Design for surviving Vesuvius – Atamai, a permaculture village

Joanna Santa Barbara

Atamai Village is an attempt to respond intelligently to the risks and opportunities outlined in other chapters of this book. Atamai villagers hope that the evolving responses in their settlement, in whole or in part, will be useful for many others, including those in urban areas.

The response needs to take into account the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to low or zero fossil fuel use, the constraints of sea-level rise over the next century, the need to step outside, as much as possible, the mainstream financial system and the importance of a local steady-state economy within the biophysical limits of the region.

Influences on design

The traditional village is seen as a resilient human settlement throughout human history, on a scale that permits some division of labour, specialisation and exchange. Villages in various cultures strike some balance between the privacy of family groupings and the benefits of direct cooperative effort for the common good. Atamai is designed as a traditional village, in that it aims at a high degree of internal food, energy and water security, and of economic exchange within the village and beyond.

It is a permaculture [1] design, adapting human purposes to the observed flow of sunlight, water and wind and to the soil and geology of the land, following natural systems in creating a diverse, multilayered food system, minimising inputs of external resources, energy and labour, using materials in cycles to produce no waste and continually optimising relationships between design elements.

Other influences on design of land use have been Yeomans’ Keyline Design principles [2] applied to water conservation. Organic and particularly biodynamic gardening principles are used in food production.

Influences on design of dwellings have been New Zealand’s Building Biology and Ecology Institute [3] and Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language”.[4]

A principle of technology use in the village was developed by Jurgen Heissner (see below): basic needs such as food production, water, energy, and sewerage must be served by simple technology, with enduring hardware, parts that can be repaired by non-experts or replaced by simple manufacturing techniques, and able to be fuelled by other than fossil fuels. Less resilient technology will be used while available and as it serves less basic village needs. Heissner calls the concept “layered technology”. All materials and machines used in the village are researched by life cycle analysis, energy efficiency, materials used, cost, durability, exchangeability of parts and so on.

The village is designed to foster a balance between independence and interdependence, social and private, and to run democratically. Extensive Common Land, about which decisions are made by consensus, fosters the communal aspect of the village.

Attention to beauty is highly valued in gardens, houses and shared areas.


The concept of a traditional village as a structure with potential resilience to climate change and peak oil was developed by Jurgen Heissner, based on observations of European villages. Heissner began to work with a small group of people in 2006, purchasing land outside Motueka, on the north coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The land saddles a ridge in the foothills of the Kahurangi Range. Much of it is steep degraded pasture land, with some gentle slopes and flats. The group, after observation and discussion of land use, began terracing slopes and planting fruit trees. A sustainable development company for the purpose of building the village infrastructure was set up. The next stage was the development of ‘Te Mara’ (The Garden), a food production area, with the creation of ponds and terraced gardens.

District Council consent was obtained for the first phase of subdivision in 2009, and prospective villagers began to purchase lots. Some began living in pre-existing houses on the land or adjacent rented houses. Construction of the first new home began in 2010. In that year consent for the second stage of subdivision of land was obtained. At this point the group was large enough to begin governing the use of the Common Land and to decide how the village would function as a social entity. The next stage will be the third and final subdivision of the planned village centre. This will bring the number of lots to about 50, for an expected population of about 150.

How does it work?

People join Atamai by purchasing their private dwelling site and a share in the Commons, and agreeing to four covenants attached to each title. Two of these apply to the physical infrastructure of the village and two apply to its social functions. They are:

Treatment of the land must comply with organic gardening (Biogro) standards.

Houses must conform with minimal eco-architecture standards regarding size, non-toxic materials, local materials, passive solar design, energy and water self-sufficiency, composting toilets and greywater use.

Decisions in the village will be reached using a consensus process.

Conflicts arising in the village will be dealt with by early resort to a process of conflict resolution. Prospective villagers agree to some training in consensus and conflict resolution.

To each lot is attached a Commons share. This land, larger in total area than the combined private lots, will be developed as a common resource for villagers.

The land – the vision and where we are so far.

Some adjacent land has been purchased by villagers joining the project with a view to eventually incorporating the whole in the village Common Lands. The lands, in total, comprise about 120 hectares, and include formerly gorse-covered degraded pastures, pine plantation, and flat land. The areas most suitable for community orchards have been planted and are already bearing fine fruit. Some of the area suitable for vegetable gardens has been planted and is producing well. The plan for a pine plantation is to progressively replace it with native and compatible exotic forest, more useful timber crops and some areas for selective firewood harvesting.

Lot sizes vary from just over half a hectare to smaller clustered lots, allowing for purchase by people of modest means, and for rental accommodation and co-housing.

The village centre plans include a plaza, a community hall, commercial-grade kitchen, café, general store and library.

Land restoration

Land restoration is a shared ethic. Land is contoured to minimise erosion and retain water. Thousands of native trees, bushes and grasses have been planted. Attention is given to planting bee, butterfly and bird attractors. Grazing of animals is managed consistent with land restoration.


Water for households is filtered roof rainwater used frugally. Household greywater is used on orchard plantings. There will be no blackwater because of the use of composting toilets.

