Tag Archives: Melbourne

Trains not Toll Roads


It’s 6am and the community picket is underway, blocking the entrance into Alexandra Parade a busy road through inner Melbourne. They are determined that the drill bringing up soil samples for a new road tunnel will not be active today. Two men are locked on to the top of the drill with bicycle D locks, a fitting symbol of their commitment to a sustainable mode of transport. There are police everywhere, surrounding the fence around the drill, surrounding the protesters. Search and rescue have been called in to remove those locked on and with them, have come detectives, police commissioners and riot police. The oddest sight is a neatly dressed blonde woman, with patent pumps, sleeveless flowered top and a gun in a holster at her side. All the police carry guns, which makes it all the more scary when they move in, en masse, to drag people away from the fence. One woman is thrown to the ground.


This argument has been brewing for some time, a century, some may say, as the rail connection between East and West Melbourne was proposed over 100 years ago. As consecutive plans have been shelved, the road network has grown, until now, the inner city is ringed with busy arteries carrying commuters and trucks from one side of this sprawling city to another. The residents of the inner North have had enough.
Since September 2013, they have been gathering in the early mornings to form a picket line at the drill sites, which pop up without warning on residential roads throughout the area. Frustrated with a lack of communication and openness from the State government, they feel their only hope is direct action, delaying the work on the road for just long enough to stop the contracts being signed before the next election. The government is responding by proposing a draconian new law which will make it easier for the police to move on a public assembly and prosecute protesters. It is scheduled for the first day of parliament when it re-convenes after the summer break on February 4th.

The small group of perhaps 40 protesters are steely, rising each day to renew their commitment to this campaign and to each other. As at all picket lines, it’s the solidarity which they say gets them out of bed at 5am, even when the day promises another 40 degree scorcher.

“Tunneling under this road will cause havoc”, says local resident Keith Fitzgerald. His house is earmarked for demolition and he has been approached about a compulsory purchase order. “It will cause years of dust and noise while they dig it, it will destroy the character of the area, it will damage the community. What’s more, the road will not solve their transport problems. Roads never do. The cars will just fill it up just as they fill all the other roads. The government has not done its homework.”

It’s true that there is no business plan for this road and that the current State government – a Liberal government, which in Australia means right wing – does not have a mandate from the people. It looks like they won’t survive to another term, so the protesters want the opposition Labour party to promise not to honour any contracts. They have so far refused.

So today, the picket line is drawn again and the police take shifts to stand with them, setting up a canteen on the grass verge between the carriageways which 100 years ago, was laid down for a railway track.

“A railway link will carry people from the outer suburbs into the city. That’s where they want to go. This road tunnel is being made principally for trucks, to bring goods from the manufacturers in the East to the port in the West. It’s not even for people, but it is public money which will pay for it and then people will pay again to use it. There will be no more money to pay for public transport for decades.” says local resident Mel Gregson.

Melbourne retains the title of world’s most liveable city and the public transport system – the network of trams and trains which make it easy to move about in the inner city – add greatly to that experience. Here is a chance for Melbourne to join the world’s most progressive cities and say “no” to cars and “yes” to public transport.

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Intentional Communities Conference

Peering through the foggy window, I can see the tall gum trees which line the windy road up Mount Toolebewong. Max wipes his sleeve across the glass and points his tiny pocket camera out into the rain. We are headed to the Australian Intentional Communities Conference, but instead of the desert summer we might have expected, a storm has arrived and it is a dramatic welcome.

If Melbourne is famous for “four seasons in a day”, then at 750m, this mountain sees them all. The view stretches down to the sea – by day a sprawling spiderweb of a settlement; by night a twinkling performance. When we wake, the clouds have scattered and all that remains is a blue parasol over the city and bright sunshine. That’s more like it!

Over the next three days, a parade of eloquent and erudite speakers expound on all things community. Bill Metcalf gives a talk about the history of intentional community in Victoria, with pictures of earnest church people in the 1800s serving a vision and joyful kibbutz-ers in the 1950s practising for communal life in Israel.

David Spain and Peter Cock founded the communities at Tuntable Falls and Moora Moora 40 years ago. They have lived at opposite ends of Australia and never discussed policies, but in discussion find so much in common it makes them laugh with amazement.

In Jeremy Shub’s workshop, which advertises itself as “creative and fluffy”, people travel inward, sharing stories of their dreams. We play community games with Kate Lewer from Commonground– bonding over giggles and breaking down boundaries of personal space and appropriate behaviour. These spaces allow balance between the head and the heart – showing us how both are essential for us to thrive. All of life is here.

