Crystal Waters

When I asked Max Lindegger what was his inspiration for designing Crystal Waters Ecovillage, he says, “I didn’t want to live in a suburb.” A tall man with a scruffy beard, bushy eyebrows, and twinkling eyes, Max reminds me of nothing so much as a 10 year old boy in a 70 year old’s body. In his bumpy Volkswagen, we drive through the hilly countryside of the Sunshine Coast, lush with forests on slopes and cows in green valleys, dotted here and there with farm houses. It is late May and the end of the wet season. A ten minute shower blows through before the sun reappears and the landscape is fluorescent green as if emitting its own light. Located on 640 acres approximately 100km north of Brisbane on the Northeast coast of Australia, about 80 percent of the land at Crystal Waters is owned cooperatively for agriculture, forestry, recreation and wildlife habitat. The remaining 20 percent is held individually in 83 lots. The nearest town, Maleny, is about 12 miles east of the ecovillage. A large wooden sign points to the entrance where we drive down the one lane entry road for another seven minutes before we reach the visitor center.

Max tells me that before the founding of the village in 1988, the land belonged to a rancher named Bob Sample. One day Bob fell off his horse and had a vision that he needed to live in community. At the time, a small group of people were living on the land without official tenure or adequate housing. Bob Sample hired Max, who was president of an environmental consulting company called Ecological Solutions, to design a legal, permanent settlement on his land. When the developers came to the site, they found a land cleared of trees and overgrazed by cattle. According to Max, Australians back then believed that clearing trees allowed more nutrients and water to enter the soil. In reality, deforestation caused massive erosion of nutrients and depletion of the area’s natural resources. Farming was not productive and settlers relied on dairy farming, sheep herding, and forestry for their livelihood. Yet even these industries declined as the environment deteriorated and people migrated to the cities. Unemployment was high and local services such as schools and commercial centers suffered.

The founders envisioned a village that was “environmentally sound, socially rewarding and economically viable.” They developed six objectives for life in the ecovillage:

  • Clean air, water and soil (thus food)
  • Healthy shelter
  • Beautiful environment for play and safe recreation
  • Active social interaction
  • Economic livelihood for all
  • Freedom of spiritual belief

The developers began by planting thousands of trees on the site to regenerate the soil and invite wildlife. They dug ponds and build dams to collect water, irrigate farms, grow aquaculture and provide recreation. They built roads, electricity, and telecom infrastructure. They divided the village space into one acre lots grouped in clusters. They aimed for a settlement of 300, the minimum size needed for economic sustainability. Provisions were made so that residents could grow gardens around their houses and legally run a business from home. Ecotourism was planned right from the beginning and facilities such as a café, camping area, conference centre, organic bakery and information center were built. The founders promoted the ecovillage to future residents as a unique experience in sustainable community living. The first residents put down deposits of $8000. By the time they had 42 committed residents, construction on the village began. Today the ecovillage is a vibrant settlement of 250 people and a rich variety of wildlife. The village is also home to an educational center, a visitor center, a bakery, a cafe, a health spa, and a market square.

From above, the layout of Crystal Waters looks like the pulmonary system of the human body. The houses are built on one acre lots clustered along two arterial roadways that wind through the village. Smaller roads with clustered lots branch off the two main arteries. At the joining of the two arterial roadways is the village center with a kitchen, community dining room, conference room, the ecocentre (educational classroom), and the village square. The visitor camping area is located a ways up the road and at the end of one of the culdesacs. The distance from one end of the developed portion of the village to the other is about two miles, too far to walk but can be biked comfortably. On the ground, the lots seem to blend into each other as gardens give way to forests and cow pastures in a seamless landscape. Each cluster of 3-5 houses is a small neighborhood, with residents living close enough to have meals together. The community center and kitchen cater mostly to visitors and are available to residents, but residents do not usually have meals together as a community.