Water for horticulture is conserved from rainfall by Keyline and Permaculture methods. Ponds have been constructed for beauty, water storage and as a fire safety facility.


The task of restoring the soil is a high priority for villagers. Organic principles of minimal external inputs are being applied. The orchard soil is being developed by biodynamic principles. An expert in large-scale composting is teaching other villagers ways of using “unwanted” biomass such as gorse, thistle and aging trees in compost heaps to increase soil fertility. A limited number of cattle have been introduced to provide manure for this purpose. There is attention to compensating for mineral deficiencies in the soil. A complex soil amendment has been developed by Heissner and others, including the use of biochar. This appears to have increased soil fertility when introduced into plantings. It will be desirable to demonstrate this in quantifiable ways.


Initial houses will be rather widely spaced to comply with district council rural residential regulations. It is planned that the later-built houses can be clustered around the village centre on small lots or as flats above shop fronts. The village uses a brick press to make earth blocks from its own soil for some of its structures. As well as attention to the several principles of eco-architecture mentioned above, there is the intention to create houses of exemplary beauty.


Thought has been given to how to produce a varied, nutritious diet on the village land. It is relatively easy to grow a great range of vegetables and fruit in the location. Olive and walnut trees have been planted for later oil production. A full-time gardener, assisted by WWOOFers,[5] works on food production. Grain production remains a challenge, with experiments proceeding. A flock of hens produces organic, free-range eggs.

Currently the harvest is placed in a small “shop” with some refrigeration. Villagers collect their food needs, record what they take, and are charged for the goods later. This will move to a box scheme, where villagers will receive a weekly assortment of the current harvest. Organic dry goods will be bought in bulk to provide villagers with lower cost food beyond village production.

One family has a milking cow which provides for several other families.

Thought is given to bioregional food production, with possibilities of using each microclimate to its greatest advantage, rather than having each household try to produce the full range of food needs. Several Permaculture designers are applying their minds to this issue.

A Community Garden is close to implementation. This will provide food and a forum for teaching and learning gardening.


Houses are powered by solar energy, active and passive, with the future possibility of wind power. Cooking is on wood-burning stoves, supplemented by gas cylinders. The wood is sustainably harvested from the land, with replanting. There is a need to develop sources of liquid fuel and gas.


The village will be car-free. Cars will be parked on the periphery. Residents will be encouraged to walk and cycle within the village and to the nearby town. There will be small electric vehicles for those who need less active transport. Electric bicycles are used to cope with the hilly contours. The intention is to move to a car-share system, with perhaps one car per four families.

Village economy

There is strong encouragement to turn first to other villagers for the provision of needs, and to improve goods and services by discussion of what is needed before purchasing from outside the village. A mechanical and engineering shop is already operating within the village, servicing the heavy machinery used for construction and land maintenance and other farm vehicles. A builder is deriving all his income from village work, as is a gardener and a landscaper. Some of these people, including the architect for several of the early dwellings and the orchardist, devote a portion of their payment to ‘sweat equity’ towards the purchase of a lot in the village. This subserves the deliberate intention to bring together villagers with the skills needed to build and maintain the village. Some of these skilled people are not in a position to purchase lots outright; the sweat equity option enables them to become part of the village.

It is hoped that a sizable proportion of villagers will have livelihoods based in whole or part in the village economy, extending from there to offer goods and services to the surrounding region.


Many villagers share the critique of the mainstream economic and financial systems ably expressed in this book. Several have been active in establishing a local currency system for the township and surrounds — Tasman Area Local Exchange Network System, or TALENTS. This system has decoupled its valuing unit from the New Zealand dollar. The value unit is one free-range egg. It is intended that villagers will be encouraged to use TALENTS in their exchanges. This will further encourage the village economy.


Decisions about the use of the Commons and about the evolving social structures of the village are made by Atamai Village Council which meets every three weeks. The consensus process is likely to undergo refinement as experience is gained. Training in facilitation will occur at intervals, along with training in consensus decision-making and in conflict management. A Code of Ethics dealing with issues such as respect, kindness, diversity, conflict and confidentiality is under development.

A Strategy Group meets to consider the impact of local, national and global context issues on Atamai, such as how to prepare for the interruption of supply chains of essential equipment.

There are working groups for Permaculture Land Use, Food Distribution, Process (of meetings and relationships) and Finance.

Social life

At the time of writing, about a score of adults and a dozen children live on or near the land, with three more families poised to join soon, and participating in decision-making by email. The current pattern is to come together for a potluck meal after a Village Council meeting, along with children and guests. Seasonal feasts are also part of the evolving pattern.

Most villagers interact with other villagers on a daily basis, often in a context of exchange of goods and services, but also for social pleasure.


Children have an important place in the village. It is a safe place for them to roam, by foot or bicycle. Playmates are close by. All adults share some responsibility for their wellbeing. There are useful tasks they can do for the common good, for example, helping with stacking hay. Adults beyond parents are at hand to admire their accomplishments, and potentially to teach them things.


