Meeting Halfway: Lessons in Social Sustainability from the Lynedoch EcoVillage

by Adrian Lotter

Adrian Lotter is a mechanical engineer by vocation who has been working in the green economy space for the last 18 months. His interests include business facilitation, circular economics and financial analysis as means to create change.


South Africa is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. This holds especially true for the area formerly known as the Cape of Good Hope. Today the region has developed into the sprawling international metropolis of Cape Town and surrounds. In addition to having a rich social and cultural variety, the area is home to the unique Cape Floristic Region. One of six recognized floral kingdoms of the world, an area of extraordinarily high diversity and endemism.(1)

Appropriately located halfway between the opulent, Euro-esque town of Stellenbosch and the struggling Khayelitsha township, is the Lynedoch EcoVillage (LEV). An initiative by the larger Lynedoch Development Community (LDC) to prod and poke at the status quo of education, development and cohabitation while preserving the ecological landscape. The village is the first ecologically designed socially mixed intentional community in South Africa and houses a pre- school, primary school, guest house, postgraduate educational facility, student accommodation and a mixed-income housing scheme.

Breakdown of uses and typologies on Lynedoch site. (Photo Credit: The Sustainability Institute)

The spatial design consists of 45 residential plots ranging in size between 90 m2 – 300 m2; of these, 15 were earmarked for purchase at a price of R20 000* by people who qualify for a government housing subsidy and the remainder sold at a commercial rate of between R90 000 and R275 000*.

Some of the commercial buyers bought double plots, which meant a total community size of 32 residences. It is important to note that no one was given a plot or house, although some houses were constructed by developers and repaid monthly over a 9-year period. (2) The business case required an extensive amount of financial wizardry whereby the sale of commercial plots served as a financing mechanism to partially subsidise plots for lower-income groups within the community.

Because of the unique social, historical, political and economic milieu of South Africa, opportunities and challenges from case studies abroad cannot be directly paralleled to the local context. This reiterates the need for learning local lessons and the subsequent pursuit of similar endeavours.

Here follows some of the key lessons learned:

1. Creating opportunities for empowerment

The (mostly American) literature propagates the notion of creating opportunities as a means of enabling upward mobility for lower-income households. In the case of the EcoVillage, an attempt was made to integrate residents on two tiers of local employment, namely gardening and security. Both failed. Direct and underlying reasons for failure are up for debate, however both attempts eventually collapsed as a result of a significant difference between what was expected and what was executed. A nuanced power relationship also emerged between incumbent residents, which has exacerbated the situation. The argument could also be made that the disconnect between expectation and execution is because of a difference in cultural norms.

2. Voluntary contribution

One of the most pronounced factors for success in the literature review was the management and maintenance of property. However, the relatively small scale of the village meant outsourcing these services would significantly reduce funds available for maintenance and upgrade materials. Initially, a fixed monthly levy was charged regardless of income or residence type. Not only does this contradict municipal convention but saw cases of subsidised households paying 1/6th of their income to levies.

In search for a fair, sustainable and distributed means of generating maintenance income, an extensive community engagement project was launched. Through this iterative process, community members were individually consulted and open discussion promoted. Eventually the effort paid dividends in the reimagining of communal contribution.

The arrangement consisted of establishing four, equal interval payment options between R250 and R1000, with each household determining their own position on this pay scale and contributing accordingly. At nearly 100% success, this payment agreement has enjoyed exceptional community participation and has led to the redistribution of communal equity.

3. Lines of division

This project is by definition meant to birth a socially mixed intentional community, intended to provide a safe space where South Africans from all backgrounds can live in peace with each other and with nature. Currently, the racial distribution in the village is as in Table 1. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the separation line dividing race echoes the difference in income levels. Most of the historically disadvantaged families and individuals fall into the subsidized category, and the white demographic constituting the bulk of the commercial properties. This development is eerily reminiscent of Apartheid-era imposed dispositions based on race. It has also resulted in conflict that escalated to the point where external mediation was required, at substantial cost.

Table 1: Racial distribution in the EcoVillage. Note listed figures refer to households, not residents

Another important point to note is an unsettling truth brought to light in the iterative levy process mentioned in the preceding section: some residents were unwilling or unable to speak their minds and raise their concerns during formal gatherings. It seemed that because of cultural legacy, the historically authoritative role of (mostly white) men was so deeply ingrained in some residents, that it caused inability to even address the chair of the Lynedoch Homeowners Association (LHA); who, at the time, was a white male. Lastly, the tendency seems to be that lower-income household are less willing to participate in environmentally friendly activities, such as recycling and communal horticulture.

Photos of members of the EcoVillage at Lynedoch. (Photo Credit: The Sustainability Institute)

This raises three issues:

  • Culture as a variable. Would mixed income housing be more coherent if there were less (or no) cultural differences? An interesting thought experiment but bordering on Apartheid segregation-type policies. However, there is an argument which could be made along the lines of voluntary segregation in the way that families with young children would not want to live within earshot of student accommodation, and vice versa.
  • More diversity. If there were representative households along the entire spectrum of income levels – instead of only the lower tiers – would black and coloured households be better represented in positions of authority and participation?
  • Strictly defined and enforced core values. If well-established values – promoting ecological sustainability in this case – forms the centre of all daily activities and decision-making, a reasonable amount of public participation can be expected.

References

  1. Brophy, P., & Smith, R. (1997). Mixed-Income Housing: Factors for Success. Cityscape, 3(2), 3-31.
  2. Odendaal, L., Haupt, T., & Griffiths, C. (2008). The alien invasive land snail Theba pisana in the West Coast National Park: Is there cause for concern? Koedoe, 50(1), 93-98.
  3. Sustainability Institute. (2009, May 14). www.sustainabilityinstitute.net. Retrieved July 15, 2017, from http://www.sustainabilityinstitute.net/research/research-publications? task=download&file=file&id=4091
  4. Swilling, M. (2006). Sustainability and Infrastructure Planning in South Africa: a Cape Town case study. Environment & Urbanization, 18(1), 23-50.
  5. Swilling, M., & Annecke, E. (2006). Building Sustainable Neighbourhoods in South Africa: learning from the Lynedoch case. Environment & Urbanization, 18(2), 315-332.
  6. Hoving, K. (2010). Mixed-Income Housing: Assumptions and Realities. San Luis Obispo: California Polytechnic State University.
  7. Gornstein, A., & Verrilli, A. (2006). Mixed Income Housing in the Suburbs: Lessons from Massachusetts. Fannie Mae Foundation.
  8. Ellickson, R. (2010). The False Promise of the Mixed-Income Housing Project. UCLA Law Review, pp. 983-1021.
  9. Eisenbeis, D., Howard, G., & MacLaren, C. (2017, 07 1). Retrieved from Oregon: http:// www.oregon.gov/LCD/docs/Mixed_Income_Housing.pdf

Read more about our 8020 series:

How Changing Planning Policies Could Create Incentives for Building Mixed-Income Housing

Disrupting the Housing Sector: A Social Enterprise Model by Communicare to Deliver Mixed-Income Housing