Embracing Community At Bend Eco-Neighbourhood

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Bend Eco-Neighbourhood is on the outskirts of the town of Bega. Photo by Eli Badger

You’d go a long way to find a purpose-built, permaculture-inspired, organically certified econeighbourhood like Bend. With those credentials, you might expect a remote location, miles from anywhere, but Bend is located in a major town on the NSW Far South Coast, near schools, shops, a post office, library and medical facilities. The aim of this intentionalliving project was to build community, not just build ‘a community’.

‘Bend is integral to the town of Bega. We wanted to be inclusive and diverse, and part of the town,’ says Jenny Spinks, who was active throughout the project and now lives there. The eco-subdivision was intentionally medium density, with twothirds of the houses privately owned, and the remaining onethird purpose-built for affordable housing rental.

The eco-neighbourhood of 30 houses harvests and reuses its own water, mandates composting toilets and runs on permaculture ethics and consensus decision-making. Ideally, being in town allows a further reduction in ecological footprint, through less car use.

The houses line a shared accessway on the highest part of the property, overlooking the sweeping Bega River floodplain. There are rambling permaculture gardens, common land designated for future market gardening and shared animals, and a wildlife corridor running along a branch of the Bega River, now carefully revegetated. A community building with shared laundry, WWOOFer accommodation, kitchen and meeting space overlooks a pond, river and distant hills.

A Seed Will Grow

The idea of Bend was born when a few like-minded people expressed a joint interest in living in an ecologically sustainable way within the town of Bega. ‘We were walking along and saw this bit of land,’ recalls Jenny. ‘A little corner of it was above the flood line, and it was for sale. The idea was that lots of us could live on this piece of land, in Bega, and live with integrity.’ That was in 2002. By 2008, the first houses were being built. The story of those intervening years is one of hard work, patience and perseverance.

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Sue Hill and Heidi Brennan, both residents at BEND. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Designs Of The Times

‘It took five years to buy the land,’ says Jenny. The group opted for the NSW land ownership structure ‘Community Title’, which regulates a subdivision by the standard and special clauses of a management statement. Bend opted to include clauses on the harvesting and reuse of its own water, composting toilets, permaculture principles and consensus decision-making.

When Bend chose to be water self-sufficient rather than connect to the nearby mains, Council required the roof collection area of any houses be large enough to collect adequate water for the modelled population of the houses.

This meant suitably large building envelopes had to be designated on the blocks. To avoid sprawling house sizes, Bend successfully argued that a combination of a water-wise populace, savings via composting toilets, and the treatment and reuse of greywater allowed for lower consumption figures in the calculation.

To guarantee this, a centralised greywater treatment system had to be included. Compared to a ‘slow solution’ of gravity-fed filtering and reed treatment on blocks, this option was complex and costly, and requires ongoing oversight and maintenance. Water is collected in a few in-ground tanks and pumped through a single reedbed filter, then returned to the yards of houses after passing through a UV steriliser.

The Bend Neighbourhood Association reviews housing plans prior to Council, suggesting tips or tweaks from the knowledge of the group, and ensuring that the new buildings meet the terms of the management statement and do not impact on the solar access of others. The review does not extend to building materials – so far Bend has buildings of strawbale, rammed earth, adobe-style rendered, radial-sawn timber and even some fairly conventional builds – but all homes are correctly oriented and maximise solar passive opportunity.

Affordable Housing

One of the objectives Bend had through the fair share permaculture ethic was to encourage the development of a socially and economically inclusive neighbourhood by setting aside one-third of the properties as social housing. A notfor- profit, non-government group called Community Housing Limited (CHL) became involved. CHL built ten houses on five lots which function as permanent affordable rentals, partly managed by a specially formed housing cooperative. The rentals were popular and swiftly taken up.

Day-To-Day Functioning

Everyone who lives at Bend eco-neighbourhood is encouraged to give an hour of their time each week. Most people join one of the three groups that help keep the village functioning – the social focus group, the land focus group, and the built environment group. People can join the group that suits their interests and skills. The groups meet regularly but it’s not compulsory, so people join in if they are able to and want to. Some people participate a lot, and some barely at all.

‘Consensus decision-making means that there is trust that the people that want to and can do the work, are doing the work for the benefit of everybody,’ says Jenny. ‘So there is not one central leader, rather the power lies with the people who turn up, and that shifts and changes over time.’

Conflict Resolution

Bend has general meetings four times a year where everybody’s invited. ‘It’s not for nutting out things, it’s more workshopping ideas, having a bit of fun,’ says Jenny. ‘We play games and have afternoon tea, it’s like a social event. We do community building with an aim to catch conflict before it happens,’ says Jenny.

When conflict does come up, there is a formal mediation team to deal with it. One of the residents is employed by Bend as a mediator and will run restorative circles when conflict does arise. The mediator is kept up to date with continual training.

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Bend houses all facing north for greatest solar gain. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt Robyn Rosenfeldt

A Positive Alternative-Living Space

‘The really positive thing is that we all know our neighbours,’ says Heidi Brennan, a resident of Bend for over seven years. ‘And that’s a really amazing experience, compared to mainstream suburbia where the fences divide you. A lot of strong social connections here happen outside of the meeting structures. People get together on projects to do stuff together, we have monthly shared dinners, and we mark special occasions. It’s a really rich experience of living.’

When Sue Hill moved into rental accommodation at Bend two years ago, living in close quarters and sharing resources required a transition of sorts, even though she was experienced in ecological living. ‘We deal with our own water, waste and electricity here. I do my laundry in the communal washing machines. The houses have been designed to be close together, so that you can walk out and talk to your neighbour. There’s a level of commitment to living here.

‘The core values of Bend are the permaculture ethics; earth care, people care and fair share. When you want to live those principles, then you get involved. The only way the community garden gets built is if we do it together. And the only way that we have social gatherings is if we make it happen. We have a really strong commitment to the social permaculture aspect, of not just coming together as a community, but being really aware of how we communicate and cooperate as a community.’

Bend At A Glance

The original objectives of Bend were to purchase land and develop a working ecologically and socially sustainable urban housing neighbourhood, that allows for a diverse socio-economic community.

The stats:

12.5 ha with 1.5 ha above flood level for residential lots

  • North-facing slope, good soil
  • Twenty privately owned houses, ten permanent rentals
  • Community Title, properties are owned freehold
  • Run by a Neighbourhood Association which upholds the original objectives using consensus decision-making and conflict resolution
  • Designed using permaculture principles to establish an energy-conserving, productive living environment:
    • Self-sufficient in water – four large community storage tanks
    • Solar water heating and mixed PV/grid-feed electricity in all homes
    • Composting toilets in all homes
    • Common land for agricultural use
    • Common land for conservation, to rehabilitate and conserve endemic ecosystems
  • Limited pets
  • No fences
  • Is an educational model others can learn from

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