A Co-housing backstory

What more is there to learn from a co-housing community?

I was one person involved in creating Murundaka Cohousing Community, the establishment of which of course has its own backstory. I offer a sliver of my story and ask forgiveness for my indulgence in the telling it. I acknowledge the treasure-trove of stories of the countless others who’ve contributed in so many ways over so many decades, indeed centuries. Mine is but one in a library of stories and a small one at that. I hope it is pertinent to the ‘Co-housing is Intentional’ melting pot and interesting to those wanting a glimpse of the personal. In hindsight the personal is truly political in the everyday sense of the word. And in foresight, there are many people coming through right now creating community and fomenting positive change. Bravo! All strength to you!

It is 2016 and I am impatient to see co-housing communities proliferate. Not just for the sake of the people lucky enough to live in one or even for the sake of the society that will benefit in countless ways. We need co-housing to happen fast for the sake of lightening the load on the planet, for the sake of hurrying up the sustainability renaissance and hopefully sidestepping a monumental climate change catastrophe. This last is the over-arching and most important reason because it allows all else to happen. If we don’t stop global warming we are in the deepest of trouble.

To create a community a raft of things have to come together. Just the big three: getting the people, the land and the money to be simultaneously available – is so often a major hurdle. There are many others to be overcome as well.

There is also a back-story – not often told – about the individuals responsible for identifying and often as not creating the opportunity and what they bring together in the very first instance. There is some reticence to tell these stories because in their focusing attention on the individual, they can feel self-indulgent – all the more so because the whole ethos around community is the ‘we’ not the ‘me’.

Yet is it worth looking at?

At the recently held MAV / Village Well “Inclusive Communities” conference, a little time was spent brainstorming the skill-sets and personality traits needed to get a group up and running as a viable and high-functioning co-housing community. Also in the program, as one of the presenters I had been asked to tell my story. So I relayed some of the formative experiences, personality traits and skill-sets that I brought to the genesis of Murundaka Co-housing.

When later these were combined with the attributes thrown into the brainstorm from the conference participants a list resulted. A change agent catalysing a co-housing community into existence would have a healthy selection of the attributes identified in this albeit incomplete list. In reality these attributes are consistent with entrepreneurs in many fields.

Could one person ever do it alone? Almost certainly not – burn out would be inevitable. The fact is co-housing works best when the group forms early and together catalyses it’s own gestation.

This list describes no-one in total and many in part. It goes someway to defining a change agent. A few of these attributes resonate with me. Some were essential for the creation of Murundaka. For instance, not readily taking ‘no’ for an answer 🙂

… highly motivated and persistent, inspirational and altruistic, ambitious and strategic, tactful and diplomatic, brave and courageous, confident, effective and resilient, philosophical, self-reflective and self-aware, creative, empowered, imaginative, curious, questioning and rebellious, passionate and dispassionate, gregarious and generous, well-intentioned and values-based, observant, empathetic and connection fostering, eager for change, solution oriented, “yes we can”, disciplined, flexible and generative … // … champions, independent thinkers, dreamers and adventurers, reformers, organisers, problem solvers, communicators, momentum builders, mediators and facilitators, collaborators, co-operators, coordinators, doers and big thinkers … // … who bring with them specific skills (legal skills, people skills, skills for educating, marketing, project management, monitoring, trouble shooting and damage control, etc.) and relevant lived experience and expertise and are capable of holding the big picture and the minutiae, and are prepared to take on leadership, take risks, play devils advocate, play many roles, speak publicly, enthuse, defend the vision, endure the ‘slings and arrows’ and remain committed to ‘holding the flame’.

I was highly motivated by the vision of community in the urbs and suburbs. It fitted well with my strong lifelong urge to make positive change. So many compelling reasons to do with co-housing itself but on top of all of them – for me in 2006 – sat the growing alarm around climate change. I understood all too clearly the need for ‘rapid change’ positive transformation in the vast sprawling suburbs of Australia where indeed, as with the wider world itself, most human population lives.

The urge to make positive change was a strong motivator. I say urge because it’s a burning thing. It’s not cerebral or academic or hypothetical. It’s more animal like hunger; more irresistible like the urge to laugh.

I remember reading that just because the activists and ‘kayak-tivists’ of the US Pacific North West had successfully stopped Shell drilling for oil in the Arctic didn’t mean that Shell’s urge to pump oil had gone away. Such an urge is not easily shut down. What is that urge about?