Walking around Crystal Waters, I feel like I am in a national park. A casual survey has identified over 160 species of birds and 26 species of frogs. Kangaroos and wallabies abound, hopping on the trails or sunning themselves in gardens looking not the least bit concerned about humans. Other wildlife include playpii, echdna, bandicoots, possums, dingos and koalas. It is currently the fall season and the air is very damp. Fogs drift across the ponds in the mornings and at night. Walking along the dark paths at night, the sky swarms with stars. Except for an occasional car, the place feels uninhabited. There are no power lines, lights, or other human beings along the roads. Occasionally a house comes into view behind banana bushes and eucaplyptus trees, but for the most part, they are hidden among the vegetation.. Only a sign at the entrance of a driveway tells me that someone lives there. I am amazed that 250 people live in this ecovillage. There is so little infrastructure and so much quiet.

 Permaculture

Crystal Waters is a permaculture village. The term “permaculture” comes from the words “permanent agriculture” and refers to a method of land use planning that attempts to create long lasting, self-sufficient settlements that in harmony with the earth. Permaculture is based on age old ideas of maximizing productivity and energy efficiency by taking into consideration the natural energy flows of the land. The tem was popularized in Australia, where environmental deterioration and sparsely populated rural areas made self-sufficiency and maximizing land productivity priorities in habitat design. The two main principles of permaculture design are based on the workings of natural systems: 1) Every design feature serves more than one function 2) The most important functions are served by more than one feature. For example, a pond serves as backup water storage, fire control, recreation and wildlife habitat. Water is provided both through rain water runoff collection and reservoirs.

The placement of habitat features are based on their frequency of use and importance, with features that are most frequently needed located close to the house and those infrequently utilized placed farther away. Each area is designated by a zone. The house is zone zero and the origin of activities. The area immediately around the house and most accessible to the inhabitants is zone 1, which contain frequently accessed items such as clothes lines, water tanks, and compost piles. Less frequently visited features such as a vegetable garden and tool shed are located in zone 2, farther away from the house. Orchards and fuel wood are located in zone 3. Finally, wildlife habitat is located in zone 4. Permaculture often incorporates animals as part of a sustainable system. Chickens, which need daily care, would be placed in zone 1, while pigs and cows would be placed in zone 3.

In addition to placing design features in optimal zones, permaculture strives to align houses, roads and infrastructure with local topography and natural energy flows. In traditional developments, it has become common practice to choose a piece of land and plop on it a preconceived neighborhood or shopping mall. Houses are configured to face the road and roads do not take into account the natural topography. Hills may be leveled, valleys filled in, trees removed so that nothing of the original landscape is left, left alone any habitat for the wildlife. Designing with permaculture principles requires careful and long term observation to understand the qualities of the landscape and design a settlement that best take advantage of them.

Before drawing the plans for Crystal Waters, the developers spent nine months observing, collecting data and becoming intimately familiar with the site. They walked all over and measured slopes and created contour maps. They took notes on the vegetation and moisture levels in different areas. They camped on the site to observe wind flow and temperature changes. From this process the developers determined the most productive land and reserved them for community agriculture, and allocated the shape and location of lots to make the best use of energy flows on the remaining portions of the site. Developers avoided developing lots on areas that were too steep or too wet, and situated houses to take advantage of solar energy from the north, natural wind breaks, good views, and proximity to existing infrastructure. The developers decided on establishing one acre lots for each house so that each house would have enough land to treat waste water on site. Privacy was also deemed an important consideration. No houses were built to overlook each other, most overlook constructed dams and reservoirs. No more than 12 lots were built close together and a five meter corridor was designed to separate the clusters. Many houses have a ring of trees around their lot to block views of the road.

The village was officially approved and incorporated under the Queensland Building Units and Group Titles Act in 1980. Within a year, construction was completed and residents began arriving. Upon arrival, every resident received a “Crystal Waters Owner’s Manual” which explained the concepts behind the development and gave tips on living lightly on the earth. Max cites legal incorporation as an extremely important part of the formation of Crystal Waters. Through the incorporation, residents who bought property at Crystal Waters could settle permanently on the land. The legal tenureship of the land allows the village to implement conservation measures, establish businesses, and perform organic agriculture on the land without intervention from other governing forces.