From the kitchen, comes music and joy and deliciousness. Meals are on time, plentiful and frequent. At breakfast, warm pears and home made granola; for lunch, fresh green salads with wholesome veggies and for dinner, steaming bowls of lasagne or curry. Susannah, the chef, dusts moroccan spice over a fresh bowl of humus and the table is dressed with flowers for morning tea. It’s what every conference needs – and so much more.

The community at Moora Moora manage us all with care, attention and patience. No-one seems to bristle when the tour is guided over their way. Everyone is open and helpful. For me, the conference seems to bring out the best in this community, drawing the members together around a common purpose.

Holding a conference about intentional communities in an intentional community seems like an obvious thing to do. They are set up to house many people and usually have communal facilities such as kitchens and meeting spaces. Moora Moora is well equipped. The Lodge house has dorms, a large lounge area and a dining room. The Octagon can hold fifty people comfortably. There is ample ground to set up a marquee. They even have a stage to host the evening’s entertainment! Esme, the compere, is looking forward to becoming a member next weekend after two years living here on probation. He’s both excited and nervous. It’s a big commitment.

But aside from the physical space and the obvious capability of the crew, this conference has something else which is special. There are so many people here who know how to forge relationships. They understand how to help us create connections and when you add that to the enthusiasm and passion of the participants, it’s not surprising that as they leave, people hug with shining eyes.

On the last night, the remaining delegates are invited to join the residents for a final gathering. In the state of Victoria, this is the beginning of their bush fire season. A drum circle calls the community together in ritual and small children carry hand painted lanterns into the labyrinth as the chant rises. A blessing is spoken.

For a newcomer to Australia, my eyes and ears are opened again to the very real threat of wild fire. While I wish for warm weather and a respite from the unpredictable spring rains, I see that for these people, up here on the mountain, the summer is not just a time for barbeques and swimming.

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The Nature of Cities

This afternoon I had a filming appointment at a food forest garden nearby. To get there would take a half hour walk or ten minute cycle. It was raining. Hard. I was a bit worried about slipping off my bike and smashing my camera, but by the time I’d finished faffing – looking up directions; making a note of the organiser’s number – it was a bit late to walk.

I rode slowly and carefully, avoiding puddles and tram lines. I got there in plenty of time and as I arrived, I realised I was smiling. My inner mantra had changed from “Oh, it’s raining again” to “I’m so happy” and it only took a moment to work out why. I loved being in the rain.

The food garden was lush and fruitful, with lovingly tended plots abundant with beans, herbs and salads. Since moving to the city, I’ve become a big fan of urban agriculture and I heard that Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, was recently advocating turning Melbourne’s parks into food gardens. That would be great! Yarra Council is really forward thinking in that respect and has appointed an urban agriculture officer. He’s been responsible for putting planter boxes all around the neighbourhood so that we see herbs and veggies growing on many street corners. Today, the garden shone and twinkled with raindrops. You could almost hear the plants inhaling the fresh moist air.

Only this morning, I was thinking how Nature was enjoyable in any weather. Sunshine is great, obviously, but the beach in winter is wild and when the waves crash the shore, some primal energy is released not only in them, but in me. City life is short on primal energy and I often find myself flatlining in a dullness of being. When you’re used to being stirred by Nature, a caffe latte in a funky cafe and an illicit freewheel through the park at night can only take you so far. Mostly, I find it’s not far enough.

When I got back from my bicycle shower, I went out again. Just for fun. I don’t own an umbrella and I left my hat at home. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, the wind in my hair. I bounced up the street, focused only on the feel of Nature washing me down. My stupid grin could have been mistaken for love, or madness. I just felt so relieved to have found a way to be in Nature, even here, in the depths of the city. Melbourne is known for its “four seasons in a day” but usually, it’s a bit of a pain. Early in our stay here, a friend showed me the contents of her oversized handbag. She routinely carried both leggings and an umbrella, however the day began. “It can change at any time!” she warned.

I wandered up to the post office to send a leisurely letter, strolling lightly as people hurried by, heads down against the weather. I smiled and smiled to myself.
On the way back, I looked up to see a line of pigeons perched on a telegraph wire. They were mostly hunched, like the pedestrians. Heads tucked into their necks, feathers ruffled and damp. The wire hung over the middle of the street. Could they not have chosen a more sheltered spot to huddle? Thirty-one, I counted. Why that wire? And why was there only one single pigeon on the wire next door?

