high cost of urban land. What might be the fix for our cities, where public transport and access to open space scramble to keep pace with city-fringe housing development and the local densification of population brought by the boom in apartment building, is compact private dwellings and apartments of six or so levels blended with cohousing and other types of collaborative housing, including vertical communities.

Clearly, we need a better approach to housing, especially in Sydney where in 2016 the population topped five million and is still growing. To popularise these more appropriate forms of urban residential, Bronwen said, it would be necessary to create buzz around the idea of collaborative housing.

An idea around which there is buzz is what has become known as the ‘tiny house movement’. The buzz might have declined these past couple years, but interest remains. At its peak, tiny houses generated such a level of interest in both Australia and the US that it almost became something of a minor social movement.

Some types or tiny houses are mobile and are towable. Other models are permanently located. Their common characteristic is their compact size although the number of rooms they feature varies from the minimal scale single room with sleeping loft to the small cottage. One such dwelling I visited in Aldinga Arts Ecovillage on the coast south of Adelaide was made of rammed earth and consisted of a small kitchen, small lounge and bathroom on the ground level with a bedroom above. It was all the single woman occupant needed. The small cottage version I encountered in Crystal Waters Ecovillage in south east Queensland. A timber structure with a grand view over the rolling country to the north, it is occupied by a family with two young children.

This small cottage in a rural area in northern NSW would qualify as a ‘tiny house’ although it is larger than some. The bedroom is a loft above the living area below. A large, covered verandah provides outdoor living space in the hot, humid climate.

Tiny houses are positioned as affordable housing. They are not only more affordable than what the housing market offers but are sometimes portrayed in as a minimalist remedy for the consumerism associated with conventional housing. They take Mies van der Rohe and Buckminster Fuller’s ‘less is more’ into new territory.

Whatever form it takes, collaborative housing long ago lost its hippie image. That was an artifact of its pioneering days, the time when dissatisfied youth set forth from the cities for new lives on new rural settlements. Appropriately, they called themselves the ‘back to the land’ movement.

Collaborative housing is now mainstream and the number of examples is growing in Australia. Overseas, the model is taking off. As Scandinavia’s cohousing it has been around for decades.

Authenticated by life experience

Anitra’s book is all the more authoritative because her writing is informed by her lived experience. This makes it different to some academic research in which the researcher stands outside their topic looking in and lacks immersion in it.

This, I realise, is a prerogative of the mature age researcher, someone for whom the years have afforded the life experience that allows immersion in their subject. For this, their work is all the more credible and valuable.

And so, to dinner

After the launch Fiona Campbell, a local government sustainability educator, Emily, a young woman recently returned from researching cooperatives in Catalonia, Spain, and I joined Ariel and Anitra for a meal in a small Malaysian cafe on Harris Street.

Ariel earlier introduced Fiona and I as people who had “done much in permaculture in Sydney”. I feel a little reticent when people say things like that but I know that is a silly reaction to a compliment. As we walked to the cafe the conversation turned to Anitra’s recently completing an advanced permaculture design course with David Holmgren, the co-inventor of the permaculture design system, and Dan Palmer, a designer who writes the authoritative blog, Making Permaculture Stronger.

Along Harris Street’s narrow footpath on our way to the cafe, Ariel told the story of how in her student days of the early 1970s she tutored in psychology at the University of Tasmania, in Hobart. There, she encountered this mature age student who joined her class, she said, a man by the name of Bill Mollison.

Dinner with a woman who taught Bill Mollison, who with David Holmgren was the co-inventor of the permaculture design system, seemed a fitting ending to an evening of conversation around an idea, collaborative housing, some of whose early practitioners had much to do with the birth of permaculture.

Top photoCristie Walk. Inner urban cohousing in Adelaide, South Australia. Watch video here.

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Comments (1)

  • Anitra Nelson
    June 29, 2018 at 10:48 am

    Many thanks Russ. I just chanced across it.
    Very well put together. I will refer others to it from my site.

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