When you hear the word sustainable, what comes to mind? Do you also link the word with the physical environment and our social responsibility to look after it? With more greenwashing by companies and governments alike, the meaning of sustainability is becoming warped. Could we reframe the term in another light? Can we explore the sustainability of our communities?
If we’re to collectively collaborate for the good of our planet, we’re going to need to overcome previous poor design and develop better social connectivity and cohesion.
Recently, I was introduced to some initiatives happening in our backyard that have their foundations in connection and a holistic approach to sustainable living.
Firstly, there is a Melbourne-based community builder, Assemble, who have team members with roots in Gippsland. I then learnt about the festival ‘The Town’ hosted in the Central Gippsland village of Licola, ‘the southern gateway to the Alpine National Park’. Culture Jam, who are behind The Town, are at the forefront of reshaping sustainable towns and re-imagining Australia’s festival industry. Finally, there is the Hello Campaign, which is based in the Latrobe Valley and promotes simple human interaction. Each of these examples value a sense of community and provide ideas on how it can be sustainably maintained.
The team with experience in architecture, planning, community management and development at Assemble have noted that regional areas are often better at nurturing a community atmosphere. Most of us don’t realise that being able to walk down the street and be stopped a couple of times for a quick chat, or
be greeted with a boisterous wave, is something we should be placing great value on. The reality is, this isn’t so common in our larger cities where the population is more fragmented.
In their new developments, Assemble strive to nurture a similar community vibe and they’re committed to shaping a culture of living closer together through good design.
Heck, they even have a Head of Community, Abbie Freestone, who explained that the Assemble Model is an alternative pathway to home ownership — one that transitions the gap between renting and owning your home.
As they say, “the idea is simple”, you lease your home while you save to buy. Your rent is agreed upfront and your future purchase price is fixed, giving you stability while you save, but you still have the freedom to leave the five-year lease or decide not to buy.
The built environments Assemble creates are designed with small footprint living in mind and feature enjoyable communal spaces as that’s, “where social and collective culture can thrive”. Such areas include communal rooms, multi-purpose workshops, shared laundry facilities and even an edible herb garden. It’s all about creating “enriching, engaging and socially responsible” housing.
For me, it makes the idea of owning a home less anxiety-inducing and a more exciting prospect, as it is more affordable, well-designed housing.
In our discussions, we learnt that an apartment-style development wouldn’t likely be the best approach for Gippsland, but the Assemble Model could still be applied in regional areas. Branching out of the Melbourne metro area has appeal to Assemble and other groups that create financially, socially and environmentally sustainable homes, like Nightingale Housing, who have recently launched projects in the regional hubs of Bendigo and Ballarat.
Melbourne’s sprawl is unrelenting and, alarmingly, one of the largest in the world. We can feel it influencing Gippsland. So why don’t we look at different housing styles and financial models that focus on maintaining our sense of community? One that others enviously aim to create elsewhere?
The 30-person town of Licola is owned by the Lions Club of Victoria, making it Victoria’s only privately owned town. Sitting at the edge of the High Country, the town isn’t connected to the electricity grid. Instead, the Latrobe Valley Community Power Hub (LVCPH) have developed renewable energy alternatives that utilise wind and solar energy. The $75,000 investment looks set to reduce energy consumption by 29% and increase efficiency, resulting in $45,000 of savings per year.
Licola Wilderness Village has accommodation and activities available for school groups, young people, special needs groups and disadvantaged children. With an aim of fostering positivity for youth to navigate healthy relationships with others and nature, the area has a beautiful and rare point of difference.
These are some of the things that attracted the organisers of The Town festival to bring their wonderful festival to Licola. The space really aligns with the ethos of Culture Jam, who create events that, “have a strong environmental focus… full of natural creativity and connection, opposed to blind consumption”.
The Town festival is a nonsensical creative playground to push the boundaries of imagination. The three-day event immerses punters in games, music, comedy, dress-ups, theatres and interactions by creating a mock village that playfully parodies typical city lives, while also providing and exploring better alternatives for them.
“A big message we communicate is that we are privileged to be on such a beautiful site, and this is why we must respect it and party sustainably. We are running a sustainable and community festival, and I really feel like there could not be a better place to work from to spread this message”, explains festival organiser and Culture Jam director, Mick Scarlett.
The Town is continually evolving as an eco-conscious festival. This year implemented a plate wash system to minimise food waste from stalls, and next year they’ll install composting toilets.
Not only environmentally friendly, The Town strives to be people friendly too. As Mick describes, “The Town is also an important model for harm minimisation. There is so much creativity everywhere and natural stimulation that it reduces the need for people to feel they need to get really intoxicated to have a good time. It is a unique approach but I truly believe it works and I think our positive, family-friendly vibe shows this”.
The collaboration between Licola and The Town is now three years strong. They have fostered a positive relationship that demonstrates the benefits of ‘knowing your neighbour’ at a larger scale. In return, The Town provides Licola with public art and infrastructure. Last year they painted a large mural at the local pool, and they have plans to build a worm farm and much more in the years to come.
“It starts with hello…”. Such a simple concept, but one that celebrates the value of social connection. The Hello Campaign was launched in late May this year and aims to raise mental health awareness by highlighting the importance of social connections in the Latrobe Valley. It stems from work between We Are Latrobe and Lifeline Gippsland.
To celebrate and promote the launch, volunteers were down the street, at bus stops and cafés, with the Hello Times newspaper, Hello t-shirts and The Art of Conversation playing cards to prompt people to say ‘hello’ to one another.
Their feedback was unanimous: making time for each other, knowing one another and just saying ‘hello’ is invaluable for the soul. Lifeline Gippsland’s Community Development Officer, Sam Forbes, is stoked with the campaign result. “It’s going really well. The message is getting out there. Now when we hold pop-up events, most people who come up have seen the campaign somewhere. At our pop-ups we’ve held conversation tables with up to 12 strangers, all talking to each other over coffee, which is a really cool experience. There are so many little stories along the way. It has been really amazing to see how well people from all parts of the community connect and engage with the message”.
See, we’re already focussed on making our communities more sustainable, and as the examples above show, it’s occurring at different scales too — between individuals, improved interactions with neighbours and even creating entire towns. Approaching community building and development through multiple pathways will boost the social, economic and cultural benefits for the place we call home.
To learn more:
The Assemble Model
The Town/Culture Jam Events
Licola & Renewables Initiative
We Are Latrobe — Hello Campaign