When it comes to the environment, Newcastle is all hands on deck

Australians living outside of Newcastle often have inaccurate impressions about our city by the sea. Despite Newcastle’s industrious heritage, anyone who has lived here long knows that Newcastle and the Hunter Region is not just a place for coal ports and steel mills.  If anything, Newcastle’s controversial history has led its locals to be more in tuned than ever on different ways to be stewards of the earth.

One of the easiest ways for Novocastrians to get involved with local environmental initiatives is to visit the Hunter Community Environment Centre in Hamilton. George Wood, one of the centre’s founding members, and she says it began in 2004 to provide a place for the people of Newcastle and the wider region to meet and share skills, resources and ideas to protect the region's natural environment.

“We know that grassroots community activism and cooperation is crucial to environmental sustainability and conservation, and it seemed to us that a space was needed where that cooperation could happen,” Woods says.

In 2007 the centre was a key member of an alliance of local environmental groups that secured protection for new national parks and conservation areas in the green corridor around Newcastle. The centre helped achieve national park status for the woodlands on Tomago Sandbeds, and helped secure protection for public forests and conservation areas in Cessnock, Lake Macquarie and Sugarloaf.

The centre also led the formation of an alliance of community groups opposed to a fourth coal export terminal for Kooragang Island, which the state government approved. It hasn’t yet been built.

Active: George Woods, a founder of Hunter Community Environment Centre in Hamilton. Picture: Jeff Tan

Active: George Woods, a founder of Hunter Community Environment Centre in Hamilton. Picture: Jeff Tan

“We hope Port Waratah Coal Services has come to see that the irreplaceable wetlands of the Hunter River estuary are more valuable than a few million more tonnes of coal being exported,” Woods says.

Johanna Lynch was recently hired as a coordinator at the centre. She’s helped organise the recent protests over the controversial seismic testing off Newcastle’s coastline.

Lynch describes the centre as “a vessel for working on any environmental issues that are important to the community.”

The centre is within one of three different connected houses clustered together on Parry Street in Hamilton East. A generous environmentalist rents the spaces to them. All the organisations and people within have a focus on environmental causes and activism. Also operating in the space are members of The Wilderness Society and Patchamama House, described on the Facebook page as a community space and enterprise hub for change activators. Other organisations are involved as well including the Newcastle Greens Lock The Gate.

Environmentalists work, gather and even live here.

Activism is one of many ways to change the world. Art is another. Sometime the two overlap.  

ART AND ACTIVISM

Newcastle-based artist Ken O’Regan has 20 years’ experience putting on exhibitions, installations and community art projects. Much of his work addresses waste, recycling and excess. He leads workshops with kids where he uses pre-existing materials, demonstrating how to reuse and recycle.

O’Regan spent part of his childhood living in Jervis Bay, where the natural environment was clean and pristine. As a young adult he travelled to south-east Asia and became concerned by the environmental degradation he saw there. Since then, he’s tried not to use new materials when making art.  

"For me art should be about looking at big picture issues and effecting positive change - so I struggle with just making self-indulgent navel gazing 'pretties’ as decorations,” O'Regan says. “Also, our world is already full of stuff and junk; I figure I should use the stuff that’s already there."

RECYCLED MATERIALS: Newcastle artist Ken O'Regan. Picture: Paul Dear

RECYCLED MATERIALS: Newcastle artist Ken O'Regan. Picture: Paul Dear

His work isn’t only about recycling. Creatures of the Plasticene Epoch originally exhibited at Newcastle Art Space. It is an exhibition of his that looks at a dystopian society where animals are evolving technologically. He created the creatures out of kids’ toys, old wooden drawers, fish tanks, speaker boxes and stuff from op shops.  

Another exhibition, Incursions, examining colonial expansion and human imposition, was shown at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery.  

“I bought landscape paintings [from op shops and junkyard] as if I were buying land. Then I ‘developed’ them, using the space available to dig, drain swamps and build McMansions,” he says.  

As his art reflects, O’Regan is worried about the planet’s future, and he sometimes struggles with making art as it can feel futile.

“Sometimes I feel like I should be doing more important things, but then I have to think, I’m not a scientist, I can’t suddenly become a scientist. What artists do is communicate ideas, and ultimately that’s how I can best make an impact.”

Sometimes I feel like I should be doing more important things, but then I have to think, I’m not a scientist, I can’t suddenly become a scientist. What artists do is communicate ideas, and ultimately that’s how I can best make an impact.

Artist Ken O'Regan

For some, being green simply means doing the right thing.

LET’S KEEP THE BEACH CLEAN

Team effort: Cleanup work by the Redhead to Blacksmiths beach volunteers.

Team effort: Cleanup work by the Redhead to Blacksmiths beach volunteers.

Three and a half years ago, Novocastrian Wayne Franklin created the local beach cleanup group, ‘Redhead To Blacksmiths Beach Lets Keep It Clean’. He created it after noticing the rubbish at the creek when he was down at Redhead Beach one day with his kids.

He went home, created the page and started organising cleanups. Not only do they physically clean up but also they strive to educate.

The Facebook page, also known as “Pride In Our Backyard” has grown to nearly 6000 members.

He believes they’ve made a big difference since they started, and he said others have been inspired. A man named Gavin Begbie built a cleanup crew and organises it through his Facebook page: ‘Evans Head to Broadwater Beach. Let’s keep it clean.’

“At first you stumbled across rubbish everywhere you went, now you have to look [for it],” Franklin says. “We’ve got a saying ‘if it wasn’t here when you got here, it doesn’t belong here’.”

Rangers from Belmont Wetlands help them pick up rubbish, and they also collaborate with Lake Macquarie City Council’s Eco Angel, a program designed to help schools, community groups, businesses and individuals come together and keep Lake Macquarie clean all year round.

