Finding our Place – Adapting in the City or Country?

Sharon Astyk wrote a very interesting post a couple of weeks ago about Reconsidering Cities. It got me to thinking about whether the right decision for us is a few acres outside a small country town or a large house block in a medium-sized city. We go back and forth on this question very regularly, so today I’d like to spend some time determining the pro’s and con’s of each option.

I apologise in advance if this is not at all interesting to anyone but me, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while. If you do happen to have some thoughts that I’ve missed, I’d appreciate if you could leave me a comment.

This thought process is part of our five-year plan. For the next five years we intend to keep working, saving money and maybe starting a family. We also intend to keep working on our self-sufficiency plans and making our vision become a reality. OK…onto the two options I can’t seem to decide upon.

1. Adapting in the City

There is really only one city I’d be interested in living in permanently when I return to Australia. Here are a few statistics to put it in perspective.

  • Population ~320,000
  • 31% of the population are aged between 20-39. Only 14% of the population are aged over 60.
  • Over 40% of the population are working in government administration and defence.
  • 68% travel to work in a car, 6% walk or cycle and 5% catch the bus.
  • Median Household income is $1400 per week.

It’s very much a government town, with much of the population well educated and well paid.

My vision for adapting in the city

We’ll be living in a small house (2-3 bedrooms) which is likely to be a post-war brick or weatherboard ex-government house. We’ll be on a block that’s about 500-600m² (5300-6500ft²) which is in the inner city area (within 7km drive of the city centre). We’ll be within walking distance of local shops, restaurants and cafes and can cycle to most places within the inner core of the city because it’s extremely bike friendly. We’ll have made our property as sustainable as possible given the climatic conditions:

  • By Australian standards, summers are hot and winters are cold (snow is rare although frosts occur 25% of the year). Good insulation is a must, as is an efficient heating source to stop us freezing in the winter.
  • We’ll add solar hot water and solar electricity panels to the roof. It’s a very sunny city, with mean daily sunshine of 7.6 hours/day and completely clear days 27% of the year.
  • The average annual rainfall is 629 mm (25 in) with an average of 108 rain days per year. Rainfall is reasonably evenly distributed throughout the year.  Unfortunately in El Nino years the region is prone to drought and bushfires. We’ll add rainwater tanks and a grey water system to the property to maximise the usage of all available water, but the lack of rainfall is a still a concern to me.

Most people require a car to live here, but the design of the city is such that small ‘townships’ have been developed to cater to residents. Each neighbourhood has at least a local store  and it wouldn’t be too difficult to ‘relocalise’ much of the population. Farmers markets and food co-ops are already up and running and bus transportation is available.

Because it’s a reasonable sized city, I imagine we’ll find plenty of like minded friends in the community and will find many opportunities to get involved with sustainable solutions to the issues of peak oil and environmental degradation. There is a fabulous weekly market where local people can sell their home-made products and home-produced food. There is plenty of culture with fantastic museums, art galleries and theatres. There are a lot of parks and recreational areas throughout the city, making it easy to get out into nature regularly. There are plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails all over the place, making it ideal for us.

Both Brendan and I will be working part-time jobs. I imagine I’ll be working in some type of government agency which deals with the environment or energy. Between us, we will probably be running a couple of home based businesses. With a population of young government workers, the disposable income in this city is likely to remain higher than what could be expected in other parts of the country. This would make this city a good place to operate small service-based businesses with low overheads.

Because of the high cost of living in this city, we’ll have to maintain an income within the real economy to pay for the mortgage, food, transport and services. We will not have a tremendous amount of free time available to become self-reliant, so we’ll be relying more on a large community over an extended area for food and services.

Pros of adapting in the city

  • Access to culture (museums, art galleries, theatres, cafes and restaurants)
  • Potentially a larger group of like minded people.
  • More options for employment. Jobs typically high paying. Better ability to run home-based businesses for income.
  • Lovely natural environment with great hiking and biking trails.
  • More opportunity to influence leaders and people to prepare for a future with less.

Cons of adapting in the city

  • Prone to drought and bushfires.
  • Vast distances to family.
  • Car dependent culture unless able to afford inner-city living.
  • Must keep working to afford the cost of living. (Rent alone would be a minimum of $500 per week for an old house)
  • Expensive housing. Median house prices in a low-priced inner-city suburb are more than 8 times the median income. Prices rose 230% last decade.

2. Adapting in the country

The town we are considering is Brendan’s childhood hometown which is located on a plateau at the top of a mountain range.

  • Population is 2643 including the outlying areas.
  • 25% of residents are over 60. Only 15 % are aged between 20-39. It is a town full of older residents as young people tend to head to the city after school.
  • 28% of the population work in agriculture, forestry & fishing.
  • 48% travel to work in a car, 19% work at home and 10% walk.
  • The median weekly household incomes is about $400-499 (compared with the state median of $800-899 per week).
  • The unemployment rate is double the state average.