Water shortage is an extremely pressing concern in Australia. In recent years, climate change and other factors have worsened draughts that traditionally come to the region every few years. In recent years some areas of Australia did not receive rain for as long as five years. The prime minister of Queensland was so desperate at one point that he asked the citizens to pray for rain. At Crystal Waters, it is not unusual for six months to pass without rain. As a result, a sustainable supply of clean water was one of the primary objectives of the developers of Crystal Waters. Carefully designed conservation measures help conserve precious water in the long dry season. Low flow showerheads deliver a limited amount of water to the showers. In the visitor camping area, guests must pay for the shower, which encourages them to be economical about their water use. Greywater from kitchens and bathrooms are collected and fed into gardens and orchards. This saves both on watering costs and waste water treatment costs. In typical households, toilets use the most amount of water. At Crystal Waters, compost toilets save residents 26% on household water usage.

The ecovillage’s water supply comes from unfiltered rainfall, ponds and streams. In this region of world, the annual rainfall is about 1350 mm and falls mostly in the first four months of the year. The rest of the year can be marked by prolonged periods of drought. Each building at Crystal Waters is supplied with at least two rainwater collection tanks. An aluminum roof or other type of collector drains rainwater into the tanks, which are made of concrete and do not allow any sunlight to penetrate the interior. Without sunlight, algae and bacteria cannot grow in the water. The tanks also prevent evaporation. One rainwater tank is large enough to supply a household with a three months supply of water. An independent testing of water samples from Crystal Waters show consistently that the water at the ecovillage is at the same standard as filtered water from the water treatment plant.

The developers also created 17 resevoirs on the site to supply a back up source of water. These dams increase ‘edges’ in the landscape, which provides additional habitat and increases the diversity of the flora and fauna. During heavy rainfall, the dams absorb runoff from the land and directs it into the Mary River and Kilcoy Creek via specially placed swales. The careful location of houses up slopes and near dams ensures that houses are protected from flooding but also close to a source of water in the case of fire. The dams also create opportunities for recreation, aquaculture and climate moderation throughout the site. With conservation, rainwater collection, and dams, Crystal Waters got through the longest drought in the history of Queensland without needing to import any water.

Green Building

Barry Goodman is an engineer turned farmer who lives alone at the far end of Crystal Waters in a house he designed himself. He discovered Crystal Waters in his forties when he found an advertisement about a permaculture village in a health food store. The year was 1983. Soon, he was not only contemplating buying property at Crystal Waters but leading the design and construction of the ecovillage. He looked after contractors on road construction, water, electricity, and telecom infrastructure. His house, situated on a small hill at the far end of the village looks like a six sided temple rambling down the hill. Barry had lived and worked in Japan for three years and his admiration for Japanese art and architecture is evident all over his house. The main room of the house, which contains the kitchen, living room and bedroom is brightly and airily lit by six windows, one on each side of the building, including a large circular one overlooking the east. The entire house is built of local hardwood, mostly cypress pine treated with oil to repel termites. The main room is separated from the exterior of the house by a small entryway, typical in Japanese homes to provide an interlude between public and private space. The kitchen is tightly but neatly organized with jars of spices and supplies on shallow shelves along the wall; pots, pans and spatulas hanging from the ceiling, and a row of propane burners on the countertop. The built in bookshelves hold books such as Tao de Ching, Voluntary Simplicity, and the Baghavad Gita. On a bench in the corner of the room, a golden Buddha figurine sat next to some painted stones and candles.

Barry gives the students in my class a tour of the energy efficient features of his house. In this part of Australia, the climate is very temperate so regulating thermal comfort is a lot less energy intensive to begin with than in Ithaca, New York, for example. Summers days peak in the 90s, and winter days start in the 50s and reach the 70s by midday. The house is highly insulated with double paned windows. Awnings over the windows block summer sun and let in winter sun. Virginia Creepers growing on one side of the house provide another layer of insulation. A wood stove on one side of the house uses local fuel wood for heat, which Barry uses only on cold winter mornings and evenings. Heat for cooking comes from three propane gas burners, for which he pays about $10 a month. The highly compact design of the main room is not only energy efficient but also convenient. The round shape, large windows and high, domed ceilings gives the room a spacious, airy feeling. Barry also has a solar photovoltaic system which provides 95% of his electricity needs. He uses about 90 kwh a month.