Learning is the priority task of children, but is important for every village member, at all ages. People joining the village so far have skills in horticulture, eco-building, woodworking, eco-architecture, business, landscaping, health (mainstream and alternative), psychology, heavy equipment use, mechanics, peace studies, education, engineering, computer hardware and software systems, project management, alternative energy systems and accountancy. Almost everyone identifies the need to advance in knowledge in some of their areas of lesser expertise.

Many of those with children are strongly oriented towards the Steiner type of education, and there is discussion about the possibility of having a Steiner school in the village. The village itself is seen as a fine context for education at all ages. Children can be included in various kinds of work as helpers, and learn as they go. Those with more knowledge in certain areas, for example, horticulture, can advise others as they observe their gardens.

In this early stage of village development, learning needs have been identified in the areas of meeting facilitation, consensus process and conflict resolution.

A problem of traditional villages in times before easy access to travel and communication has been their limited, constricted knowledge stock, and the absence of outside stimulus. For some villagers, the intellectual environment has been boring and stultifying. They have needed to go to centres of greater population concentration for more advanced education and many have been glad to get away. This has been one of the causes for the global decline of villages. Initially, this is not a problem for Atamai Village. Internet connection enables rich access to unlimited knowledge stocks, and interaction with others. Some village members work on international projects and engage in knowledge production with collaborators on the other side of the world. It is also the case that, while uneasily aware of the contribution to carbon emissions, members visit large cities in New Zealand and overseas.

Air travel is becoming more expensive and is a heavily carbon-emitting activity; our future is likely to involve much less movement across large distances. The permanency of Internet connection to knowledge stocks is not certain. In the future, Atamai and all other human settlements may need to put effort into providing cross-global knowledge and stimulation for learning, sending people out and bringing people in for cross-fertilisation. Maintaining a fertile learning environment may need attention and resources. We will need “vertical” transmission of knowledge to the young, and “horizontal” knowledge exchange with the rest of the world.


Much about village life exerts positive influences on health. A vegetable-based diet of fresh, uncontaminated food is a good start. The demand for more active ways of moving around — walking and cycling — will add to population health in the village group. Perhaps more important than either of these are two social factors. Firstly, the friendly social relationships possible in a village and the trust that there are people around who care about each person are strongly conducive to good health. Secondly, empowerment to contribute to decisions that affect one’s life is important to mental and physical health.

Currently, villagers get almost all their health care outside the village. As constraints take hold, it may prove very helpful that among the villagers, there is a significant stock of health knowledge of various kinds, including how to grow and use medicinal herbs.

Social responsibility

Villagers bring with them varying proportions of commitment to personal good, family good, national and global good. From the beginning, there has been the idea of an attempt to show others how it is possible to live in harmony with Nature, as a contribution to broader social good.

Some members see this as one level of action, and experience an imperative to act at a regional, national and global level. A third of the villagers has been involved in the Transition Town movement in nearby Motueka. The village sponsors a fortnightly radio show on Transition relevant issues, and provides significant players for the local currency organisation. Members are involved in projects of national or global reach in peace education, climate change activism, other ecological issues and financial system issues.

It has been felt important to foster a relationship with local Maori iwi; this has begun.

For many villagers, it seems that one of the best contributions they can make to the Common Good is to show how to live well and sustainably together.

Curves ahead

There is concern that it will not be possible to establish the village as a viable economic entity before tumultuous changes affect much that is taken for granted. The concern about severed supply chains of essential goods motivates Atamai to try to acquire these things as soon as possible. However, the costs of land development are enormous, leaving few funds for such purchases.

To be fuel self-sufficient as well as food self-sufficient, the village would need to double its land assets, and is beginning to examine this issue.

There is abundant research informing us of the importance of social equity for a multiplicity of social benefits, particularly health. While people enter the village with a considerable range of differences in wealth, it will be very important to be watchful about experience of inequity in the village.

A true steady-state economy within bioregional limits will mean a steady-state population as well. This means deliberation in limiting population growth, with adoption of a norm of two children per family, or fewer for regions that are already overpopulated. For the village, it is likely that continuing access to reproductive health services will lead to this level without need for further effort. But can we rely on the sustained availability of the means for fertility control?

In the direst projected scenarios of the future, where food production has been affected and people are deprived, hungry and on the move, it is possible to imagine a village like Atamai being invaded by aggressors. There are so many pressing developmental issues that this has not been seriously discussed. The tentative thinking at this point is that the best defence is abundance, enabling villagers to say, “There is room for you at our table, if you will work alongside us.”[6]


Atamai offers a promising (and exciting) experiment in living for those who are fleeing Vesuvius.


  1. Permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, but has come to mean a good deal more. It is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modelled on the relationships found in natural ecologies. See Wikipedia.
  2. Yeomans P.A. (1954) The Keyline Plan. Free online version:
  3. Building Biology and Ecology Institute.
  4. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, USA.; The Nature of Order: Books 1-4 (2002-2004) Center for Environmental Structure, USA.
  5. Willing Workers On Organic Farms – an international organisation whereby half-time labour is exchanged for bed and board.
  6. Inspired by Starhawk in The Fifth Sacred Thing NY: Bantam, 1993.