I spent a contented time, in the rain, watching the pigeons and realised that in one lucky afternoon, I had discovered that the city weather could allow me to immerse in Nature and city animals were also wildlife worth watching.

Have you got any tips for city survival?

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Moora Moora Intentional Community

I’ve just come back from a weekend at Moora Moora, an intentional community about an hour and a half out of Melbourne. It takes about an hour to even get out of Melbourne, since the suburbs spread for miles and miles. The train passes out through Camberwell, Chatham, Canterbury and Croyden – all brought from the old country to help the settlers feel at home. They look nothing like the originals.

Eventually, sprawling suburbs turn into sprawling homesteads, with large farmhouses stuck in vast pastures. And trees appear.

My train connects with a bus and after the bus, someone waits to take me the last 20 minutes to the mountain. We wind up Mount Toolebewong through tall gums and emerge at the top into an open green.

The Lodge is a communal building, converted into lounge, kitchen and visitor dorms. This building was used by Melburnians who came to holiday here in the early part of the century, but the rest – about 30 hand built,  have appeared since. The community is about 40 people, plus children, living in small clusters of homes created mostly from mud brick, poured earth or straw. They are off the grid, and fought to stay so when the power company threw lines over the mountain in the 1970’s and insisted that they connect. They refused, making their point by standing in front of the bulldozers. “It was a defining moment in terms of our commitment not to use the grid and to make sure we got as much of our own power using the sun and wind as we could”, says Sandra Cock.

Peter Cock is one of the founders and somewhat of an expert in intentional communities. He wrote a book in the 1970’s as part of his PhD studies which analysed community in Australia and used his experience to establish Moora Moora. He explains that the cluster design protects the community against breakdown, since in theory, if one cluster has a conflict, the whole community does not need to “deal with it”. It’s a bit like saying that if you break a leg, the body won’t die, but I do get the feeling that Moora Moora, nearly 40 years old, is limping just a little. It may be that some of the newcomers crave the laid back lifestyle without wanting to put in the hard work which maintains a community.

This weekend, there is a course here on how to develop a fledgling ecovillage. The facilitator, Shane Schmidt, learned at Findhorn in Scotland and the group of 20-odd participants are all at some stage of setting up a community. They are here to learn about the “four core pillars” of sustainable design: social, worldview, ecological and economic. I am here, in particular, to research aspects of conflict resolution for my new documentary. I take part in a profound process called Forum, which was developed in Zegg community in Germany and facilitated here by Gero Van Aderkas. I hope to show you how it works in the film!

On Saturday, the weather is warm and sunny and supports a fun evening of wood fire pizza, dance and a screening of Ecovillage Pioneers. On Sunday, the mist and rain roll in and blanket the mountaintop in a damp chill which makes me glad to head back down the mountain to the city. I had enough of that in Wales 🙂

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Sea Shepherd

While I was in Bellingen recently, I was visiting some friends of mine who, when they relocated from the UK to Australia, decided to travel by bicycle. Yes, that’s right, by bicycle. Their  12,000 km journey was immortalised in the online video series “Bike to Oz“, as both of them are film makers who wanted to highlight the issue of climate change and the damage done by aeroplanes. However, when they settled in Bellingen, what was needed was not films, but food, so they started a wholefood store, (now online) known as Kombu.

Kombu recently packed up a box of dried wholefood to donate to the crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Organisation, which I realised I knew very little about. Then, last Sunday, on an outing to Williamstown, we came across a pirate ship…

We arrived in time for a tour of the SSS Steve Irwin (sorry, but we had to be educated as to the significance of the choice of name). This is one of the ships used on Sea Shepherd campaigns to save whales in the Antarctic from Japanese “poachers”. The Japanese say they need the whales for scientific experiments, but the evidence suggests that they are actually breaking the international ban on harvesting whales for food.  Most moving was a film shown to us in the mess room, which showed the Sea Shepherd ship rammed from both sides by Japanese whaling vessels. Scary stuff.

Our guide showed us the helicopter hangar donated by The Red Hot Chili Peppers; the ship donated by Sam Simon (Simpsons co-creator); the gift sent by the Dalai Lama. It’s clear these guys have some pretty high profile support!

We were lucky enough to sight some whales while in Byron Bay on our Big Trip and it’s clear that it’s these very whales, journeying to and from Antarctica, which are at risk. In 2010, Australia instigated proceedings against Japan for “alleged breach of international regulations against whaling”. The case was heard in the International Court of Justice in the Hague in June/July 2013. We await the court’s decision with keen interest.