“Last year we took out nine burnout cars plus general wastes; [we took] 20 tonnes out in a day,” he says.

The group does both targeted and scheduled cleanups, and two of his mates, Neil Whittaker and Johnny Hoy, help out with the planning and organising.

The Facebook page is also used as a community forum to report litter, share photos and locate lost dogs. Franklin’s partner, Susie Harrower, helps with the social media, and she started a similar Instagram account called @prideinourbackyard.

ZERO WASTE NEWCASTLE

Zero waste Newcastle: Jessica Peterson offers one helpful hint at a time.

Zero waste Newcastle: Jessica Peterson offers one helpful hint at a time.

Lovers of Instagram need not even put down their mobile if they’re curious about how to do their bit in Newcastle. From @newcastleveganguideau to @sustainabilityoverselfies, there’s no shortage of insta-green around town.  

Jessica Peterson has lived in Newcastle for the last five years, but she grew up in a small town in the Snowy Mountains, where, from an early age, her family regularly took her camping and she learned to appreciate nature.  

In the past, the effects of plastic pollution have overwhelmed and frustrated her, particularly after a backpacking trip through the US and Central America, where she saw huge amounts of plastic and waste during her travels. Over the past six years she’s been making small changes towards a zero-waste lifestyle. She started by taking reusable shopping bags and drink bottles with her everywhere, and then she made more changes.

Her friends were interested in what she was doing, but they didn’t know where to start, so she began an Instagram account called @zerowastenewcastle. With it, she shows the easy steps she takes every day to reduce plastic in her life.

“I know social media isn't the answer to the world's addiction to plastic, but I think if we all start where we are, use what we have and do what we can, we can really make a difference,” Peterson says. “I focus on local Newcastle options and resources available. I celebrate the small victories, like when I am able to buy bread in my own bag or buy some great items second hand. It can be really hard or frustrating trying to effect change on a global scale, so I just try to set an example of how I live.”

People message her saying the account has inspired them to change, and her ultimate goal is to help make environmental issues mainstream. She envisions a future where plastic straws are never served with drinks and everyone brings their own shopping bag.

“If I can use this account to encourage or inspire even just one person to make one zero waste switch long term in their life, I see that as a giant win,” she says.

SHEPHERDS GROUND COMMUNITY

Communal: people working with Hempcrete a wall material being used on a home at Shepherds Ground in 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

Communal: people working with Hempcrete a wall material being used on a home at Shepherds Ground in 2017. Picture: Simone De Peak

Some people use social media and the digital space to spread eco awareness, and others want to get back to the basics. If you fall into the latter category, consider moving to a place called Shepherds Ground in Butterwick, in the Paterson Valley, only a 10-minute drive from Morpeth, the community was envisioned and formed by Lucie Bruvel, and she describes it as a new blueprint for farm and village life.

Bruvel grew up on a self-sufficient farm where her family did everything themselves, from making cheese from their own cows’ milk to growing their own vegies. They slaughtered their own meat and milled their own wheat for flour.

“After this way of growing up, I went to France where my dad is from. I ended up living in a small village for some years. This village, I realised, was inadvertently all about interdependency and collaboration, between villagers and the nature basis that supported their needs. The housing was clustered together facilitating this way of life. There was a baker, a dairy, a vineyard, a small shop and a regular farmers market,” Bruvel says.

More and more she recognises people are only using their homes for eating and sleeping, but in France she witnessed a natural social, environmental and economic harmony that emerged from needing each other in all their diversity - different from her family’s self-sufficient way. Her experience abroad made her realise she could never go back to any other way of living. She came back to Australia and started Shepherds Ground.   

The not-for-profit company mimics a co-operative model. The land has 30 house plots and 30 lots of member shares. They have almost finished the construction of the first four industrial hemp masonry homes, and their open day is on May 6.

Environmental and sustainable initiatives at Shepherds Ground including smaller housing constructed by local builders with sustainable materials including industrial hemp masonry. They have a “one car per household” policy, a car share, a reduced waste plan and also reduced cost of living objectives encouraging lower consumption. They are restoring one of the Hunter Valley’s many clapped out old grazing properties with principles of regenerative agriculture including organics, holistic land management and more.

“We hope that some property developers will take inspiration from what we are doing and build housing much more densely, with more height, hence locking up more land for nature regeneration and farmland,” Bruvel says. “The mission is to create a place for the renewal of rural vibrant village life with small viable farming ventures, sustainable clustered housing and simplified living that stimulates cultural expression, listening to the land and connectedness to country.”

INSPIRED TO GET INVOLVED

Though their styles and missions vary, Bruvel, Peterson, O’Regan, Woods and Franklin are all aware of the environmental challenges and issues in the region, and are all keen on inspiring others to get involved.

“Newcastle has an extraordinarily rich and beautiful natural heritage. We host migratory shorebirds that fly here from the top of the world every year and visit the internationally significant wetlands of our estuary. The rocky shoreline and beaches of Newcastle are home to endangered birds like the Little Tern and Pied Oystercatchers. The remnant woodlands in bushland at Jesmond and further south in Lake Macquarie harbour squirrel gliders and forest owls. The environment defines our city. The beach, the wetlands, the harbour, the air we breathe, our parks and open spaces and the way we interact with the world around us is the story of Newcastle as much as its down-to-earth people and its economic activity,” Woods says.   

GET IN TOUCH

- Hunter Communitiy Environment Centre, 4962 5316

- On Facebook: Redhead to Blacksmiths Beach. Let’s keep it clean. Instagram: @prideinourbackyard

- kenoregan.com.au

- On Instagram: zerowastenewcastle

Shepherds Ground, 15 Green Wattle Creek Road, Butterwick. 4930 5934