Barry shows us his composting toilet in the bathroom / laundryroom adjoining the main room of the house. The toilet bowl looks like any other toilet in Australia, except that it does not have a water tank or flush handle. A long tube connects the toilet to a holding tank under the house. After waste is deposited, newspaper shreds or sawdust is thrown down the toilet. The newspaper or sawdust adds carbon content to the nitrogen and phosphorous heavy organic waste and helps it decompose. The decomposition is also helped by red worms, which Barry purchased. They feed on the organic waste and excrete rich fertilizer. In the basement of the house, the holding tank can be opened to take out finished compost. Surprisingly the compost only needs to be taken out every 8-12 months, so it is not very difficult to maintain. The finished compost that comes out of the holding tank is black, with a slightly crumbly, clayey texture and a clean, earthy smell. The material can be used in the gardens and mixed with compost from the kitchen. At Crystal Waters, the toilets at the Visitor Center, the Educational Center and the visitor’s camping area are all compost toilets. Among the residents, some have traditional flush toilets and some have compost toilets. In the case of failure by either system, residents can rely on the other one as backup.

Construction at Crystal Waters considers carefully the embodied energy of building materials. Rainforest timbers are avoided and local, recycled materials are used as much as possible. The educational center, for example, is built of rammed earth, a construction material made from hardened clay blocks. It has excellent insulation properties and is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Other unconventional building materials include straw bale, blockwork, bamboo, mudbrick, and compressed earth bricks harvested and processed locally.

Crystal Waters has become a very desirable place to live as a result of its beautiful natural environment and friendly community, the houses at Crystal Waters now sell for twice the market value of real estate in the area. The cost of living at Crystal Waters has had a strong effect on its population, tilting it to older, upper-middle class individuals and households. Barry says he was able to afford building his own house at Crystal Waters because he received his lot as payment for his services. He was also near retirement age when he built his house, which meant that he had plenty of savings and no family to care for at the time. Often, after the houses are built and have been lived in, their prices go up when they come up for resale.

 Renewable energy and transportation both pose important challenges to Crystal Waters. By taking advantage of natural energy flows, buildings at Crystal Waters reduce the need for lighting and heat. Natural wind barriers prevent heat loss and the presence of resevoirs throughout the site helps to mitigate extremes in temperature. The developers had considered building the village to be entirely energy self-sufficient but decided against it for several reasons. First, renewable energy technology was not very developed at the time and extremely expensive; second, electrical infrastructure already existed on the site so connecting to it would cause minimal environmental damage. The continuous wet season was considered disadvantageous to the operation of solar panels and the large amounts of energy and toxic materials needed to produce PV panels was considered problematic. Lastly, rainwater collection was deemed an excellent alternative use of roof space. To conserve energy, villagers decided to install low voltage cabling throughout the site so that only half of the normal current of the average Australian home is supplied. The cables were installed underground in order to reduce visual pollution.

Despite all the gains that Crystal Waters have made in terms of electricity, food, and water, transportation adds significantly to the village’s ecological footprint. The sprawling nature of the ecovillage necessitates driving to get around. Compared to other ecovillages, this leads to a much higher carbon footprint. Ecovillage at Ithaca, for example, manages to fit its 60 households on only 10 acres. The car dependency generates draw backs for the social atmosphere of the village as well. For a visitor (without a car) taking part in an ecological design course at Crystal Waters, the long distance between the educational center to the camping area means that mean that more than one trip back to the guest lodges during the course of a busy day is untenable. And only one trip can be made to the teacher’s cabin to use the internet, which was not available at the visitor center or the educational center. The roads do not follow a straight path between these destinations, which makes it much quicker to take shortcuts on trails across fields and around dams. However, during the wet season, these trails are rendered impassable by mud and leeches, which makes walking around the ecovillage a burden.

