The facilitator asked us to do some dream-work. That’s normally not so hard, but there we were, standing in an awkward-shaped T-allotment strewn with bits of broken glass and featuring some derelict out-buildings. The site had previously been a city recycling depot and in a way one of our goals was to continue that recycling heritage. We were asked to dream of what the features would be for our ideal sustainable-living community on the site.
It all seemed pretty much pie-in-the-sky, but the suggestions rolled in. We wanted a green community, comfortable for the residents but kind to the environment; something that would significantly cut our environmental footprint. We wanted a working alternative to urban sprawl. We wanted to help heal the web of life by bringing biodiversity back into the city. And we wanted it to be a community, not just a collection of disconnected dwellings.
It was 1999 and we were members of Urban Ecology Australia. The allotment had been purchased for the development of our dream community, Christie Walk. Fast-forward more than a decade and if you visit that allotment in downtown Adelaide now you’ll find the dream has been turned into reality. Christie Walk has all the physical characteristics that we wanted – compact low-impact apartments and town-houses that are a joy to live in, solar power generation, passive solar ventilation and good insulation, large-scale stormwater harvesting, minimised car-impact, and great biodiversity in the superb greenery that’s so abundant, even on the roof of one apartment block.
But technical innovation doesn’t make community. That’s where the clever design by architect Paul Downton – co-founder of Urban Ecology – has really come to the fore. By insisting with local government authorities that the development would work better with less car-parking spaces than the usual legal minimum, more space became available for planting, seating and a shared kitchen garden. So instead of the usual apartment block lunar landscape of driveways and parked cars, Christie Walk is a green welcoming place that invites residents to wander through the garden, sit for a while and have a chat, or maybe go up to the rooftop garden for quiet meditation or a sunset meal. All along the way there are countless opportunities for community interaction, from the garden to the shared laundry, shared bike-shed or the community room.
In the end that’s what makes the place both unique and very special: enjoyable shared spaces, shared facilities and shared responsibility. A monthly site-maintenance working bee is punctuated by a mid-way morning tea that again maximises opportunity for interaction and involvement.
But it was always intended to be more than a great place to live. We wanted it to be a working model to challenge the conventional approach to urban development, and to provide inspiration and ideas that others can use. That’s being achieved through regular and very popular site-tours, conducted by members of the Christie Walk community. All kinds of people come on the site tours – fellow green activists, school classes and politicians – and a common response is excitement that such high-efficiency, high density living can be so pleasurable and beautiful.
But Christie Walkers were keen to take the outreach a step further, and that culminated in early-2011 in the site-tour being turned into a DVD/CDROM resource pack and updated website so that many more people can take inspiration from its success.
The next stage is very exciting too. Ecocities will be a new imprint for a series of eBooks written by Christie Walk architect Dr Paul Downton and published by New Internationalist Australia, which will provide architects, urban planners and intentional communities with both the theoretical framework and the practical implementation hints for what Paul describes as “architecture for an angry planet”. The planet is indeed angry, but as Paul also says, because we are constantly rebuilding cities anyway, “the city can save the planet”, one neighbourhood at a time, if we build Ecocities.
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This article originally appeared in the September 2011 edition of the New Internationalist magazine.