Building Community, From the Ground Up

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As part of her environmental sciences studies at the University of Guelph, 21-year-old Tegan Wong travelled to Rajasthan, India. There, she encountered social activist and educator, Bunker Roy, whose ideas about reviving communities in rural areas inspired her.

In the late 1990s, Tegan moved to the tiny rural town of Knowlesville, NB, where she worked with the Falls Brook Centre, an environmental NGO. There, she met, and eventually married, Leland Daugherty. Together, they built a small straw-bale house powered by solar energy.

“When I had my first child, I realized that I needed more community close by,” says Tegan, now 42. “I wanted neighbours to grow old with, children for my own children to grow up with. So Leland and I began asking, ‘How do we do that?’”

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The answer, in part, had to do with land. Tegan and Leland harnessed their savings, and purchased 130 acres. They invited local residents to make their homes on the South Knowlesville Community Land Trust. Today, the land trust hosts 12 homes, in various stages of construction. Land trust residents are in regular contact, with weekly potlucks, monthly meetings, shared projects on common land, seasonal festivals and gatherings. They also retreat to the privacy of their own spaces—on parcels of land large enough to sustain gardens, orchards, small livestock, and forest.

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“It’s an old idea…” explains Tegan, “that land isn’t a commodity to be bought or sold, but a place to build homes and create community.” Residents own their homes, but not the land itself. Prospective residents must spend a year in the area before creating a permanent home. This “discovery year” allows interested parties to get to know the land and the people—as well as the inherent opportunities and challenges—before taking the plunge.

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Another key component was education. As her kids—now 15, 12, 8 and 4—grew, Tegan realized that the community needed a school. So, she and Leland bought and relocated an old church. Today, the renovated Knowlesville Art and Nature Centre is the community’s hub, acting as a part-time school and as a gathering spot for meals, yoga classes, and other local events. It’s an informal spot where residents come to check email and end up discussing their latest building or gardening plans.

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Tegan’s eldest daughter, now 15, was the impetus behind the Art and Nature Centre. Yet, as the oldest child in the community, she longed for friends her own age. That led to a difficult compromise for her parents. “In the third grade, she asked to go to public school. And we had to make a decision: would we be dogmatic about it, or would we be flexible and take her vision into account?”

Such compromises come with trade-offs. The latest is allowing their teen a cell phone so she can stay in touch with her peers. “It’s part of honouring each child’s journey. Leland and I came here because we wanted to chart our own courses, but we need to be open to choices our kids want to make as well.”

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