New Zealand’s most controversial commune, Centrepoint, was founded in 1978 by charismatic psychotherapist Bert Potter. Based on a 16-hectare property near Albany, Auckland, the community had up to 300 members at its peak. It focused on personal growth and on Potter’s teachings. Residents slept in communal longhouses, experimented sexually and pooled possessions and income.
Bert Potter’s confrontational therapy methods included giving people bizarre tasks. A couple who were about to be married were told to chase one another around the lawn for five minutes each day, nude, smacking each other’s bottoms. A man who was revolted by a woman’s colostomy was given the task of changing her bag. More controversially, Potter told a woman who felt uncomfortable with sex to sleep with every man in the community.
Centrepoint faced ongoing financial problems, legal wrangles with the local council, negative media attention and public hostility. In 1990 Potter was convicted and imprisoned on drugs charges, and in 1992 he and six other residents were convicted of charges including indecent assault on minors and rape. Centrepoint was closed by the courts in 2000.
Eco-villages and co-housing
In the early 21st century eco-villages were the fastest-growing type of intentional community in New Zealand. Based on environmentalist principles, eco-villages use sustainable building materials and alternative energy sources. Members generally have separate income sources, and the communities are usually within reach of an urban area.
Eco-villages in the 2010s included Awaawaroa Bay Eco Village on Waiheke Island, and Kohatu Toa and Otamatea eco-villages, both near Kaiwaka, north of Auckland.
Home is where the heart is
Earthsong co-founder and resident Robin Allison appreciates the village’s community spirit. ‘I know who my neighbours are. I can come home late at night and feel completely safe walking around outside. I can leave my door unlocked all day sometimes ... It just really feels like my home is the whole site, not just my little individual house. It’s a real sense of belonging and being appreciated and cared for, part of the greater whole.’1
Co-housing communities originated in Denmark in the late 1960s and 1970s. They aim to create a village-type community in an urban context, fostering community while preserving privacy.
The Peterborough Housing Co-operative, established in 1981 and still flourishing, is six adjoining Christchurch households that share backyards and facilities. Earthsong Eco-neighbourhood is a co-housing settlement in Rānui, West Auckland, built in the early 2000s.
In the 1980s feminists established a number of women-only – largely lesbian – communities. One community was based in Millerton, a former mining town on the South Island’s West Coast. Aradia Wimmin’s Community on the Coromandel Peninsula (established in 1989), and Earthspirit, near Kaitāia (1985), were still active in the 2010s.
Issues in communal living
Living communally is not always easy, and communities commonly face a number of issues.
Conflict can occur over principles, domestic issues and relationships. This can be distressing and destructive, and can lead to members leaving, or even to the demise of a community. Many egalitarian alternative communities are committed to consensus decision-making, which can be time-consuming and difficult.
Turnover of membership can be stressful, both for those who leave and those who stay. It may also be difficult financially – most communities require some financial commitment from members, but those who leave may struggle to find someone to buy their share.
Some communities have struggled to get planning permission for the desired number of occupants, or for developing dwellings. Some have had ongoing conflict with local authorities over building and health regulations.
Financial sustainability can be a problem, especially for communities in remote areas or on marginal land. In the past, many commune-dwellers were on welfare benefits, but from the 1980s these became harder to get. In the 2000s some long-standing communities were dwindling as the younger generation grew up and left to live in less remote areas.