I examined my urge to make positive change. Like most people I know, self-interest was not the driver other than that of wishing to live in a healthier and more just world. The work of movement building certainly doesn’t pay that well. It turns out it is shaped by sets of values and principles and this has been clearly borne out by many friends and colleagues, especially in the climate change field, over the years. It applies also to many co-housing protagonists and in fact also to the wider sphere encapsulating justice and sustainable living for all.

But what values, what principles? Can we articulate them?

“Values are people’s most important life priorities, the bases for what they actually do, what they want to accomplish, and how they want to be.” #1

Ten years ago the need to comprehend the perplexing psychology of denial (of climate change) became acute. It required the teasing out of underlying values. Surely we are all in this together? Many of us were striving to understand how to motivate people to step up with greater urgency and commitment to address the perils of human pollution.

But for me the ‘urge’ predates that. Where did my desire to make positive change come from?

I was intensely curious as a young girl. I loved school and asked lots of questions. I still do. I still love to sit in the front row and engage. I laugh at that saying – “Sit in the Front Row of Your Life”. When giving a talk I often call people down to the front and once or twice I’ve even been known to cheekily remove the seats if the front row is empty. (I find it hard enough to speak publicly without a barrier of empty seats between my audience and me). I could also be excruciatingly shy at times as a child and teenager and even as an adult. I work at the extrovert within me flicking the ‘ON’ button when she’s required but my inner introvert has to get looked after too – with plenty of reflection time in the sanctuary and privacy of my own home. I have come to realise I am actually more of an ambivert.

Turning discouragement into ambition is a trait too. I have far too many examples of having my ideas and passion for change mocked or trashed by people who mattered to me. I was a teenager – I didn’t see my aspirations as unrealistic. I had big thoughts of big solutions. I wrote poetry about it. It was always based on love. Love of the planet, love of sentient beings. Instead of trying to snuff out that flame imagine, if those fires had been fanned. ……  What we do to our young people?  😦

I was an independent thinker too – perhaps a strange product of a private school. Yet many in my year –the conservative, conscientious and wags alike – had gone on to be change makers and to make worthy contributions to our world; as educators, artists and activists in civil society.

On reflection I put that down to the influence of the 60s and the visionaries and the activists and musicians and artists before us who inspired a generation. We stand on their shoulders. The sixties and seventies questioned, empowered and reframed our sense of justice, connection and understanding of the meaning of life. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”. Many of the movements that sprang forth from that turbulent, exciting time are condensed in the Trans-Modern subculture based on ecological and spiritual-psychological values. The ground-breaking research of Paul H Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, ‘The Cultural Creatives’, now available free online, explains this.

The 60s and 70s was the era of the ‘Search for Meaning’ and many of my contemporaries a few years older than me went to India to find a ‘guru’. Within a year of leaving school aged 18 I had visited a kibbutz in Israel. Within a year of graduating as a teacher I went west at 21 to live on a ‘community’ in WA. I left there with my first experience of a strong sense of belonging to a cohesive group, to a village or tribe. I travelled around Australia searching for what I now call “community”. I sensed then the power and scope of community to make change.

Fast-forward a decade to the transformative experience in a comprehensive, live-in course on Sustainable Living in the Rainbow Region of northern NSW. I immersed myself for most of that year soaking up the knowledge and wisdom and, unbeknownst to me, becoming a resource for the times to come. It was all part of someone’s plan. These people were already veterans of successful change having set themselves up in communities on the land where they developed skills for greater self-sufficiency exploring human nature, dynamics and spirituality as well. They had recently run successful campaigns resulting in the creation of the Nightcap Ranges National Park, the protection of the Franklin River and The Daintree. Much was learnt along the way. They were change-makers determined to create more change-makers.

Somewhere along the way I helped raise two gorgeous daughters and five amazing stepchildren. Our place was also home to two beloved dogs, some bantams and ducks and a small orchard and veggie garden. I had co-created Earth housing co-op in the mid ’80s. The stability and affordability my co-op house provided supported my family for twenty years, enabling me amongst other things to take the kids out of school and on a four-month bus trip up the east coast, achieve a M. Ed in Leadership and Change and, in 1999, co-found the Sustainable Living Foundation. SLF was born. It was based in that home – now the site of Murundaka Cohousing – for its first two years.

That’s when the real work began.


