Alternative Small Town Project (edited)

Alternative Small Town Project

Colin Cunningham


The Alternative Small Town Project was developed, at about the same time as the 1973 Aquarius Festival idea, by a few people associated with the Alternative Community Telephone in Sydney. We had had experience with communes/shared houses and with projects such as food coops and telephone switchboards. Communes involving up to ten people allow multidimensional interaction so that mutually supporting life patterns can develop differently from that programmed by the system. Their limit comes from their being closed. People in communes interact mainly with the other people with whom they are living. This happens because communes require considerable cooperation and rhythm synchronisation in household maintenance and from the tendency for each person's tastes (e.g. for cats) to imitate others. These limits create pressures which after a year or two disintegrate the group, and in the urban environment, prevent further significant interaction among the members, so that social structures involving more people do not evolve. Food coops, telephone switchboards and other such projects, on the other hand, do involve significant interaction among up to fifty people, but the interaction tends to be one-dimensional so that after a period of a few months or a year, it ceases to be developmental for the people concerned. It either becomes institutionalised, and interaction in it a routine task, or disintegrates as the interests and life-projects of the participants develop. Again, due to the urban environment, further significant interaction among the people involved ceases. 

The aim of the Alternative Small Town Project was to remove the urban environment limitation and allow the equivalents of these urban socioeconomic forms to develop further. We are particularly interested in decentralisation and production of economic necessities under local control with local control of institutional structure. A small town was chosen rather than a completely rural site for several reasons :

1 A few people with limited capital can find ways to support themselves in a town, so the project can begin in a small way, developing organically.

2 Considerable capital plant (buildings, water supply, etc.) can be found in small towns either unused or under-used.

3 We hoped the interaction existing in the town would be similar in practice to those we wished to develop ourselves, so we would learn from the people, clash less strongly with the 'straight' environment than in the city, and also become more or less integrated with the existing population, influencing the development of existing socio-economic forms in alternative directions. The town was chosen inland rather than on the coast to avoid intensive straight development and to get off the 'hippy trail'. The former boosts prices of buildings and land to unreasonable levels and creates an unfavourable social climate for alternative development, while the latter overwhelms projects with people who drain energy. The actual name of the town is not relevant call it Inland.

So, in March 1973 two people moved to Inland and established a greengrocer shop as a social and economic base. Now, after fifteen months, development is proceeding satisfactorily our ideas having of course evolved with our experience. There are now about fifteen people in the district more or less sympathetic with alternative socio-economic forms, about half immigrants and half people living around Inland before the establishment of the fruit shop. There has been some noticeable development in the economic dimension, although it is difficult to separate the activity of the immigrants and locals. A lot of the progress is individual, people learning to be partly self-sufficient in gardening, preserving and other food processing in the same way as country people have traditionally been. The district as a whole has made a little progress both towards self-sufficiency in fresh foods and in awareness of the desirability of this self-sufficiency. Home gardens produce twenty to thirty per cent fresh vegetables. The district is essentially self-sufficient in stone fruit and sporadic crops of potatoes and pumpkin are significant commercially. 

Both grocery stores will buy local produce, but the greengrocer shop actively encourages local production. There are now three or four local gardens producing perhaps five per cent of stock, with another fifteen to twenty per cent coming from commercial market gardens/orchards in the region but outside the retail trade area of the shop. Two greenhouses have been built—one hoping for an early tomato crop (a late one having failed), and the other more experimental. Much is being learned about management of live-stock from several flocks of chickens, ducks and goats. In general, the capital available to us (equipment and stock) is slowly increasing, as is our access to underused capital (machinery, land) in the district. From a personal point of view, most of us are finding ourselves better able to develop personally and to develop our projects than we could in the city, and we are feeling the first synergistic effects of more people and a supportive environment. In a sense, it doesn't matter if our large-scale ideas are implemented , as our day to day lives are satisfying in themselves. A most useful sociological concept we are workin g out is that of our network of interactions. Rather than view ourselves (i.e. immigrants) as a freak community or scene, which leads to a ghetto mentality, us/them dichotomy and is very limiting, we see each of us (or each unit) as separate, pursuing projects of our own, doing things on as small a scale as practical, and working with/interacting with such other people in and around Inland as are relevant to the project at hand sharing resources rather than working in community projects as such. 

The pattern of development is not yet clear. There is a tendency for people to go out to the bush, although spending a significant fraction of time in town. The fruit shop has functioned as a meeting place and information centre though now two more shops have opened which may serve these functions, also. All this is pretty vague, but concrete reality is by nature complex. The dream is to participate in the creation of the twenty-first century world a world society unified by transportation, communication and resource management but incredibly diverse in cultural development, decentralised, anarchic, and ecologically sound. In particular, we would like to help create a socio-economic environment which reinforces 'uppers' rather than 'downers'. The few steps we have taken so far can be interpreted as steps in the realisation of the dream, although in this, our second winter, it sometimes seems as if we are too few. Many of the freaks/ dropouts we see are frozen into a life style/cultural pattern which is no longer threatening to the system and even requires it for maintenance. Their vision of a different society is either ungerminated or blasted by the collapse of the 1960s cultural/ political radicalism. The hope is that access to resources and other people, plus the necessary space and time, will permit their evolution to begin again.

Back to top