A Twitter contact, recently asked the awesome Enspiral network about experiences of co-housing – in particular experiences and issues related to things like: interest-based intentional community; shared infrastructure; social interaction; group design/build/own… I chipped in and foolishly promised to write a blog post about my experiences. So, here it is…
There are four specific experiences that my wife Tarsh and I have had in different versions of what might be considered ‘co-housing’:
- a faith-based community in Wellington (1994-1998)
- attempts at intentional community in Gisborne (2004-2006)
- sharing infrastructure/resources in Gisborne (2007-2014)
- living on the marae and building on multiply-owned Maori land at Makarika near Ruatoria (2015-)
I’ll give a brief overview of my upbringing and summarise the contexts and experiences, and at the end share some lessons I think we’ve learned along the way.
I had a fairly typical upbringing in middle-class New Zealand, raised in a two parent, two child family in Tauranga, my parents both came from large working-class Pakeha families and both had been quite independent from an early age. My father considers himself an egalitarian and has a lot of sympathy for Marx and communitarian ideas. My mother worries a lot about money and security is important to her – so she would have been very pleased they were able to build the first house they owned as 20-somethings in the late 1960s for about 1,200 pounds. She was a high school teacher with a commerce degree and he was a postie who dropped out of school at 14 to work in an engineering workshop making glasses. Their co-housing experience included building a self-contained flat in the downstairs of their new house to rent out – and potentially for elderly relatives to eventually utilise, that provided extra income and extra security. And like most Kiwi kids before the internet and console games, we did heaps with the other children and families in the neighbourhood – sharing meals, childcare and gardening tools.
In the early 1980s when I had just turned 10, Mum and Dad bought a small farm with 20 acres on the edge of the city. They joined the NZ Small Farmers Association (Dad eventually becoming President for a while) and were good gardeners and tried their hand at husbandry of various animals. It was 1984-5 and interest rates shot to 24%, so they really struggled to keep the dream alive, but they managed to keep the farm as Dad had a job in the public service (Dept of Social Welfare) and Mum worked in an educational toy shop they owned with another couple. Eventually the city expanded and the farm was acquired by the local authorities in 2001 who wanted to use the flats for stormwater run off from all the new subdivisions being built on what were previously similar small farms and orchards.
1: Urban Vision, Wellington (1994-1998)
After leaving school, I moved to Wellington to study design and got involved with an organisation called Youth For Christ Wellington. YFC had its origins in the conservative North American evangelical movement but the Wellington branch had become quite progressive. In addition to the youth clubs YFC had always run with volunteers, we started more focused conscientisation groups with young people and would regularly organise protests, pickets and support civil disobedience aimed at challenging the abuse of political power, oppression, injustice and violence against the poor and marginalised – whether it was Council housing tenants, young offenders, East Timorese villagers or Iraqi families. We had a number of flats of young people as well as one home for teenage girls that were unable to live with their family because it was too dangerous for the girl or because the girl had burnt her bridges (sometimes the home) with family.
Out of this came an idea to move away from YFC and form an intentional community called ‘Urban Vision‘ to develop more intentional cooperative living arrangements grounded in common interests and a faith doctrine focused on a ‘discipleship journey’ and gospel of helping those from more privileged backgrounds give up some of the opportunities and benefits of their privilege and to create opportunities for those society had marginalised to realise their full potential.
We took over an old Presbyterian orphanage that a local church had previously housed a number of young adults in. The building was ugly, cold and rundown but we turned it into a home for teenage boys supported by a group of young adult men (aged 22-40ish). We had room for 14 of us – seven teenagers and seven ‘men’. The adults paid to live there, sometimes the boys were referred Child Youth & Family Services so they had an care and accomodation allowance that contributed to their costs, other times they were referred by Police, schools or friends and didn’t have any funds to contribute.
At the same time other co-housing experiments were being established in the wider Urban Vision community with a couple of households focused on the inner-city and homeless populations, another on refugees and migrants, another group was based in the Council housing units, another provided supported accomodation for young men with intellectual disabilities and another specifically for Maori girls run by wahine Maori.
Resources in most of these co-housing arangements were shared through a household budget and those that were able to give more did so. Some had a main couple, often with small children with teenagers, with teenagers and/or single adults living with them. Some were large buildings like an old carpet factory in Cuba Street that housed 15+ people at a time, others were small 1-2 bedroom units in Council housing estates.
The Urban Vision community gathered together weekly for a shared meal, prayer, singing and collective celebrations, though eventually after we had left the ‘teams’ focused on particular communities got too large and the big UV get togethers were less frequent as much larger venues were required and the smaller teams kept meeting daily and/or weekly.