Crystal Waters is also isolated from its region. The nearest town, Maleny, is 10 miles away, and the nearest school is 5 miles away. Many people at Crystal Waters are self employed onsite as farmers, educators, consultants, or laborers. While this reduces the need to commute offsite somewhat, it is still necessary to venture offsite to get groceries, supplies, and interface with customers and friends. One resident told me that he learned to plan his trips more carefully so that he did not have to go to town very often.  A few years ago, a shuttle service was attempted at Crystal Waters to take residents to town once a day, however, the scheme was abandoned as there was not enough people to take advantage of it and the service was too infrequent. As with other communities, Crystal Waters is linked to the larger society and the global market. The ecovillage’s configuration and remote location makes transportation a rather unsustainable aspect of its operations.

Community

Robert and Mary moved to Crystal Waters because they wanted to live an ecological lifestyle. Together they have a three year old daughter. They have been living there a year. I help them in the garden one afternoon and during teak break, Lavena serves cookies while I asked them about the community at Crystal Waters.

“How do you find the community here?” I ask.

“I don’t really know our neighbors,” she says, “When we go out, it is always in our cars and nobody can see each other as they drive past. If we were closer together, I would try to carpool more when I need to go to town, but I can’t just step out of my house when I see someone going to their car and say, ‘can I get a ride with you?’”

“Do you plan activities together as a community?”

“We have the market on the first Saturday of the month and we sometimes see each other at special interest groups. For example we have a parenting group and a gardening group. But the village doesn’t plan anything for the whole community. We don’t have a common house where we could get together for activities.”

I posted this conversation on my blog while I was at Crystal Waters, and a few days later, I was surprised to learn that it was being circulated in the community and generating a lot of commentary. Much of it expressed concern that Robert and Mary were not integrated into the community and were not representing it accurately. Why were they not made to feel welcome? Did they not know of the weekly village social gatherings with home brewed beer? Were they not on the listserv that circulated announcements of activities in the village? Barry, for example, who lives alone, says that he interacts frequently with his neighbors, especially those who live in his cluster. “One of the best things about living here is the people,” he says, “We all help each other; we are a community.”

When I spoke with Max about this issue, he said that the founders of Crystal Waters were interested in the physical dimension of sustainability and not so concerned with the social infrastructure. “I didn’t set out to build a community,” says Max, “communities can’t be built; they evolve.”

Yet, even with this perspective, there are some things that Max would change to the design of the ecovillage if he could.

“I would make the lots smaller, and different sizes,” he said. “Not everyone utilizes their lot space. Some people do a lot of gardening, some people don’t. I would remake the lots so that lots with better views will be smaller, and lots that don’t have good views would have more space. That way, the value of the lots will be more equitable too.”

“Why did you make them all the same to begin with?”

“It was required by the government. We wanted to have greywater treatment systems, and the government thought that you need to have at least one acre in order to filter the water safely. But we know now that greywater treatment will work in a much smaller space. If we had different sized lots we would be able to increase the diversity of residents here. With smaller lots we would be able to put them closer together and create a stronger community.”

While the community at Crystal Waters may not be immediately evident to visitors wandering the acres and acres of rainforest, fields and picturesque houses hidden behind bamboo hedges, the isolation of their surroundings helps residents find community where there was none. Max tells the following story: In Queensland a law prohibits people from selling raw milk except to members of one’s own family. With more and more same sex households or unmarried couples living together, the definition of family has been officially changed in Queensland. Today, a family member is defined as someone with whom you frequently share a meal. At Crystal Waters, the cafes regularly serve Friday dinners and Sunday brunch. Residents often get together for weekly social events as birthday parties, yoga sessions, music rehearsals, and parenting groups. Under Queensland law, the residents of Crystal Waters can legally define themselves as part of the same family and obtained permission to sell raw milk to each other.