UPDATE! The International Court of Justice has UPHELD Australia’s bid to ban whaling in the Southern Ocean. Japan was found to be operating whaling for “logistical and political purposes”, rather than scientific and their special licence was ordered to be revoked and not re-issued. Japan have agreed to abide by the ruling and Sea Shepherd Australia Managing Director Jeff Hanson said the court decision vindicated Sea Shepherd for not only upholding Australian federal laws but also international laws in defending the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary ”for the whales and for future generations”.

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Ecovillage Pioneers Screening at Abbotsford Convent

Abbotsford Convent

For a few months now, I’ve been trying to set up some screenings in Melbourne of the Living in the Future films. Being new here, I didn’t know the right people, the right venues or have the right equipment, but now, it all seems to be coming together.

Abbotsford Convent must be one of the coolest venues in the city and it’s here that Ecovillage Pioneers was introduced. The screening was hosted by Urban Coup – a group of people who are setting up a co-housing project in the inner city. Apart from Sanford Housing Co-operative in London, none of our episodes are about cohousing, so I thought it about time we talked about it. Cohousing projects seek to establish an intentional community in an urban area. The concept has been very well thought out by the Danes and the Americans, who have discovered the optimum number of people, houses and the most successful designs. The Urban Coup are working through their planning process at the moment and looking for a suitable piece of land on which to build.

Before the screening, we met at Lentil as Anything – an innovative ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ vegetarian eatery run by goodwill and volunteers. It’s been a feature of Melbourne life since 2000, with a restaurant in St Kilda by the beach and more recently one at Abbotsford Convent. The food is plentiful and delicious. Founder Shanaka Fernando speaks about his journey growing up in Sri Lanka is this TED talk.

There are about 50 people at the screening, which is really encouraging. They laughed in all the right places. I showed them a Trailer for the new project, which i’ve been working on all week. It was exciting to see it on the big screen – as if it were a real possibility! Making a Trailer is an act of faith, at this stage 🙂

The new film has no funding at present, but we sold some DVDs and guests were generous with their donations, so I feel it has finally got off the ground.

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Morning in Dharmananda

A Big Trip

I’ve been on a trip. A big trip. Two big trips, actually. The first one took me away from my lovely home at Holtsfield in Wales and right over to the other side of the world, to Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been living here for seven months now and taken many little trips to explore the area – up to the Grampian mountains in the north, down to the Great Ocean Road in the South and over to Tasmania, too. And then came another big trip.

When I came to Australia, I knew I wanted to make some films about intentional communities here. I have been making films on this subject for almost 15 years – the website tells the story of that. I had made contact with some people even before I landed, but it took six months of living here to gather what the story would be.

During those six months, I have been doing my research. I’ve been sitting in the beautiful domes of the State Library of Victoria and reading about land rights in Australia (shocking), about alternative lives here, about planning laws. I’ve made friends at two of the communities nearest to me. One is Commonground, a co-operative about an hour from the city, where their intention is to hold a space not only for individuals to live and work together, but also to host other groups who are working for social change. The other is Moora Moora, about an hour in a different direction. Their community is bigger, with around 100 people living in small clusters of the top of a mountain.

Visiting and staying at these communities gave me insight into the themes which are particular to Australia and I started to feel ready.

Then came the big trip. While talking to a journalist friend who also writes about living the simple life, it seemed to shout that I should be telling a history – a history of intentional community in Australia. So that is what I have set out to do. The big trip took me north of Brisbane, to Crystal Waters, a permaculture village near the funky little town of Maleny. From there I travelled to Nimbin, where I met, amongst others, a man associated with the Aquarius Festival in 1973, which brought not only a huge number of hippies to the broken-down town, but also the first multiple occupancy planning laws. Some of the communities established then still remain and have loads to teach us about how to live with each other and how to maintain such a project over time.

In Bellingen, further south, there are over 25 intentional communities a hotbed of activity which has spilled out into the surrounding area, including the local council, who have established radical waste collection initiatives.

Narara Ecovillage, an hour north of Sydney, is on the site of a horticultural research facility. This land will now be turned into one of Australia’s newest intentional communities.

I have some great stories to tell you and this is only the beginning. This blog will help me make sense of the film I am making and also of life in Australia, 18,000 km from the place I call home. Will you join me?

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