The Big Weekend on Birrarrung Marr

It sounds like I was working to a script and it felt like it too. It was at this point that all the threads of my life seemed to converge into this outstanding organisation. SLF is best known for its Sustainable Living Festival which has grown over 17 years into a three week bonanza of sustainability celebration and showcase. It is all about strategic change-making for a purpose: to help accelerate the uptake of sustainable living. Over recent years this purpose has become far more urgent as we focus our society on resetting the compass away form catastrophic climate change.

SLF has nurtured many other initiatives along the way including one that entailed encouraging a few key community change-makers of the 70s and 80s back to work on what became centrally important within SLF: the focus on where we live, how we live and how we live together.

We formed the Sustainable Living Intentional Communities group – now called Cohousing Australia – focussed on reinvigorating the intentional communities movement. The research pointed to co-housing as the flagship model. With its self-governing core values based on co-operation, its common sense solutions for so many of the escalating social crises of our time plus its comfortable and very private dwellings combined with shared facilities and amenities, it offered the greatest scope for broad mainstream uptake.

Notwithstanding the fact it is really just the ‘village’ deliberately created to bring people together to solve problems, enjoy solutions and share life, co-housing is transformative change. It is extraordinarily effective and has huge potential in cutting consumption and pollution and sharing and cherishing resources. It improves health, happiness and wellbeing and creates a base of skills, knowledge and real support to step up to the opportunities of our time, for engagement in civil society and in life. So many anecdotes to be told!

However co-housing to me is not an end in itself- great though that can be. It’s the start of something that can accelerate change, foster emergence and do many extraordinary things.

Screenshot 30 communities 2016-03-12 21.06.26In 2015 I was fortunate to do a fifteen-week tour to a few communities across the oceans – a mere thirty out of hundreds but how rich that was. There is so much to learn and share. Decision-making, group dynamics, deep democracy, mindful communication, community enterprise, secondary co-ops, the power of co-ops, the sharing economy, co-housing advocacy as a way of giving back, stewardship and sustainable living – the list goes on.

These mind-maps tell a bit of the story. “More Than Just Housing” has links to articles in it – some published / some not yet, but the topics are there and the breadth of field is evident. Let me know if anything piques your curiosity.

Screenshot Cohousing 2016-03-12 21.04.33For the past six years I’ve been studying all of this and more with the goal of producing a doctoral thesis on mobilising communities to restore a safe environment. The dire consequences of climate change have escalated over those years, the time frames have all shrunk disastrously and terrible consequences are now beginning to play out before our eyes.

That makes the need for rapid change in the right direction incontestable and co-housing, its spin-offs and complementary approaches have a big part to play in the solutions and a big job to do to fix the problems.

If we were facing a global threat to our existence – like an alien invasion or something – people would look to high-functioning communities and people to show the way. We ARE facing an existential threat with catastrophic climate change. To avert it we need – urgently –the right kind of transformative change. In this context high-functioning communities have, and will increasingly have, a vitally important role to fill. We are better prepared and protected within one and better equipped to be of service to our wider community (family, friends and neighbours) too – whatever the future brings and may it be good.

Transformation is underway whether we like it or not. It is our job to choose the direction we want our society to take and to set about co-creating the future we actually want. A Sustainability Renaissance sounds good to me!

It was that potential to be an exemplar, to catalyse others to have a go, to prove it could be done and to create a momentum for such transformative change in the suburbs to take off and proliferate, that was behind my decision to give up my home to make way for Murundaka. I could not pass up such a rare and auspicious possibility. My question has always been, “What if we could make it work?”

It took six years of work to break the ground and make it happen but from the very minute we moved in to inhabit the buildings something profound changed. No longer we were talking about what we were going to do. No longer could anyone say “It can’t be done”.  It was there, we were there and, if we could do it, so could others.

001welcomeMurundaka is a Wurundjeri word we are grateful to have permission to use. It means ‘place to live, place to stay’.

I have been living in Murundaka since the beginning – over four years now – and I am as immersed in this community as I am in this work.

The world comes to us at Murundaka and is made welcome.

The slide show tells some of our story :




#1 The Potential for a New, Emerging, Culture in the U.S. A report on the 2008 American Values Survey by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D. Research Director, Institute for the Emerging Wisdom Culture, Wisdom University and of the State of the World Forum.

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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1 Response to A Co-housing backstory

  1. Pingback: Power in Community | Giselle Wilkinson

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