UV has continued to evolve, about ten years ago it became an ‘order’ of the Anglican church and one of the UV founders, Justin Duckworth, is now the Bishop of Wellington.
Around 2000, Justin, his wife Jenny, their family and a couple of friends involved with UV formed another trust and purchased Ngatiawa, an old Presbyterian campsite on the Kapiti Coast. This has provided accommodation and a common life together for hundred of people, young, old, single, couples, families – as well as a retreat from the city for many of the people connected to UV homes in Wellington. A number of UV members and affiliates have trades and have helped construct and renovate a dozen or so buildings including large halls and dining spaces, cabin accommodation, family homes, a chapel and other facilities. Each year Ngatiawa community hosts the Passionfest music/arts/theology/resistance/community festival.
2: Attempts at intentional community, Gisborne (1998-2006)
Moving to Gisborne in 1998 to care for Tarsh’s grandparents who raised her, was a bit of a shock. Coming out of the high commitment, high intensity of Urban Vision, I was both happy and sad – we enjoyed the opportunity to do whatever we wanted from scratch, but I missed the level of support and accountability that the intentional community provided.
We bought a house with help from my parents, and Tarsh’s grandparents and two of their sons lived with us off and on for a couple of years until her grandfather passed away in 2001.
Tarsh and I got involved with Te Ora Hou, a faith-based Maori youth and community development organisation that started as the Maori and Pasifika arm of YFC in the 1970s and became its own national organisation in the mid-90s.
While we were still heavily involved in a wide range of local community projects on both voluntary and paid roles, Tarsh was content to be doing our own thing. I was missing the sense of purpose and direction I enjoyed in the intentional community experience of UV and so we had a go at a co-housing experiment. In 2004 we had the opportunity to purchase four adjacent residences, initially we hoped to do it under the auspices of Te Ora Hou locally, in the end the TOH board were reluctant to invest in residential property so we purchased the four residences (two 3 bedroom houses and two three bedroom units) and immediately sold the units to another Te Ora Hou family and rented out one of the houses to another Te Ora Hou family before selling it to a third family.
Incidentally, we sold our original house after advertising it at three different prices: The lowest price was for first-home buyers, the next price ($10,000 higher), was for purchasers who already owned a home but planned to live in this one, and the top price (another $10,000 higher) was for anyone who just wanted to buy it as a rental ‘investment’. I still think this is how Housing NZ should arrange its sales when it flogs off unwanted properties – give preference to those who need it most and disincentives for speculators and investors.
So the units sold to one of the TOH families were converted into one house by knocking a hole in the downstairs wall. The three properties were able to share a common backyard, we took turns moving each others lawns with a shared lawnmower and the kids played between them. We had meals together at least once a week. Before domestic WiFi was easily accessible we even strung ethernet cables between the three properties and shared one internet account. Sometimes we’d share a washing machine and dryer between homes, regularly had each others children in our care (to varying degrees of care, my tendency to be too relaxed and distracted probably didn’t build great confidence in my childcare services) and we would often borrow a vehicle from one of the other households.
This arrangement came to end by 2007 – one of the families was highly committed to the intentional community idea, one was not sure they wanted to be there anymore and another was having internal conflicts about the whole nature of the arrangements and the inherent tensions of doing something ‘intentional’ with some neighbours and not others.
3: Sharing resources, Gisborne (2007-2014)
So by 2008 the other two families had moved out of the neighbourhood and new families moved in. We bought the house that had been the units back off that family and shifted in, we sold the house we had been in to another young couple involved with Te Ora Hou who shared our interest in doing voluntary youth work and community activities in the neighbourhood – but without the same level of intensity we had experienced with the previous neighbours. We had another single man (an old school friend of mine who has become an uncle to our kids and our closest friend) and Tarsh’s grandmother – move into our house with us and our two children.
This arrangement worked quite well for everyone – we had childcare and a wonderful cook on tap, he got to live with and contribute to a family he loves deeply. Tarsh’s grandmother had a self-contained part of the house and company looking out for her everyday, and our kids got to experience living with their great grandmother for the last years of her life.
Over this time we continued sharing meals, backyards, lawnmowers, washing machines, surfboards, vehicles, etc. and a community garden over the back fence – but without any explicit commitment to each other beyond neighbourly sharing and caring.