“Don’t believe that this is a perfect community,” Barry says at the conclusion of his tour, “We have a lot of conflicts, especially over land use. For example, some people think that we should plant more trees and encourage more wildlife, but that sometimes interferes with farming. The forest animals chew up your vegetables. I tried to grow bananas but the kingfishers took all of the fruit. We have huge problem with possoms. We also have problems with different types of farming. Some people want to have more cattle, others garden space or a bamboo crop. These conflicts are debated at forums and decisions are only made when there is consensus. It can take a long time but that way we honor everyone’s voice.”

Like any other community, Crystal Waters is beset with conflicts between neighbors and decisions over the future of the ecovillage. These conflicts have to be resolved peacefully and in a timely manner. At Ecovillage at Ithaca, villagers meet with their neighborhoods for an hour every week and with the entire village once a month to hash out issues. At Findhorn, lower committees are allowed to make day-to-day decisions reserving community wide issues for higher level managers. Crystal Waters attempts to streamline the decision making process by electing a group of residents to the Body Corporate, the village’s official governing body.

The purpose of the Body Corporate is to maintain and manage the assets held in common at Crystal Waters. This includes the land, water, roads, electricity grids and laws. The Body Corporate consists of a chairman, treasurer, secretary and four committee members that are elected annually by the villagers. Each committee member is limited to a five year term. The committee nominates other residents to subcommittees that focus on specific issues. Each committee member is paid a small stipend and oversees work to maintain the roads, water system, control weeds and prevent fires. The fund comes from a $1000 community fee that every resident pays each year to support common expenses.

In order for a rule to be implemented or changed at Crystal Waters, it has to be voted on. Any one can suggest a new rule or change a rule by submitting a motion at least three weeks before the biannual meeting. The motion gets discussed in the community via the community newsletter, and at the general meeting, a vote is taken. For very important issues, such as land use changes or pet policies, a motion has to have consensus, or no objections, in order for it to pass. Less important issues, such as voting in a committee member, requires only a 50% + 1 vote. Once a motion has been passed, it goes to the local government and becomes Queensland law, which means it can be enforced through the local legal system. Reaching consensus can be very time consuming and involve many meetings, so this process is used only for important matters that involve the entire village, such as a change in land use, pet policies, and changes in the governing process. Decisions that affect only the day-to-day operations of the ecovillage are passed with a 50% + 1 vote.

Economy

Jonathan is a mechanic at Crystal Waters who has gained a lot of credits in the ecovillage because of his highly sought after skills. But the credit he receives are not just in goodwill, they accumulate financially in the form of LETS, or Local Exchange Trading System, a currency that allows residents to trade goods and services with each other locally. The currency is pegged to the Australian dollar and can be traded only within the community. This system keeps wealth circulating in the community and provides a backup financial system in the case of financial instability in society. LETS doesn’t gain interest when it is saved, so it encourages people to spend it and keep the money circulating within the economy. The LETS at Crystal Waters has gained such widespread usage that it has been used to pay for large expenses such as rent, cars, and cabins. The system also encourages the community to keep track of the skills and services available through its members and helps to build trust in the community. Molly, a woman who administers the LETS at Crystal Waters, says that a few years ago when the national economy was shaky, the local credit union would have accepted LETS as a valid form of currency.

A downside of the LETS is that because it can only be used in the community, people sometimes accumulate debt or credit that they can’t balance. Jonathan has accumulated a large credit in LETS because his skills as a mechanic are highly sought after but he has little opportunity for spending them. “I like to fix things myself,” he says, “and while I like massages, I don’t need them as much as gasoline or food which I can’t buy using LETS.” Some people in the community accumulate debt in LETS when they hire others for goods and services but do not give an equal amount back to the community. Financial counseling is offered in the ecovillage to help people balance their LETS accounts. In addition, the supply of goods in the ecovillage is dependent on the market in the global economy. If the price of food went up in society, it would go up in the ecovillage as well. Therefore, a local currency system cannot truly protect a community from the ups and downs of the global economy, though it can cushion it in the event of a dramatic fall.

