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The word on the ground is that the hill plateau was once a paddock grazed by llamas.
Today, obedient rows of espaliered fruit trees stretch along handmade wooden supports. Wicker windbreaks sprout bleached tufts of lichen. Vegetable beds, one shaped like a huge doughnut, are covered in mulch to thwart deep-rooted couch grass. An open-air building with a pizza oven, potting area, tables and chairs provides a community hub for learning, wet weather activities and having a yarn.
These elements together constitute Oamaru’s Waitaki Community Gardens — where nature and volunteers work together against a backdrop of birdsong and bush-clad hills.
Oddly, the story of this vital and beautiful community garden begins 20 years ago outside a courthouse.
"I could tell by their eyes they weren’t bad kids, but they’d certainly done silly stuff," Gloria Hurst says, remembering the day she passed by the young people standing outside the Oamaru courthouse. In that moment, her life changed, she says.
"I was heartbroken, because I realised we weren’t doing justice to all these kids. And I thought I was doing quite a good job as a teacher."
That insight prompted Hurst to quit her job and open her home and garden to children to be in nature, to play, and to grow and cook food. Over time she watched children with "so-called issues" "recharge their batteries" in the outdoors. Her dream — to create an outdoor classroom where children and the community could learn skills, connect with nature and each other — was born.
The Waitaki Community Gardens’ story is an inspiring one, no less so because it is one of many — stories of people putting together a plan to make change for good, then doing it.
Around New Zealand, myriad successful enterprises have begun in a community hall, living room or over a fence. Another such case is the Sustainability Trust.
Now based in Wellington and employing about 60 staff, the Sustainability Trust began with a few people coming together with a desire to reduce their waste and live more lightly on the earth.
Fair energy manager Phil Squire was one of the first two employees of the trust, joining the group shortly after its inception in 2003.
"Our trust deed was written with educational awareness, advocacy and delivery of practical projects as key outputs and that’s how we grew in a number of different directions," he says.
In 2004, the trust took a leap of faith and successfully applied for government funding to insulate low-income homes. By developing an income stream, which now includes installing insulation, heating, ventilation and lighting, the trust has been able to part-fund a long list of environmental initiatives, including an environment centre, a curtain bank, healthy homes assessments and education programmes in schools and the community. Since 2004, more than 18,000 houses have received insulation or heating through the social enterprise and more than 5000 homes have received free curtains.
It began in 1999, Sue Coutts, who was until recently general manager, recalls.
At the time the government was pushing to close small rural landfills around the country, in part because of their potential risks to the environment, and people on the ground were looking to establish resource recovery centres so less waste ended up in landfills.
"In a lot of places the council wasn’t ready to take that move but the community was. Wanaka was one of those places,” says Coutts, who was part of the organisation for 18 years, before recently taking up a position with the Zero Waste Network in Wellington.
Members of the Wanaka community formed an incorporated society with a community-based membership and a recycling centre was built and opened in 2000, she says.
"So it was pretty quick!"
"The safeguard is that if, at any point, Wastebusters was starting to go to a weird place that was not lined up with the mission, vision and values and agreed guiding principles, then the society could step in to ensure those principles are upheld,” Wastebusters project manager Sophie Ward says.
But there was no sign of that when the 20th anniversary of the recycling centre ticked over recently. Rather, Wastebusters — affectionately known as "Wasties" — has become a keystone community organisation, diverting thousands of tonnes of material from landfill each year, with national and international recycling relationships, a barn-sized second-hand operation, pop-up repair events and education programmes.
East and south, on picturesque Otago Peninsula, yet another group of far-sighted people are on the trail of a different sort of shared vision again.
There, it’s getting pretty hard to find a possum to trap, thanks to the efforts of the Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Trust (OPBT).
Back in 2008, a group comprising mostly landowners had a vision to completely rid Otago Peninsula of its mammalian pest species to bring back native vegetation and birdlife. They carried out a community survey, collected baseline data on pest species numbers and vegetation — and held a lot of meetings in community halls.
Founding member Brendon Cross says to get widespread support, the group narrowed its vision to making the peninsula possum free.
"The beauty of possums is that you can take them out of the food chain without any negative consequences," Cross says.
Today more than 16,000 possums have been removed by the OPBT, their efforts scaled up in partnership with Predator Free 2050 Ltd.
Trust chair Hoani Langsbury says the OPBT continues to work closely with the community to help drive the project.
"We could have easily gone down a pathway where we were just using contractors," he says.
But that close community engagement was judged to be vital.
If American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s maxim* is true, most of the world’s problems could be solved by the actions of a few committed people.
Landcare senior researcher of social science Dr Alison Greenaway says grassroots-initiated action has the advantage of operating at the interpersonal scale.
"It is about being in community, and that sense of connection to the people you live with, and connection to place, that’s so important," she says.
Like the new seedlings pushing through humus-rich soil at Waitaki Community Gardens, a good start in life bodes well for a community organisation’s future success.
The people involved are crucial and change at each stage, Coutts says.
In the beginning, a few highly motivated generalists are needed to get the organisation off the ground, she says.
"And I think the next step is really investing in the people you need to do each job, so that you’ve got skills."
As the organisation grows, diversity is your strength, she says.