Our single friend living with spent a lot of his own money helping renovate parts of the house and outside areas, he had a real investment in the family and the property – but eventually we all agreed that the season was coming to an end and he won a post-doctoral scholarship to Cambridge University so left us for the UK. After he left Tarsh’s grandmother got too frail with dementia and Tarsh made the difficult decision to let her go first to the home of an aunty and then into a nursing home just before she passed away. We had another couple of relations live with us after our friend moved out and then a year or two of just us and the kids before we sold up at the end of 2014.
4: Living at the marae and building on multiply-owned Maori land, Makarika/Ruatoria (2015-)
In March 1997 when Tarsh turned 24, as her new boyfriend (as of that day) I gave her an antique builders level. We were living in Wellington, part of the newly formed Urban Vision community, and she had told me her dream was to return to the East Coast one day and build on whānau whenua (traditional family land).
Like many other Ngati Porou, Tarsh’s mum and most of her siblings, moved from the Coast to big cities for education and employment opportunities in the 1960s and 70s. Tarsh was raised by her grandparents but in her last year of high school went to live with her mother in Christchurch – which felt a long way from the East Coast – both geographically and culturally.
We had our first child, Miria, in 2002, and from an early age decided we wanted our children to have experience living in the heart of Ngati Porou on the Coast.
Gisborne is great, but it’s still very urban and Pakeha dominated. Tarsh says “We want our kids to live in a community where Ngati Poroutanga is the culture, immersed everyday in the reo, tikanga and landmarks of my tipuna. Those taonga are the birth-right of every Ngati Porou child and you can’t get them anywhere except within your own turangawaewae.”
For the last ten years we have been actively involved with Penu (Rongo-i-te-Kai) Pa, at Makarika just south of Ruatoria. I have been the marae Treasurer since 2005 and Tarsh has been stepping up to help at tangi, wananga and other activities that happen around the pa.
While we talked about planning to ‘move home’ for Miria to attend high school, it wasn’t until that time was just about upon us that the work really started.
We looked at a range of options – renting or buying a house in Ruatorea, relocating an existing building, starting with a shed, using a kitset and even building from local and recycled materials.
Penu Pa sits on the original Totaranui block that runs from Makarika to Hiruharama. Totaranui A1D2B2B is 130 hectares between State Highway 35 and the summit of Tutae-a-Whata and Tarsh’s grandmother owned ten percent of the shares in the block through her grandmother who was the original owner. The block is administered by Te Tumu Paeroa, the Maori Trustee, and leased by Tarsh’s cousin who farms most of it.
The first step was to seek support from the other 300 landowners. Te Tumu Paeroa and the Maori Land Court only have addresses for about 150 of the listed owners, so a letter from us went out to these owners asking for permission to use a small section of the block to put a house on. The overwhelming response was full support for the request.
There were a number of shareholders very happy to hear that a whanau wanted to live on the land. We don’t know most of them, but of course Tarsh is related to all of them. Many of the older ones lived here in their younger years and would like to live here again but their circumstances make that difficult.
With support from Te Tumu Paeroa, the shareholders and current leasee, we then had to find a bank willing to lend on Maori land. A government programme called Kainga Whenua is designed to help Maori build on multiply-owned land – the interest rates and deposit required are the same as any other bank but Housing New Zealand underwrites the loan for Kiwibank, so there is less risk for the lender.
The Kainga Whenua scheme is far from perfect and very frustrating at times. Because the bank can’t use the land as collateral they will only lend what the building is worth. Registered valuations ($800 each) must be done at each step of the build to allow the next amount of funds to be drawn down to pay for the builder, materials and sub-contractors. This adds significant costs and delays to the building process.
This probably would have had less impact if we had started the build before moving! We have been living in caravans at Penu Pa all this year waiting for the house to be built.
In many ways it’s been the perfect transition from the city to the Coast. Living in caravans at the pa has its challenges, but it’s also been like one long camping holiday for the kids and we been able to pay rent to the pa instead of someone else.
I work for clients around the country from our caravan utilising the free Nati Waiwhai internet provided to the pa by Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou.
We helped establish Hikurangi Takiwa Trust, a hapu (tribal) collective for the six pa in the local area, and both have volunteered in a range of roles for the trust. There are two existing papakainga of 4-6 houses each in the hapu and a third is currently in the early stages of development. Like us they are built on multiply-owned Maori land but the buildings all belong to a trust or marae, whereas in our situation we own the building and just lease the land it sits on.
The new house is almost completed and we have built it just over the fence from the marae. This has allowed us to save some significant costs as we got marae committee and Council consent to utilise the marae septic tanks system, electricity is also close already as is vehicle access – and family visitors can use the marae communal sleeping, eating and bathroom facilities and still be close to us.
