No place like home: sharing community, property in Castlemaine in search for good life

What would life be like if you and your neighbours all moved onto the same property? TOM O'CALLAGHAN discovers the joys and complexities of shared life in a Castlemaine eco-cluster.

A topic has gripped the residents of a property in Castlemaine for some time now, raising complex questions for those living there.

The topic has been discussed at a number of meetings. No consensus has been reached. Without consensus there would not be much point to this lifestyle.

“We’ve been going back to asking some of the deeper questions, like ‘what are we doing here?’” resident Lucy Young said of the meetings.

What topic could spark this much thought? It might seem pretty simple. 

A resident wants a dog.

A life worth eco-living

Ms Young is one of 21 people living in Murrnong, a place town planners call an intentional community. Her part of the property sits next to three other houses. The homes are nestled among 100 fruit trees, gardens and reclaimed bushland. 

Murrnong is one of a growing number places in Castlemaine environmentally and community-minded people are rethinking how to live in a neighbourhood.

“This is not an investment property. (If you come to live here) you are buying into the community. You are sharing resources. We have only only one supply of water that’s collected and distributed on site,” Ms Young said.

Residents also share energy generated on the property using solar panels.

“We negotiate and share all the things that need to be done around the place,” Ms Young said, pointing out the chickens, compost heaps and trees in the orchards.

Fionn Kennedy and Jack Nielson-Bridfoot stacking firewood for the season as part of our monthly working bees. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Fionn Kennedy and Jack Nielson-Bridfoot stacking firewood for the season as part of our monthly working bees. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Residents know when they move in they are buying into a tight-knit group of people who rely on each other.

“It could be something like ‘oh my God, I don’t have an onion for dinner’ or ‘I’ve got to go out, my baby’s asleep, can you pop down?’” Ms Young said.

The residents consider themselves custodians of the 10 acres they now live on.

“It’s not only about how we manage this land but what impact that has on us. How do we negotiate what is OK and what is not?” Ms Young said.

The answer is not always clear, even on questions that would be straight-forward for people outside Murrnong.

Someone might want a dog, but what does that mean for another person who might fear the kangaroos they love won’t come near the houses if the dog barks? What if someone has a baby who could be woken in the middle of the night?

As residents ponder whether dogs will be allowed in, they had begun thinking about the issue differently.

“The dog is a strategy to meet a need. It’s not a need in itself,” Ms Young said.

“We might have needs that a dog can help fulfill: safety, collaboration, harmony. They are human needs a dog might be able to help with.”

Residents of Murrnong take a dip in the property's dam. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Residents of Murrnong take a dip in the property's dam. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Community rising

When houses become available at Murrnong there is always interest, even if there are only ever a small number of serious buyers.

“You get a lot of tyre-kickers. They are interested in finding out what the set-up is. But close neighbours and shared resources can be outside of people’s comfort zones,” Ms Young said.

Murrnong is not the only intentional community in Castlemaine. There is another called Fryers Forest, with 11 houses on hundreds of acres overseen by a body corporate.

Permaculture expert Ian Lillington knew of a cluster of traditional houses in Munro Court where people shared a sense of community without formal or legal bonds.

Soon Mr Lillington hopes to have something similar. A few years ago he sub-divided a property, keeping the existing house for him and his partner while purposely selling lots to those who wanted to build eco-conscious houses.

“We control how the blocks are divided so it’s much easier for those who buy the them to create an eco-conscious home using some of the principles associated with permaculture,” Mr Lillington said.

Residents Fionn and Maurice Kennedy take an interest in the birds around Murrnong. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Residents Fionn and Maurice Kennedy take an interest in the birds around Murrnong. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Mr Lillington drew lot boundaries that took advantage of nature. For example, the front of houses could take full advantage of the sun, soaking up heat in winter but not in summer. 

This was something most developers did not do, Mr Lillington said. Instead they positioned lots so that the front of the house always faced the street.

Mr Lillington hoped the soon-to-be-built homes would help create a sense of community he felt was lacking in many new suburbs.

“I’m hoping to have what I think of as a normal neighbourhood. A place where people say hello to each other, where they share their surplus (of food) and where they might sometimes get together to share each other’s company.”

He said there were people out there who wanted to live differently and were drawn to the sub-division both for affordability and community.

Even so, he said it was too early to tell how tightly he and his neighbour’s bonds would bind.

At Murrnong, Ms Young said in an established and tight-knit group there was room for people to feel disconnected from others.

“I think isolation can intensify in crowds. There’s more opportunity for connection (here), but everybody carries things with them. That could be trauma. Or unanswered questions about who they are – the ones we all have,” she said.

“For me, an intentional community is where people are deliberately exploring what it is to be a community. In doing so you are actually exploring who you are.”

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