Earthsong: urban living the sustainable way

Community values are at the heart of an eco-neighbourhood in New Zealand which offers an enviable way of living with its proactive recycling and waste minimisation initiatives. Katie Coyne reports

Residents from Earthsong

Residents from Earthsong

With a 63% recycling rate, New Zealand's Earthsong eco-neighbourhood in Waitakere, greater Auckland, has an enviable reputation. What's more, the 63% figure only includes refuse collected by the local council and doesn't factor in that residents also organise for themselves the recycling of plastic bags, fluorescent light bulbs, and batteries as well as composting food waste on-site.

The eco-community also produces significantly less waste in the first place. Of the 32 Earthsong homes, the average weekly refuse waste (going to landfill) per household is 2.80kg. This compares with a 9.61kg average per Waitakere household from homes outside of Earthsong. These figures comes from Waitakere City Council's audit carried out last year, which found that Earthsong residents' waste comprises 38% recyclable paper and cardboard, 25% mixed recycling - including glass and plastics 1 to 7 - and 37% rubbish.

"We certainly didn't have a waste minimisation written plan, because that's not how Earthsong works. We work from our vision statement and various principles and try not to have lots of rules," says resident Helen Haslam. "We wanted to be a model for sustainable development so we built into that idea that we would 'live lightly' on the earth, which would include waste minimisation."

There is no in-depth recycling strategy mapped out at Earthsong. A recycling area big enough for a truck to back into and room enough for recycling bins was incorporated into the design, and there was never any question that there would be on-site composting, worm farms and Bokashi system. But other than that, there was no big plan. An improved recycling rate was a benefit of working with the broader picture of sustainability in mind.

Haslam first became aware of the project in 1993 when as a Waitakere City councillor, she was asked to help find land for Earthsong to be built on. Haslam was so impressed with the project that she eventually bought a house in the community where she has been living for the past eight years.

Construction has been a long process. The build started in 2000 and the first 17 houses were ready in 2002. A further seven houses were finished at the end of 2004. But it took until 2008 for the completion of the eight remaining houses and the common house, which includes a communal kitchen and dining area -residents share a common meal twice a week - laundry facilities, a children's playroom and an area for teenagers.

Listening to residents talk about how the Earthsong eco-neighbourhood was established is exhilarating, but also exhausting. There were so many set-backs and difficulties that had to be resolved. It took five years of planning just to get to the building stage - and four years of preliminary information gathering prior to that. But the upside of all this - as well as the fact that they share certain resources - are the close bonds that the residents have formed.

"We know how to work together. There are a well-developed set of guidelines as to how we do this," says architect and resident Robin Allison. She has been involved with the project from day one and coordinated development of the project. "It's like a mini government. We share some of our resources so we all have access to more, which means we have to agree on how to use our common land and resources."

So when it comes to 'policing' what goes in the recycling bins, they don't have, or need, a dedicated recycling officer. "We all keep an eye on what's going on in the bins and every now and then an email will go round saying that something put in there was inappropriate," explains Haslam.

Working together and sharing also means the right tone is employed to address issues that arise, without causing discord. Obviously residents that move into the Earthsong community are already pretty 'green' but, according to Haslam, living together they learn from each other. "I know in the eight years we have been here, we have made a huge change in our lifestyle. We have become much more conscious of our car use - we are trying as much as we can to take public transport or walk."

It's common for UK residents to criticise their council for not providing collections for difficult recyclates, but residents at Earthsong are proactive. "If anything changes in terms of a company setting itself up to recycle something that hasn't been done before, I just know that we, as a group or an individual, will set up that system so that collection of that material happens at Earthsong," says Allison.

The community's autonomy is just one of the bonuses the Waitakere City Council has had with its eco-community. Another benefit is that it also serves as an education centre, providing an example of good practice and holding open days. In recognition of this the council helped ensure the success of the project by providing the community with a $300,000 interest-free loan to help them complete the construction of the common house. Perhaps it's time UK councils started singing from this same hymn sheet.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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