This marae has always had someone living at it, there is Nanny Lucky who still lives here she spends her days doing gardening and sleeps in the dining hall or with her son in the cottage next door. Before her we had Papa, he drank too much and caused a few issues but was always happy to see any visitors and kept the place warm for everyone else. Back in the 70s another old man lived here – that was before the new dining hall was built so he cooked his meals in the meeting house, spelt in there and had it set up like a lounge with a TV.
I think there is heaps of potential for marae to provide housing for older people who are still independent but who need somewhere to feel at home and appreciate both the history and the communal living opportunities that marae provide.
We’re living the dream and have found it’s not as hard as we thought, wish we’d done it ages ago.
While packing up our house in Gisborne last year I found the builders level I gave Tarsh when we first got together 18 years ago, we plan to display it in our new house built on whanau whenua before her next birthday.
Conclusion: Some lessons learned
- Intentionality should be allowed to grow organically. As the great Jean Vanier has suggested, those who go looking for community probably won’t find it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – it’s just saying that those who earnestly attempt to build community sometimes try too hard and instead we should focus on nurturing caring relationships wherever we are and let the communal live emerge naturally where it will.
- Issues around money tend to bring out the worst in people. We often think we’re entitled to more than we are, or we think someone else is taking too much, or we leave arrangements too ill-defined for fear of tackling the money matters, we conveniently ‘forget’ the details of some agreements, etc.
- We can always share more. My parents generation were sold the Kiwi Dream – a couple, 2.4 kids, a mortgage and one or two incomes. That ‘dream’ of consumerism is a nightmare in a finite world and no good for mental health and community. Whether it is starting with the bare basics like sharing a lawnmower, creating a community garden, adding a spare room or taking it all the way to the ‘common purse’ between a group of families and singles – there is always more to share.
- We can always make space for others. We have a number of single friends now in their 40s who have chosen not to relentlessly pursue the societal expectations of couplehood and who challenge the dominant paradigm of what it means to be a family. Some of them enjoy living by themselves but appreciate the opportunity to participate in family life during significant times of the year like birthdays and Christmas; others can’t stand to be by themselves so have found ways to bring others into their home and/or helped create home with other single people and families. These are the people who often provide care and support for both the young and old who are too often overlooked by those of us with tight-knit nuclear families.
- Indigenous and cooperative models are better for us and the environment. We like the idea of living on multiply-owned land – it makes decisions, plans and actions a lot harder and often adds more financial costs but can in the long run mean costs are saved to the household, community and environment. Ultimately it means we have to take others views into account and the wider implications for the community and the environment get factored in more than if we control the resources and most of the decision-making process.
Note: #4 section is a rewrite of an article we wrote for a recent edition of Nati Link magazine about our experience moving to the marae and building a new house on the land.
In his 1979 essay “Energy in Agriculture” the American farmer, author and activist (some say prophet) Wendell Berry reflects on a memoir by Donald Hall of life on his grandparents’ New England farm from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The farm produced food for the household and made a cash income from a small hand-milked herd of Holsteins (Fresians) and a flock of sheep. It had trees for firewood and mayple syrup. Sales of wood paid for the girls to go to school and while the farm and family were ‘poor’ by modern standards with only a small income, they also only spent a small amount. Its energy economy was largely independent of its money economy. The energy of this farm came largely from people and from one horse. This farm was based on patterns of agriculture that have been extinguished by the methods of industrial agriculture and modern capitalism. Farms like the Hall’s gave way to assumptions of “progress” that privileged the city over the country, the large-scale over the small, uniformity over diversity.
Profound in my context was Berry’s brief history lesson about urbanisation. Trends in the US rural drift to the cities have been mirrored in Aotearoa New Zealand, nowhere more so than the East Coast. One of Berry’s main points is that as ‘agribusiness’ grew in the 20th Century it favoured land that was easy for large, mechanised tools of production to access – namely large, flat to easy country so while small-holdings both in New England and around Ruatoria had been successfully cultivated for hundreds of years, new technology meant the small family farm could not compete with the industrial agriculture of large companies that bought or leased massive tracts of land in other parts of the country.
Rural communities that had been largely self-sufficient quickly emptied as families could no longer find work – either because farms in the area had been bought or leased to corporations and the production had been taken over by machines, or because the modest cash income – that had supplemented food grown by the household for itself – had dried up when cheaper produce was sourced from larger farms.
Uncle Tui Tibble was born in the 1930s and remembers dozens of small dairy herds being milked daily in the 10km between Makarika and Ruatoria. Likewise Aunty Patricia, born in 1940, spent her years before going to boarding school milking cows with her nanny on the East Cape. Her secondary schooling was largely paid for by the income from the cows.
