Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta 2010

By Tim Darby

How do you feel about sequels? 

As an avid reader, when I find that a book I’ve enjoyed has a second book to follow, I get really excited.

I start day dreaming about long winter evenings reading, wrapped in a cocoon of warm fluffy doonas and steamy hot chocolate being transported to another time and place through the magic of words.

On the other hand (did I mention I’m a Libran?), there can be few things as sad as the lackluster sequel Son of … or Return of….. or …… meets Godzilla etc – the formulaic remake, of the copy, of the follow on, of the dramatisation of an idea which in its original form may have had some merit

With this in mind, I approached the 2010 Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta (Son of the Return of the HSSF 2007) with a tingling mixture of apprehension and excitement.

For those who missed the original.

In 2007 my partner Shani and I opened our bed and breakfast, The Painted Fish, with Solar House Day and accidently precipitated an invasion of Hulbert Street by 800 people, eager to take a peek at the beginnings of our eco retrofit and gardens.

Seeing the impact that the open home had on our long suffering neighbours, we invited them to join in. The 2000 people who visited our street in 2008 were greeted with a series of information stalls, eco products and some food.

By 2009 a large number of “Hulbertians” had taken part in a Living Smart Course, 20% of the street had installed photovoltaic systems and, as well as our home and business being open to the public, there were 7 gardens 5 artist studios and 50 different stalls ( 1/3 artists, 1/3 community groups and 1/3 providers of sustainable products and services).  We also expanded the provision for local entertainers and added a speakers’ tent. 

At the last moment we hired one porta loo … which proved to be just as well.  Despite rain on both days, the street was visited by nearly 5000 people over the weekend. The 2009 Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta was described as ‘the peak sustainability event of the year’  (And no, that is not just a quote from my Mum!)

So 2010 and where to from there? 

The 2009 Fiesta, while hailed as a great success, had taken a fairly heavy toll on us financially and personally.  For the three months prior to the event, Shani had been increasingly debilitated by a spinal herniation and spent the Fiesta (about three week post spinal surgery) confined to a rainbow coloured gopher and pumped full of powerful pain numbing (not to mention mood enhancing) chemicals. 

For my part, I spent the six months following the Fiesta plagued by a series of illnesses and mysterious but debilitating fatigue. 

We received lots of support from Freo’s Sustainability Officer, Alex Hyndman, the backing of almost everyone in the street and over 100 volunteers, without which, it would have fallen in a heap. 

But still there was some question in our minds –  was the whole thing actually a Sustainability Fiesta or just a fun and colourful party? When you are so close to something, it’s hard to see it objectivity, particularly for Shani propped up by chemicals and me running on my chocolate and endorphins habit.

We decided that if we were going to initiate HSSF 2010 we wanted to be sure money and time and energy were being usefully spent. 

Enter Colin Ashton-Graham (no relation).  Colin describes himself as a behavioural economist … economists as in numbers, patterns and predictions, behaviourist as in what people do and why.  Colin developed a series of questionnaires to examine changes in peoples’ attitudes, intentions and behaviour as a response to participation in the Fiesta.

Our experience presenting Living Smart has been that once the seed of an idea has been planted, it can take some time for change to precipitate so the study is to be followed up at three months, six months and 12 months intervals.

Is this all starting to sound frighteningly economic rationalist?

Relax and read on.  It’s not all cost benefits and analysis. 

For example, we decided that bigger is not necessarily better.  In 2010 we were asked if we would promote the event through the West Australian, our local State newspaper.  We decided, given the parabolic increase in attendance over the previous years, that while the Fiesta offers a great example of sustainable community (which should be spread like organic butter on hot toast) any more than 5000 people would detract from the quality of the experience for guests and probably overwhelm our Hulbert Street hosts.

Maybe the seeds of change, like broad beans, are best planted in your own backyard?

photo by Damon Wood

On the Friday night before this year’s Fiesta I noticed Shani looking unusually calm amongst the chaos of experimental pizza cooking, last minute signage construction and a flurry of bumble bee costumes. 

I asked her what was going on?

She explained that she had adopted a new approach based on some open space facilitation theory she recently trained in.  “Our job is to create the space, send out the right sort of invitations and then trust that the right people will come”. 

Sounded a bit too hippy for me, given the huge logistics, but she was right (either that or the planets were in alignment)-  the moments that made this year’s Fiesta really special were all to do with events and activities instigated by the Hulbertian hosts, volunteers or guests, with very little to do with us. 

Shall I give you some of my favourite examples?

photo by Damon Wood

On that same chaotic Friday afternoon our friend Amy asked if she could borrow a ladder.  I waved one arm in the right direction and thought mo more of it.  It wasn’t until the next morning that I realised that Amy and a mob of her knit bombing mates had needed the ladder to turn our street sign into a beautiful piece of collaborative hand knitted art.  That and their beautiful knitted wheelbarrow became some of the most photographed icons of the Fiesta.