My vision for adapting in the country

We’ll be living in a small home (2-3 bedrooms) which is likely to be an old weatherboard house. We’ll either be on a large block (1/4 – 3/4 acre) within walking distance of town or we’ll be on a few acres less than 10 km out of town.  If we are in town we’ll be within walking distance of local shops, schools and a couple of restaurants and cafes. We’ll have made our property as sustainable as possible given the climatic conditions:

  • Summers are mild and winters are cool and windy. The town doesn’t receive snow and frosts occur less than 10 days per year. Insulation will be important and a good wood fire will keep us warm on those cold, wet nights.  
  • The average annual rainfall is 1979 mm (78 in), making it the wettest town in the state. In a dry country, this much rain is a rarity. If we live out of town, we will not have to rely on town water at all.
  • Despite all the rain, there is still quite a bit of sun (31% of days throughout the year are clear and sunny). We’ll add solar hot water to the roof and may look to use a combination of solar and wind energy for electricity.

The local community is quite well set up and all the essentials are available for purchase in town. Some of the businesses are resupplied by traveling salesmen, which seems a quaint reference to a bygone era.  If it’s not available in town, we’d have to drive one hour to the coast or one hour inland to a small city. A local bus goes to the coast once per week for the day. The region is extremely fertile and plenty of food is being grown locally, although I’m not sure that a local food movement is up and running formally yet.

It’s a small town and much of the population is elderly. While this may be good for learning skills from our elders, I’m a bit concerned about the viability of a town with such a small proportion of young adults. This situation may change as more people become aware of the need to adapt to a changing world.  On the plus-side, the town at the bottom of the mountain has a thriving cafe and arts scene with many local people already living ‘alternate’ lifestyles. The shire is already part of the transition town movement and I can imagine that we could get involved and bring much of that activity up the mountain.

As you can imagine with all that rain and sunshine, the town is surrounded by green, rolling hills and national parks. The town itself has retained much of its original character and hasn’t suffered too badly from modern times. In fact the local bakery still uses a wood-fired oven and the Gazette is the last Australian newspaper printed by the letterpress method. Apparently it’s the last independent newspaper in Australia.

The town is currently very reliant on vehicles to bring everything in from the coast or via the inland route. Occasionally the mountain will be cut off for a week due to flooding of the waterfalls. The train line closed in 1972, but I imagine it could get back up and running under the right set of circumstances. There is still an active group of residents who are doing some fantastic work to preserve railway vehicles and the equipment of a bygone era.

Because there aren’t many options for employment in town, I imagine Brendan and I will both end up working at a variety of things such as in local businesses, working at home and volunteering in a variety of ways.

We should be able to afford to purchase our home outright and with a small income from investments, we could be financially independent to the point that we can choose the type of work we partake in. We’ll have time to grow some of our own food. We can also get involved in self-sufficiency on a community level.

Pros of adapting in the country

  • Plentiful water and food
  • Close to family
  • More affordable housing
  • More time due to financial independence
  • Beautiful location with access to National Parks, rivers and countryside
  • More opportunity to interact with the local community and make a difference on a more personal level

Cons of adapting in the country

  • Cultural activities different to what I’m used to (local theatre and blues festivals, rather than cafes and museums)
  • Elderly population. Potentially more difficult to make friends our age.
  • Employment opportunities limited.
  • Potentially cut-off from the outside world if car usage has to decline.

I just can’t decide which option is for us

I need some new perspectives. Have you chosen one over the other and regretted it or do you love how you live? What do you see the future becoming, and what would you choose if you were in our position?

Thanks for any comments you wish to provide.

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7 comments

  1. This is rather funny… just about 2 years ago, we moved from the Mid North Coast (quite close to your mountaintop town of choice, I believe… I thought I recognised your description and the photo!) to, you guessed it, the ACT. This was mainly a move based on my husband’s career progression, and my mum was also moving here, and I didn’t want to live in Sydney again, esp. with young family. But having said that, we are so glad we did move here, have not regretted it at all.

    Sometimes I wonder if we should live somewhere with more rain and in a rural area, but perhaps we will look at getting an investment property in a few years, somewhere like that (once kids are at school and I can work more) to set it up for our retirement!! If we moved somewhere with more room, would we just end up with a lifestyle and commitments we couldn’t handle, or would we be forced to make do and thrive on it? Perhaps waiting til our kids are older would be better, or perhaps when they are older, we will need a bigger place, if the situation is that they can’t move out?

    We have a better income here, and it being our second home, we have been able to buy a bigger house on bigger block here, than what we owned in Boambee. We are also able to install solar power (well, 6 panels and a 2Kw inverter to start off with), a rainwater tank, start building up our food forest & working out plans for our approx. 1000m2 block (we are in a southern suburb). This city also has advantages that we didn’t have in the regional city we lived in before (though that area may do now), like access to organic deliveries, great local farmers markets etc. as well as becoming involved in community, and able to live a more ‘eco-friendly’ lifestyle.

    We are lucky in that we do have close family just around the corner. Also, my husband works from home at the moment, I only work a couple of shifts a week 20 min’s away, and so we don’t often find ourselves driving alot! We are looking into bikes and kids trailer at the moment. This is a great place to raise a family, with so many activities and facilities here, as well as still being close to ‘nature’ and paddocks and farms! We are aware of the lack of water, and the bushfire dangers in this area, but there are not too many places that it isn’t something to factor in, here in Australia (as you’d know).