Those were the days when local families would milk between 30 and 100 cows every morning, put the full containers out at the gate for collection and receive a ‘cream cheque’ each fortnight. Most of that cream went to the Butter Factory in Ruatoria.
Ruatōria was well-known for its Ngāti-Porou Co-operative Dairy Company, and the Nāti-branded butter its factory produced won the national award for the best butter for several years in succession. The cooperative was a predominantly Māori venture and the financing, which included buying herds for intending suppliers, was distinctive. It began in the 1925–26 season with 58 suppliers and an output of 61 tons of butter; within 10 years it had 377 suppliers and an output of 743 tons. The company featured in the 28 May 1952 issue of The Weekly News. The article said:
’It is staffed and managed entirely by Maoris, and 90 percent of its cream supply comes from farms under Maori ownership or management.’
The building still stands, but with a declining milk supply the factory itself closed in 1954. The factory closure didn’t come because the cows went dry, it wasn’t the impact of a prolonged drought or a milk powder contamination scare. It was in fact the intersection of two massive social shifts – urbanisation and large-scale industrialisation of the agricultural sector. The post-war baby boomers were the first generation of ‘consumers’, production shifted away from small family farms and at the same time people shifted away from farms. Before the Second World War 80% of Māori lived in rural communities, the 2013 Census found that over 80% of Māori now live in urban centres. In fact the War was largely responsible for taking men (and women) not only into active service but to work in city factories supporting the war effort.
With a booming population and increasing ‘prosperity’ in the post-war years, Māori and Pākehā expectations and aspirations changed – higher education, increased mobility and expanded choices were the basis for massive relocations into cities over the next few decades.
Berry explains it this way:
…something was gaining speed in our country that I think will seem more and more strange as time goes on. This was a curious set of assumptions, both personal and public about ‘progress’. If you could get into a profession, it was assumed, then of course you must not be a farmer; if you could move to the city, then you must not stay in the country; if you could farm more profitably in the corn belt [Poverty Bay flats, Canterbury Plains, Pukekohe], then the moutainsides of New England [East Coast] must not be farmed. For years this set of assumptions was rarely spoken and more rarely questioned, and yet it has been one of the most powerful social forces at work in this country [and around the world] in modern times.
and Berry argues it was made possible by the myth of cheap energy:
But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was “cheap.” But we were able to consider it “cheap” only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a “right” to as much of it as we could use. This was a “right” made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not “belong” to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the “miracle” of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.
Berry argues, not only did the cultural values of society shift along with more ‘metropolitan’ tastes and consumption habits increasingly dependent on manufactured food, but more importantly the shifts were a logical consequence of ‘marginal’ farms in New England – and the East Coast of Aotearoa New Zealand – being abandoned – not because they were unproductive or undesirable as living places.
They were given up for one very “practical” reason: they did not lend themselves readinly to exploitation by fossil fuel technology… Industrial agriculture needs large, level fields. As the scale of technology grows, the small farms with small or steep fields are pushed farther and farther toward the economic margins and are finally abandoned…
Today we find ourselves in a situation where thousands of hectares of land on the East Coast and other parts of the country that were once highly ‘productive’ as family farms are now lying fallow, gathering millions in rates debt. While some estimates classifying up to 80% of Māori land as ‘under-performing’ or ‘unproductive’ may be exaggerated, and the benefits of ‘undeveloped’ land may turn out to be quite profitable, and whether or not law reform is required to address the complexities of tenure and management, the fact remains that Māori land in our community is rarely being utilised like it was to enable whānau to grow their own food and derive some modest income from what can be sold, swapped or given away.
Berry laments the massive waste associated with the modern ‘efficient’ agricultural methods. There is the waste of solar energy that farming has depended on for millennia – both as a motive power and as a growing power; the waste of animal energy – particularly when animals are confined and feed has to be transported to them; the waste of soil and soil health as massive agricultural machinery compresses the soil and sees it blown as dust or be drained away during rain because it is more ‘efficient’ to leave large areas exposed between crops. But possibly the biggest waste is that of human energy and ability:
Industrial agriculture replaces people with machines; the ability of millions of people (maybe tens of thousands in Aotearoa New Zealand) to become skillful and to do work therefore comes to nothing. We now have millions (tens of thousands) on some kind of government support, grown useless and helpless, while our country becomes unhealthy and ugly for want of human work and care. And we have additional millions (hundreds of thousands) not on welfare who grown equally useless and helpless for want of health. How much potential useful energy do we now have stored in human belly fat? And is it costing us, not only in medical bills, but in money spent on diets, drugs and exercise machines?