Feedback from last year’s Fiesta was that people wanted to know who actually lived in Hulbert Street.  Fiona decided that scarves would be the most versatile identifying mark with unifying appeal so she, in collaboration with other street residents, created 75 hand sewn black and yellow striped scarves silk screened with bees (one for every man, woman and child in the street – and a few pets as well!)

photo by Jon Strakan

For the preceding four months the Hulbert Street choir had been working up to their first major live performance under the tuition of Hulbert Funkster, Abe Dunovitz.  Amongst their repertoire was a beautifully written song by Sue Wallwork, based on a young child’s understanding of Sorry Day.  As the song was performed, an Indigenous elder in attendance offered her Welcome to Country in tears as she was so moved by the song.   Plans are now underway to record the song for her and possibly submit it for next year’s WAMI Awards.

A family of ex-Hulbert Street residents and new Australians from Germany offered to run a wood fired pizza stall.  The evening before the Fiesta they confessed to being a little nervous, having never cooked pizza before.  A friend of a friend who happened to be passing (fly in fly out engineer by day, pizza chef extraordinaire during community fiestas) offered to give them some pointers.  He ended up cooking, or teaching other apprentice pizza chefs, flat out for 2 days.  The pizza oven, rented for the Fiesta, proved to be such a hub for hot food consumption, convivial conversation and community collaboration; we are planning to buy one for the street.

photo by Damon Wood

One of the Fiesta projects that had the biggest impact on me was an initiative of our neighbour, Pamela.  She interviewed people in the street to find out what they were doing to make their lives more sustainable and what their plans were for future improvements.  She organised this information into posters which any participating Hulbertians could hang on the front fences of their homes.  About 1/3 of the street took part.  Reading through them I found that as well as being inspired by their efforts, I was also touched by the openness of making this information public – sort of like wearing your heart on your sleeve, or in this case, hung on your front garden fence instead.

photo by Jon Strakan

I thought the cutest family were the Burke – Alberque clan.  Sean and his kids put together a sausage sizzle, a coconut shy (where you actually win a coconut!), a lemonade stall (made with real lemons collected from the neighbours), a stall selling juggling balls and a display of Sean’s literary endeavours.  They just don’t make families like that any more!

The most culturally varied performance must surely have been a collaborative between Voice Male (and all male acapella group) who sang a Georgian chant to accompany Tribe Alive, a local belly dancing troupe.  I know it sounds a bit like seafood marinara with chocolate sauce and lime ice cream but it worked amazingly well.

photo by Damon Wood

On Sunday, my little mate Benjamin (aged four) came running up to proudly show me a boat he had built at a workshop making things from recycled timber.  It looked like a piece of wood with 2 nails in it but he was so proud of it.  It was obvious that through his eyes it might have been an exact scale replica of the Golden Hind.

The list of my most magical moments could roll on ad nauseum but maybe I should mention just one of many emails we received after the event:

I just want to tell you Congratulations and Well done! You are inspirational!

I am a passionate on sustainability and on community life and your fiesta had plenty of both. There was a lot of work and community feel into the fiesta. I enjoyed every moment of it.

I had installed solar panels in my roof, have chocks and compost, walk and ride to most places, etc, but until last weekend I thought that individual efforts  were not going to change/save the planet. Your fiesta made me change my mind. You have achieved so much in your street!!! It is a great example and inspiration.  Looking forward to more Hulbert Street events.

Or from the volunteers who told us that the final day of the Fiesta had been the best day  of her life!

At the time of writing, the decision has already been made to run HSSF in 2011. 

Although we are still waiting on the results of Colin’s formal evaluation, the preliminary results look very promising –

70% of visitors came for the first time (so we are not “preaching over and over to the converted!”),50% of attendees heard about the Fiesta from friends (suggesting people recommened the experience!), 85 out of 100 people who attended the year before could name a sustainable change they had made as a result of coming to the Fiesta, 90 out of 100 people who attended for the first time could name something they learnt on leaving, and 95 out of 100 listed people who attended this year listed a sustainable action they intended to take.

 And most Hulbertians are already excitedly planning for next year.  We received fantastic support from the broader community (about 200 volunteers not including stall holders) and the anecdotal responses we received from people attending have been overwhelmingly positive.

So what can we expect next year? 

Will it be a ‘Son of 2010’ trying to recapture the energy of yesteryear or a new event that builds on a history of positive change?

For me, I plant to approach it in the same ways the Transition Town movement addresses global warming and peak oil. 

We know change is inevitable. 

We don’t know exactly what those changes will be but let’s envisage a positive future and then work towards that vision together.