Hulbert Street: a celebration of sustainable community

Green Lifestyle | June 2013

It’s Sunday afternoon and the close of the Fremantle Festival has the historic port town’s cafe strip packed with more than its usual weekend throng. Tinselled drum troupes and spangled dancers parade north up South Terrace. But I’m heading south, to visit a suburban street where I’ve heard they’ve made daily life a celebration of community.

Hulbert Street is in South Fremantle, a once unfashionable working-class enclave bounded by port industries and waste dumps now punctuated by cafes and antique shops. If you were to drive down the street (which you probably wouldn’t, because it’s a cul-de-sac) you might mistake it for a thousand other streets of a certain vintage, a narrow road with narrow houses on narrow blocks.

But take a closer look and other things are noticeable: the colourful custom street sign; a mural on the wall of the electrical business on the corner; street verge gardens instead of the ornamental lawns; neighbours talking to each; and a couple taking their goats for a walk.

Shani Graham and Tim Darby keep one goat for milk, and the other for company. “They’re sociable creatures,” explains Shani, who grew up on a farm in Canada, “and they need mental stimulation.” Hence the walk. I join them on their stroll. Along the way Shani greets  neighbours and stops to chat. At the end of the street Tim points out a man mowing the lawn. “He’s not much involved with the street community,” he says quietly, “but that’s not his own lawn he’s mowing. The lady who lives there is elderly. He probably just saw it needed to be done. It’s just that type of street.”

On the other side of the road is the eco-friendly bed and breakfast, the Painted Fish, that Shani and Tim run. As a model for how to retro-fit a suburban dwelling to save energy and water and grow their own food, it is intertwined with their other venture, Ecoburbia, which runs courses on sustainable and community building and for which the couple won the Banksia Environmental Foundation’s 2012 award for small to medium business leadership.

We continue along the footpath that runs behind the cul-de-sac, past vegetable garden boxes established on public ground in an attack of guerilla gardening, and onto an area of scrub that from the 1930s to 1950s was a dump for municipal rubbish, sewage and oil waste. As the goats frolic, gently butting their heads against our legs, Tim talks of his vision to turn the land into an environmental awareness centre, a model of sustainable urban farming like the CERES park in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick.

Growing and sharing food is central to what Tim and Shani have helped take root in Hulbert Street. “Community and food are pivotal,” Tim says, back in their lounge room, over a pot of Rooibos tea and a plate of homemade goat’s cheese. “Because they connect you with yourself, with nature and each other – and I think the biggest issue, really, is disconnect.”

Shani agrees: “When we first started it was about renovating houses and making them as cool or warm as you could, and all those efficiency things,” she explains. “But we live in Western Australia. If you had a good raincoat you could live under a tree. It took a long time for us to realise that. For us, food production and community happen together. You don’t need to buy stuff when you’ve got good friends and neighbours around you. You don’t need to go out and spend heaps of money on food that’s been imported from somewhere else when you share food in your own home.”

The truth of that is demonstrated by a string of neighbours who pop in while we’re talking, some bringing food, others collecting it. Among them are Anita and Mick Howard and their four-year daughter Annie, who have lived in the street for about a year since moving from to Perth from Tasmania. “I reckon the community drives the sustainability, not the other way around,” Mick says.

Regular communal activities include a weekly pizza night and outdoor film nights during summer. The fifth annual Hulbert Street Sustainability Fiesta was held in September attracting more than 6000 people. But for Tim the biggest sign the street community is maturing into something more has been agreement to invest in the first major piece of jointly owned street infrastructure: a mobile pizza oven, named Marvin. “People like to share food, and like to gather around a fire,” he says simply. As I leave he hands me a jar of his own homemade honey.

This is the unedited version of the article, which was cut for length.

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