A pretty harsh analysis and probably won’t go down well with the liberals, but it resonates with many of us who might even have grown up on or close to small farms but have lost the knowledge, skills and motivation to fend for ourselves, kill our own meat and grow our own fruit and vegetables… and have grown accustomed to an unhealthy way of life so different to that of Uncle Tui’s childhood or Donald Hill’s grandparents.
Of course it is easy to romanticise the ‘good old days’ and living off the land when actually there’s very little that is glamorous or easy about it. Our friends and neighbours who live ‘closer to the land’ than we do at present struggle with the challenge of the workload of growing your own – as Hirini Kaa‘s grandfather said in his diary: ‘Kumara is such hard work every day except Christmas, Easter and Sunday mornings.” A poor season and smallharvest can mean a very lean winter, living off the grid can mean cold nights, constant illness and modest incomes can mean insecure land tenure and investing everything in land that is whipped away by those who can take it… all the trappings of the ‘simple life’ that our ‘easy life’ is setup to avoid at all costs.
Still, a small and determined group of hardy souls have kept the faith and whether it was pacifist religious communities after the war, hippy communes and intentional communities through the 70s, the NZ Small Farmers Association that my father Graham Caddie was briefly President of in the late 80s, more recent Catholic Worker farms in the Hokianga, Kapiti Coast and Central Hawkes Bay or stubborn whānau who simply refuse to leave their whenua and have continued to farm the blocks handed down to them – authentic examples have been quietly growing about their business while the rest of society chases the Kiwi Dream- however that is defined in these days of three quarters of a million dollars average house prices.
Moving rural this year, back to Tarsh’s marae at Makarika just south of Ruatoria was largely motivated by a cultural imperative around the retention and revitalisation of Te Reo Māori for our children and ourselves, but it seems to be increasingly offering a much wider range of opportunities to deepen our relationship with each other and the rest of Creation in a surprisingly spiritual encounter with the whenua, our collective histories and potential futures as Berry again articulated so much of so well in a recent article last month.
It feels like new beginnings for our family in so many ways – and while there’s nothing romantic about killing field mice that are just trying to shelter from the cold on a frosty morning – there is so much beauty all around us, so much potential to live in a more balanced way with the world around and inside us, and so much opportunity to have fun while making mistakes and growing together. It’s a bit scary but all exciting journeys should be.
Gisborne/Tairāwhiti is fighting hard to win the Chorus Gigatown competition that ends this month. Like many around the country, I’ve been a bit cynical about the way Chorus decided to start Gigabit Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout and the competition hasn’t helped my feelings much.
Having said that – while some of the social media and news stories almost seem to suggest that with the gig that no one will ever cry, no one will ever die in our special community should we win – I can see some real benefits if Gisborne is successful in securing the gig speed connection first.
So as Project Manager for the Tairāwhiti Technology Trust, I’ve been keeping track of #gigatowngis social media progress and helping with the top secret ‘Plan for Gig Success’ that each of the final five ‘towns’ have to prepare and will be judged on by the country and an expert panel of judges.
As you do in such situations, I’ve been doing a little online research on the topic and found a few articles of interest related to gigabit internet services, particularly the US experience to date – and more broadly, which I am most interested in, efforts to close the Digital Divide that seems to be increasing as fast as technology develops:
- How Cities Are Fighting to Close the Digital Divide: Mashable. A short list of awesome initiatives to close the technology gap.
- The Transformational Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Africa : African Development Bank. A milestone report suggesting Africa may leapfrog more developed countries in the information technology sectors, largely due to the lack of reliance on copper cables that ‘First World’ countries may be encumbered by.
- Technology and Inequality : MIT. A report examining why the disparity between the rich and everyone else is larger than ever in the United States and increasing in much of Europe. Concludes pretty much that new information technologies are likely to continue increasing inequalities rather than reducing them.
- Centre for Online Health : University of Queensland. A leading ‘IT for health sector’ research and development organisation.
- What Good is a Gigabit? : Huffington Post. “In the 1970s, many doubted there were uses for even 50-kilobit-per-second Internet. But soon application explorers came up with remote login, file transfer, and email.”
- Looking to Get a Gig? You Don’t Have to Wait for Google [or Chorus] to Build it : Huffington Post. An interesting article on how citizen-owned public utilities companies (like Eastland Group) can do it themselves for our communities (in the US at least).