"The more diverse your organisation can be the better your results are going to be. And then you hold all those diverse people together with a really good set of values."
Values such as keeping promises, having fun together and looking after each other and our place, she says.
With the people comes the vision.
"Never be concerned at how big the project is when you start," Hoani Langsbury, of OPBT advises.
Otago Peninsula covers more than 9500ha of land and is home to more than 4000 residents, including many larger landowners.
By breaking up the eradication programme on the peninsula into five sectors, the OPBT has been able to focus its efforts and rotate through the sectors.
"It was the success of that project that helped get Predator Free Dunedin off the ground, because we could demonstrate to them that with a small amount of money and a community in behind it we were already eradicating the possums," Langsbury says.
So, take the fast lane or the slow route?
Wastebusters and the Sustainability Trust expanded their initiatives quickly while the OPBT invested in three years of talking to its community before it killed its first possum.
"Sometimes you need to take the time to plan to understand what it is you want to achieve before you just get out there and start doing it," OPBT trust deputy chairman Cross says.
"And because we knew we needed the community behind us we had to ensure that what we were doing wasn’t going to alienate people, because if we can’t access all the peninsula we’re never going to be able to achieve eradication."
Volunteers are vital to the Waitaki Community Gardens.
When site and volunteer co-ordinator Ra McRostie took on the job, she spent a full season making the garden look well.
"They wanted to come to a place that was already beautiful and had a lovely atmosphere where they could come in and participate and it wasn’t overwhelming.
"It’s got to be appealing in whatever way that is."
Small is beautiful but the most effective community-based projects are likely be those able to scale up.
Getting a paid worker, and the right one, has been critical to the development of their vision, says Hurst of the Waitaki Community Gardens’ experience.
"That’s why we’ve been successful, because we’ve always been able to find that person who was passionate about gardening, passionate about looking after people and connecting our community and that greater purpose."
Dr Greenaway says that when volunteers are an important part of the venture, then clear project management and governance are needed to make it obvious how the volunteers will continue to contribute.
"Often, people can leap towards ‘We’ve got to have a worker!’. But then that can mean that people who were just enjoying chipping in a little bit, they now don’t know how to contribute."
In fact, scaling up is not always good for a community group on a mission, Dr Greenaway says.
"A lot of cleverness is required. You’ve got to know your group and know how much risk they can take. For some groups they have great capacity and can grab an opportunity and then just upscale within six months to be a totally different organisation that’s working at a much bigger level. For other groups that would just kill them."
Given time, every successful community-driven project will have weathered enough storms to flatten the broad beans.
One storm that Wastebusters survived was losing its kerbside recycling contract with the Queenstown Lakes District Council in 2011.
But what could have spelled the end of the community initiative turned into a "magic moment", Coutts says.
At a public community board meeting, the question of a long-term lease for Wastebusters’ Wanaka hub came up and the Wastebusters representatives in attendance
leapt at the opportunity it presented to secure a 35-year tenancy.
"If we hadn’t been there that day, we probably wouldn’t have got it."
Having a 35-year lease on their Wanaka site has been critical to Wastebusters’ success, Coutts says.
"People knowing where you are has been really valuable to us."
Diversifying their funding streams since that time has strengthened their financial resilience too, she says.
By offering public, commercial and council services, it now has "three legs to stand on".
Wastebusters project manager Sophie Ward says the company is able to access funding for advocacy work through the Government’s contestable Waste Minimisation Fund.
Mentoring and getting support, ideas sharing and collaboration are other critical elements for success, shared by the community organisations.
The broad remit of the Sustainability Trust has allowed it to create collaborative partnerships in the zero-waste network, the not-for-profit community energy network and environment centre hubs, Squire says.
And then there is the local level.
"When you are working on a shared passion, that’s quite a powerful driver," he says.
When it happens in conjunction with local and central government, community-based action is a powerful tool to solve societal issues, Dr Greenaway says.
"Where it’s done together well, where you’ve got community-based action that is able to link in with local government and then link in with central government — that’s when it really works."
And Gloria Hurst’s takeaway tip to people wanting to start their own community garden?
"Don’t give up!" she says. "It looks like we’ve done a lot but it’s 12 years step by step by step."
It’s the kind of dedicated enthusiasm Dr Greenaway sees a lot of on the job.
"I think that’s what makes New Zealand so wonderful. We do have so many passionate people. And the reason people do it is because of community and the sense of being stuck in with people on a common purpose," she says.
*"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist.
Tips for success
Have a clear vision.
Shoulder-tap diverse and skilled membership.
Take the time to plan and to put a good organisational structure into place.
If you need community support, gain it before you take action.
Encourage diverse membership united by a respectful working culture.
Establish a good reputation.
Do something well.
Look to find the best possible people at each stage of growth.
Seize opportunities that your group can handle.
Collaborate and network with people and organisations.
Set up a legal structure you can grow with, and that keeps you true to your original mission.
Look after what is essential to your success, such as your volunteer support base.
WEATHERING THE STORMS
Build flexibility into your plans.
Diversify your income stream, ideally by generating some of your own.
Persevere through hard times and scale back your operations if needed.
Manage your expectations — it’s always harder than you think.
Celebrate the wins, no matter how small.
Be consistent. An idea takes a while to gain momentum in the community.
Have well planned, and regular reflections.