A community treading lightly on the earth
I enjoy wandering up the path weaving through my tropical food jungle, over the invisible boundary line and straight onto a Jarlanbah track. No fences obstruct my way, nor the freedom of the wallabies and other wildlife we share the land with. This is how it should be with neighbours when they respect each other and the wildlife – only things that have to be kept in or out need fences to bar the way.
Robyn Francis, 2000
An article published in PIJ (Permaculture International Journal) #75, 2000
Within Jarlanbah there’s a marked absence of fences. They do exist, there’s domestic animal enclosures and gardens needing protection from wallabies, but Jarlanbah is free of fences as territorial statements dominating the landscape. Many boundaries have been defined with vegetation, hedges and trellises, some simply melt into the community land with no visual definition. I wonder how much energy is represented in the useless barricades that define land ownership in so many human settlements.
Looking up the main ridge it’s hard to imagine the barren pasture of six years ago. Now you can just catch glimpse of only a couple of the nine houses that exist up there between the trees and food forests on the north-facing slope. The glimpses of some rooftops reveal solar panels and solar water heaters. Solar access was a key consideration in the design and layout of lots and the by-laws encourage use of passive solar and energy efficient house design.
The residential lots are small, just 2,000 m2 or half an acre. A manageable size, providing plenty of space for gardens, food forest and some poultry. Some lots have small areas of lawn (I prefer to call them mulch-meadows), and other yards have no lawn at all, opting for carpets of sweet potato and other productive ground covers in the landscape. These gardens also support the microclimate of the homes and consider the solar rights of their neighbours.
There are many ways that energy conservation can be achieved. Not only in the home, but in the garden, the management and use of land and in reducing motor vehicle use.
The Jarlanbah story began in 1991 when I was invited to visit a 55 acre grazing property in the process of being rezoned for rural residential. The owner felt uncomfortable about doing a regular subdivision and was interested to see what a permaculture concept might involve. He liked the concept and I was engaged as the design consultant. Over the next 2 years Jarlanbah Permaculture Hamlet was designed and approved by council, followed by a year’s work constructing roads and installing services and in February 1994 the first residents moved on.??Now Jarlanbah, 6 years on, has grown to a 24 household community applying permaculture in a diversity of ways in the design of their houses, edible garden landscapes and in the co-operative management of the community land. There are still 19 lots to be occupied.
Reduce Motor Vehicle Use
The issue of energy use needs to address transport and the contribution of the domestic motor vehicle to greenhouse gas emissions and a plethora of other environmental, resource and social problems. The Australian trend of buying large areas of land and setting up communities in remote rural areas, long distances from service centres like towns and villages, has resulted in motor-vehicle dominated lifestyles for the residents.??I had been waiting for many years to find a situation within walking distance of a well serviced village or town centre to design a hamlet or eco-village settlement where motor-vehicle-free living would be a viable option. Jarlanbah being just 1.5 km from Nimbin’s village centre was ideal. While Jarlanbah residents still own and use motor vehicles, many choose to walk or cycle into the village. Within the community people walk to each other to visit, distances are close and there is a network of grassed tracks linking areas throughout the community land.
Infrastructure and services
The topography of the land determined the road layout together with ensuring all lots had adequate solar access for passive solar house design. Internal services for phone and electricity had to be provided along with water for fighting fire. A single trench was used to lay these service lines, reducing the energy and space needed for installation.??Water self-reliance is ensured with by-laws requiring each lot to have a minimum rainwater storage capacity of 45,000 litters for domestic use. There is no town water or sewage. The by-laws also contain comprehensive guidelines for human waste (sewage) and greywater treatment. Composting toilets are promoted as the preferred option and have been installed in most of the houses to date. Treated waste water is recycled for irrigating food forests and gardens on the private lots. The use of water conserving devices in the home is also enshrined in the by-laws.
Demand reduction grid system
The cost of creating a stand-alone alternative energy system for 43 lots on 55 acres was prohibitive so the emphasis was on reducing energy consumption. While Jarlanbah is connected to the grid, the system is unique in that the internal lines are owned by the community.??Normal grid electricity connection to a house is 63 amps. On Jarlanbah this has been reduced to 20 amps or residents can choose a 5 amp trickle feed to recharge batteries for an individual stand-alone solar system. 20 amps is sufficient electricity for basic household appliances like running a fridge, vacuum cleaner, wash machine, TV, computer and so on, but will not cope with the energy consuming monsters like electric cook stoves, water heaters, space heaters and air conditioners. In this climate good passive solar design can deal with space heating and cooling, though most homes have some form of wood heating appliance to supplement this on cold winter evenings. Natural gas cook stoves are used and some homes have wood-fired cook stoves, and solar or gas water heaters.??The community-owned internal electrical grid will enable Jarlanbah to generate its own electricity and move it around within the community in the future when such technology becomes more affordable. Electrical grid wires can also be used for communication systems.
Energy efficient house and landscape design
In the concept plan, residential lots were located to maximise solar gain for passive solar design. Also a set of building standards were developed to ensure general application of energy efficient design and to encourage use of appropriate materials.
My rationale as the designer, was that eventually our standard building codes would need to address issues of energy and resource use as well structural soundness in building design. This was taken up by Lleichhardt City Council in Sydney some years later when a councillor, inspired by the Jarlanbah model, convinced her council to create guidelines for energy efficient housing. Leichhardt Council’s innovation has inspired other councils including Manly (also in Sydney) and Waitakere City Council in New Zealand to follow suite. Soon the national Australian building code will include a compulsory minimum energy efficiency rating as a standard component of building design approval.
The design and evolution of Jarlanbah is an inspiring example of permaculture design for sustainable community development which embraces diversity within a framework of by-laws embodying ecological principles. The management of community land, the process of learning to work together and the individual stories of peoples homes and gardens and experience of community life weave a rich tapestry of human endeavour.
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