- With Google Fiber Sign-Ups Behind Schedule, Google Lowers Pre-Registration Thresholds : TechCrunch. Article reminiscent of the NZ experience where Chorus UFB take-up where it has been available, has been much slower than hoped for (by Chorus shareholders at least).
- Users don’t want gigabit Internet speeds, Time Warner Cable exec says : PC World. Article showing how some old-school corporate execs don’t get it, or don’t want to admit that if you build it, they will come (eventually).
- What Do You Do With the World’s Fastest Internet Service? : Slate. An overview introduction to Google Fiber Space showroom in Kansas City, the first city to get Google Fiber’s 1Gbps service. A weird video too.
- FCC chief calls for gigabit Internet in all 50 states by 2015 : ComputerWorld. 2013 article outlining the US equivalent of our Minister for Communications and Information Technology wants every state to have at least one city with the gig service by next year.
Recently I started using a social networking site called Neighbourly.
I am encouraging others to try it, as I’ve been an advocate for using new technologies to help build community cohesion, improve public participation in planning, share learning and improve communication.
Place-based online networks like Neighbourly, Nextdoor and MeetTheNeighbours have potential as tools for communicating useful information and knowledge between local residents. Eventually Neighbourly could be a valuable platform for local government and residents associations to engage with people in our area. There are limitations in our community because we have lower internet than most of the country – indeed we have lower rates of access than some developing countries!
We’ve seen it used to help solve crime and get stolen property returned. It’s also being used to promote neighbourhood events that bring people out to meet face to face. We have been trying to build trust and care between residents in our neighbourhood as a way to address wicked social issues like child neglect and violence – we are seeing neighbours getting to know each other better and Neighbourly can only help with these bigger processes of community building.
Platforms like Neighbourly will enable organisations to engage with the people they are supposed to serve in new ways. We are seeing the rise of services like online youth work and counseling – as it can be easier for some people to engage online than in person. As Neighbourly develops I expect it will increase the suite of tools available for organisations to target particular groups within a larger population with specific messages and in conversations about issues of mutual interest. Geo-tagging and place-based online platforms will be increasingly important for things like civil defence, e-democracy, tourism, historical archiving and cultural revitalization.
I’ve been organising in my neighbourhood for 15 years and worked for four years as an elected representative for the area so using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Neighbourly seemed like a natural progression to take a lead in online organising as well. Having said that, it’s been great to see a number of local people with no significant public profile or community organising experience take a lead on Neighbourly and in other social media.
Developing a national network on people committed to engaging with their communities is a vision many of us community organisers and development workers have had for years. Neighbourly has the opportunity to provide a powerful platform for mobilising large parts of the population on specific campaigns and supporting critical issues we may be interested in – both in public policy and in specific communities.
There are obvious opportunities for creating learning circles within the Neighbourly network to share best practice and well-established principles of good community development.
Social media is demonstrating how powerful it can be as a tool for social change around the world. While we may not be organising a revolution (just yet), we can use these platforms to share stories, raise awareness, mobilise residents for collective action, collect valuable feedback and information on local priorities, attitudes and behaviours that can provide better evidence for where scarce resources should best be allocated.
I think the growing digital divide is one of the most critical issues that the champions of online community building initiatives and public policy makers need to wrestle with. If we don’t address the elephant in the room of affordable internet access and online skills we will exacerbate already staggering levels of inequality our country is increasingly being shamed for on the global stage.
There are also privacy issues that need to be addressed. Recent revelations that the NSA and its partners have access to all online communication will make many organisations and individuals more nervous about how much data they are prepared to share online about themselves, their community and others.
I think you make some valid points though I disagree with you on a couple of others.
For the first time, I didn’t vote this election – it was mostly for personal reasons but it got me thinking about the more public/political reasons for choosing not to vote:
- Ignorance about the political system, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, etc. is one reason some people do not vote. They haven’t made an effort to find out, or have thought it was not something they are allowed to do because it’s just not a system or society they feel a part of in any meaningful way. (Read this excellent reflection on these issues)
- Others just ‘can’t be bothered’, they know they probably should but can’t get motivated enough to spend 15 minutes of their time going into a polling booth. That lack of motivation has a variety of contributing factors to it which may include being new to the place or just having other more pressing personal priorities, which may include emotional or physical needs.
- Others choose not to vote because they honestly don’t know which person or party they would want to give their vote to – they feel ill informed and unwilling to commit one way or another because they haven’t got enough information.
Another group don’t want to vote because they don’t have confidence in any party or politician – as a society politicians are way down the bottom of professions we trust. They have heard all the promises, probably participated in elections previously and maybe been a member of a political party but have been so disappointed by the inability of any party to live up to the expectations they held that they currently can no longer bring themselves to support any party or candidate.