    As I said, I sometimes wonder if we do continue along with our current lifestyle, thinking we will end up with something akin to a small holding… like chickens, bees, rabbits?, and we might want for more room for vege’s, fruit and greenhouse set up, plus pond, and maybe composting toilets, smoker, who knows!! Yes, it can be done on this block and I see us being the ‘weird’ neighbours who eat only our own food, or that which we’ve bartered for, always riding our bikes, and having ‘harvest’ festivals in our backyard! I see us having good community involvement, getting set up and not wanting to leave, and feel secure knowing the facilities are there (hospital, schools, employment options) but we can still have a manageable, self sufficientish lifestyle.

    Good luck… hope this has helped and not just been incoherent ramblings!

  2. I meant, Bonville/ Middle Boambee… closer to Coffs (for work/ facilities/ community involvement), but distance to Bellingen/ Dorrigo is good. You still get the rural aspect, climate is still good, there are schools in that area… maybe?? (Sorry for the extra comments, please feel free to delete them if I have given away too much information!!)

  3. Oh, and another thing, when it rains, the local river can flood, and also, there has been known to be damage/ mud slides to the road, and road closures, to get from the area you are looking at, into Coffs. (As I am sure your husband knows). Perhaps they’ve been fixed up alot now and that doesn’t happen so often now. Not so much an issue if you are self sufficient, or well stocked, unless you need to get to hospital! (So sorry for all the comments!)

  4. I found this post very interesting as I like to imagine different living conditions and locations often.

    Not sure if this is applicable to Austrailia but here are some considerations we have to contend with here in Canada.

    In the cities, where the water and sewage are run by the city, the bylaws may not allow structural changes such as a more environmentally friendly water systems ie. they may not issue permits to make the changes easily so I would recommend speaking to the township offices about that if you haven’t done so already. Here, we need permits for pretty much everything — ditto with the solar panels.

    In the country, like where our cottage is, our water supply is from a drilled well and we take the responsibility of testing for e coli etc. If there is flooding then that will need to be done more frequently. There can be more maintenance with a private water and sewage system depending on the type of minerals in the local groundwater.

    We’ve already had to replace our well and we get our septic system checked every couple of years. It is definately harder for us to get things done there as the work culture/availability is different.

    On the other hand, if I were to buy a plot of land, I can hire an architect to build pretty much whatever I would like. The laws differ here if you do everything yourself and if you keep all of your utilities private, they do not bother you.

    The last thing that came to mind was zoning for home businesses. Our city bylaws do not allow home businesses where the volume of people coming to and from a house disrupts the neighbourhood. They however have told me that they do not have the manpower to actively patrol unless there is a complaint.

    Our tax laws also discourage small home businesses in that if there isn’t a reasonable profit made within the first 3 years, then any business writeoffs will not be allowed and an audit could ensue. As I write this, I’m thinking that Canada is pretty uptight! Good luck with your decision!

  5. I was thinking along a different line. We are in the US, and have owned a small farm for 13 years. The price was right, and we are within driving distance of 2 cities. The locals are quite unaware of what is happening to resources and the future. I fear they will take the coming decline very hard (and follow religious or nationalist craziness). The land we have is way more than we can take care of, so if we stay, I have to consider creating some type of community out of it or letting it go to native weeds. The old house is a pain and also too large and unfixable for efficient heating.
    The thought I had about your plateau house and rain is whether that rainfall will continue with GW. I doubt it will remain unchanged.
    The climate is affecting us in that we get more ice storms than 10 years ago, more violent thunderstorms and wind, and unpredictable growing conditions. Everyone should consider at least a small greenhouse/hoophouse as climate changes.
    Looking to possibly move south or west due to the volatility of jet stream issues here.

  6. The choice for me and my partner Sam was pretty simple. It came down to money. We chose a small town in New South Wales’ Central West with the cheapest real estate in the state (nearly).

    Three hours from Sydney by car, so while the current economy keeps functioning we are not too isolated, but far enough away that if things go badly pear shaped we have a nice buffer.

    The bottom line for me is that I don’t want to be living in any major city when our current economy fails. Any city will be a very bad place to be whether its a slow decline, or a fast collapse. Hungry, frightened, angry people are scary to say the least.

    Whether you are in a city, a town, or on a farm you will end up having to collect your own water and treat your own waste, so that is really irrelevant to your choice (so long as you are in a position to do it). The house that I am building is in the town itself and (in theory) has access to water and sewer, however I have opted to catch my own water, treat the grey water, and have a composting toilet. When the (already decrepit) utilities stop working it won’t effect me, my neighbours however will not be so lucky. Tree roots already clog up the sewer each year and flood their bathroom and kitchen …

    So I would recommend the small town. You may end up having it almost all to yourself and you are not likely to have too many visitors. Which just means you will have to be prepared to look after yourselves come what may. Since that is my default position anyway, it is no hardship for me.

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