The economic activity at Crystal Waters has helped to revitalize the economy in the region. Before Crystal Waters, the region in which it was established was experiencing a downward economic spiral. Deforestation and soil erosion had made farming unproductive, and many people were leaving the area to find other livelihoods. These days more than 4000 visitors come to Crystal Waters each year to take permaculture courses, visit the village or the surrounding region. Revenue comes not only in the form of payment to the teachers but also income from lodging, food, cooking, cleaning, and administration. A variety of other businesses exist onsite, including a bakery, a massage parlor, a health spa, organic farms, nursery, gift shop, mail order businesses and consulting. Residents often employ each other for tasks. The ecovillage itself employs residents to conduct land maintenance, governance, and administration. Many residents work a variety of jobs both for other residents and for outside employers to support themselves. The local school has grown as a result of increase in population. The neighborhood sawmill was revitalized as well as several other local industries.

Market

For those who seek the homesteading lifestyle, including being close to nature and growing one’s own food, Crystal Waters is nearly paradise. But in developed countries this lifestyle appeals to only a small segment of the population. The majority of people living in Australia as well as elsewhere are not self employed farmers or consultants. Most people want to buy their food instead of spending all their time growing it or raising animals. In today’s globalized economy, it is impossible to provide for all of one’s needs onsite. If permaculture, as the way it is practiced at Crystal Waters, were to become a model for sustainable living for the rest of the world, then it would need to take into account the social dimension of human settlement. Perhaps instead of being on the outskirt’s of the permaculturist’s range, the village should be in the zone closest to the residence. Or perhaps, the village, rather than the individual house, should be zone zero, from which gardens and highways and wildlife habitat radiate in widening circles.

It is 7am on Saturday morning. The air is chilly and slightly foggy, but people are already  gathering in the square outside the visitor center. The market forms only once a month, but when it does, it is a joyous all day affair. Max sets up his table with boxes of seedlings and jars of honey made by his own bees. A woman in the village brings her used items for sale—books, clothes, bowls, lampshades, a variety of goods strewn out on a blanket. A man with long hair sets up under a tree to read your fortune for $10. Another woman sells handcrafted jewelry; even her seven year old daughter has a jewelry box with pieces that she made herself. A man who sells locally made skincare products sets up on the other side. Under a pavilion, a small groceries market has been set up, with items such as locally grown carrots, lettuce, potatoes, onions, apples and pears.

In no time, the village square is an explosion colors, sound and movement. Country tunes and pop hits blare from a stage where a man with a keyboard and a woman with a violin are strumming away, the woman’s long skirt swaying as she moves. Two little girls start dancing on the grass. Their adult friends soon take their hands and join in. On the deck of the visitor center, a service window opens and people line up to buy coffee, tea and soup. Crystal Waters residents as well as locals gather around tables to share news and gossip. I strike up a conversation with a man and his wife drinking tea with their young daughter. “Living here is great,” he tells me, “the people are nice, the environment is wonderful, the only bad thing is that we are so isolated and transportation is not easy.” Midway through the morning, the xylophone band starts to play. One man strums a computer keyboard strapped to his chest with a drum stick. Several ladies around him harmonize with xylophone notes in various octaves, smiling and tapping their feet like they are having the best time in the world.

The village feels transformed. No longer is it the peaceful isolated settlement surrounded by park land, it is a cultural center, a place to exchange goods as well as music and arts, gossip and discussion, friendship and the pleasure of a community of people with a place in common.

As the music plays, I ask Max one more time what holds him at Crystal Waters.

He responds, “I’ve planted trees here that have now grown into forests. I have close friends here I can legally consider my family. Crystal Waters is not just a place to live, it is a lifestyle that is increasingly disappearing in our overbuilt world. As one of the developers of Crystal Waters, I have a lot of regrets but overall I’ve been able to live with my decisions. We don’t expect everyone to go and live like this. We want this to be a training ground for people interested in creating sustainable communities. There is room for making mistakes here. People should come here and feel like they have seen what works and what doesn’t, and be able to apply it in their own communities. We can’t pull down suburbia, but we can make it better.”

Click here to see slideshow of Crystal Waters