- I’m not sure if it’s a different group, a subset of the last one or just the same people with a different expression for their lack of confidence, but there are people who have given up on the whole process, the ones you suggest don’t want to legitimise a rotten system and think that voting ‘just encourages the politicians’. You suggest that this decision to not vote ‘will have absolutely no impact at all’ – but I’m not so sure.
For a starter, when nearly a million eligible voters don’t exercise the right, it provokes these kinds of discussions and encourages more deliberation on the validity of the system, the legitimacy and effectiveness of representative democracy, the possibility of more effective and potentially disastrous alternatives, the level of social capital and social infrastructure in our society that means such a large proportion of the population are disenfranchised (or not) and allowing others to determine (or not) the future for the most vulnerable in our communities, etc.
Choosing not to vote, is still a vote. It may have made John Key more likely to win, but then a Labour-led alternative is not any more attractive to many of us. Concessions on RMA and welfare reform, indigenous rights, mechanisms to address inequality, state asset sales and ties to the US economy and global military industrial complex would continue to frustrate many of us who like to think we vote with a little less self-interest than the majority of our fellow citizens. Choosing not to vote is a message to say, the system is broken (no where near as much as some others) and we want to put energy into improving or replacing it.
I think there is a place for a Vote of No Confidence option on the ballot, a space for those who don’t think we should settle for the current form of government modelled on (and still linked to) the Westminster system imposed by European settlers on these islands.
There are plenty of improvements we can make to the system (I listed some toward the end of this post), and we can help create those changes with or without central government support. There are examples of this happening all the time using existing institutions and creating new processes and contexts for reducing the influence of the dominant paradigm on our families and communities.
Likewise we can build authentic alternatives for self-governance, most likely without public support and eventually these will create conflict with the dominant system if they refuse to contribute to its maintenance and self-legitimising mechanisms for survival. This is a much more costly option and is unlikely to succeed, but if it’s all too hard then we continue to meddle and tinker with a massive infrastructure that is controlled by very powerful forces that refuse to give up power while we’re running out of time to make the changes the world needs to have any chance of a decent future.
I like your point that voting doesn’t actually take much effort and provided it’s value and potential is seen for little effort and little impact it has, it’s not really so demanding that we should abstain for any good reason.
I’ll probably vote again in the future, but by not doing so this time, I’m choosing not to abdicate anything to the government and voting for myself to take more responsibility for creating the community, country and planet I want my kids to be able to contribute to.
The Census results provide a useful set of information for anyone who cares about the future of our region.
With one in three locals now aged under 20 and half the population under 40, we need to ensure the voices of young citizens are heard clearly and that we provide decent support to help them grow as contributing members of our community. I would also be keen to hear from the three local teenagers who said they earn over $100,000 per year!
Ethnic and cultural identity figures are very interesting. The proportion of the population identifying as Māori remains about the same at 49 percent (likely to be a bit higher in reality). Many of us Pākehā seem to have some ambivalence and lack of confidence about our cultural identity. The number of local ‘European’ residents has jumped sharply, while those claiming ‘New Zealander’ as their ethnicity has dropped by over 3,000. Pacific peoples have increased by about 15 percent and other ethnic groups, including Asian, have all increased more modestly. While we may be one of least ethnically diverse regions, few others have Asian and African political leaders!
Though we do have 804 people – including the three teenagers – earning over $100,000, we have comparatively low income levels and the lowest home ownership rates in the country. We have also had a significant increase in the proportion of the population that hold a university degree. A population with higher levels of education should result in positive changes over time to income levels, home ownership and many other benefits. The key ingredient in that equation is a good match between education and employment opportunities. There is some good work being done in this space and a closer relationship between schools, employers and training providers will be critical.
With the lowest access to the internet at home, there is a great case for more public access options to information and communication technologies. The proposed neighbourhood computer hubs and better online options at schools, marae and the public library service all need significant support and investment to bridge the digital divide and enable new technology-based industries and employment opportunities to evolve quickly.
The Gisborne/Tairāwhiti region has the highest proportion of Māori language speakers in the country, with one in six of us being able to converse in Te Reo. I agree with the Chief Statistician who has called our region ‘the home of Te Reo’ – an asset we can use not only in tourism but also as a selling point for the tens of thousands of people – Māori and non-Māori – who want their children to grow up bi-lingual and in an environment where Māori traditions and values are maintained and appreciated.
All in all, I’d say the numbers suggest we are a pretty fascinating mix of awesomeness with plenty of room for improvement, but also much to be proud of.