Changing the world – one small community village at a time

An aerial view of the Eco-village at Currumbin Valley showing the Valley Terraces on the left and the Creek Flats on the right. (Photo: Alex Hunt)
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Out in Currumbin Valley you’ll find an oasis of eco-friendly living that has won a slew of national and international awards and points the way to a more sustainable future.

Where on this vast blue/green orb we call home do you imagine you might find the world’s best, environmentally-sustainable, housing development?

Scandanavia, perhaps? Northern California? New Zealand? The Byron hinterland?

Would you be surprised if I told you it was right here on the Gold Coast?

The Eco-village in Currumbin Valley received the FIABCI Prix d’Excellence global award for sustainable development in Amsterdam back in 2008 from the International Real Estate and Developer Federation. It is one of more than 30 national and international awards the Eco-village has received in the past 10 years, and yet surprisingly few locals are aware of the accolades.

It comes as no surprise, though, to the several hundred charmed souls who are lucky enough to call the Eco-village home, a verdant green Shangri-la set amid the lush splendour of Currumbin Valley. Here, all homes are solar-powered, rainwater is collected in tanks, and all waste water is treated on site and re-used for gardens and toilets. It is the only housing development of its size in Australia to voluntarily disconnect from mains water.

Homes feature solar passive design to remain warm in winter and cool in summer, veggie gardens and chook sheds abound, and the 110 hectare site is 80 per cent open space, with 50 per cent preserved in perpetuity as a flora and fauna reserve. Some 160 bird species have been observed on the site and a growing herd of kangaroos call it home.

And yet the story of the Eco-village is also one of struggle, heartbreak and tragedy.

The Eco-village’s co-founder Kerry Shepherd is a woman who has come closer than most of us ever will to truly living out her most ambitious dreams. But she’s also had to confront her worst nightmares.

Kerry and her husband Chris Walton dreamed up the Eco-village concept in their garage in Budds Beach, Surfers Paradise, back in 1990.

“It was inspired by an Expo that City of Gold Coast Council put on back in the ’90s, in conjunction with Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council,” says Kerry.

“It was the first time we heard the word sustainability … The idea was to make a change to the way the Gold Coast was being developed. It was hugely successful. You walked away knowing the planet was under threat and we had to do something.”

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Chris was a property valuer and Kerry worked in town planning and the couple decided they could use their expertise to usher in a new style of sustainable development. Chris, a keen surfer, had also travelled widely and been inspired by the simple, back-to-nature, surf camps he’d experience in Indonesia and Fiji. They embarked on a surf trip down the east coast looking for the ideal location to realise their vision.

“It needed to be a strong community with good green values, be affordable and have surf and the right climate,” says Kerry. “We couldn’t find anywhere that suited our needs …
We came back here completely disillusioned, and went, ‘Hang on, we live in the perfect place. We have to do it here.’”

Initially, their ambitions were no grander than a sustainable duplex development in Mermaid Waters, but friend and environmental educator Martin Jackson insisted they were capable of much more. They began intensively workshopping their vision with input from a close circle of friends and collaborators, and formed a development company, Land Matters, with business partner Colin Bear, to implement their vision.

Together they came up with the bold mission statement: “To inspire sustainable development projects and awareness.”

Their vision was even grander: “To create the world’s best sustainable development where people and nature flourish in harmony and integrity.”

Now fully committed to the project, they set about finding the perfect site. “We knew it had to be one of the valleys because they are so fertile. Our criteria was: fertile soil and very good rainfall, because we wanted to disconnect from mains water. It also needed to be close enough to the coast so it didn’t involve too much commuting.”

They eventually settled on a 110 hectare, former dairy farm in Currumbin Valley. One of their first priorities was to consult with traditional custodians to get their approval and input for the project.

“Cultural heritage was very important. The local Kombumerri mob checked out the site and did some research, elders walked the site. We sought their advice and we got the thumbs up from them and the offer to use their language for the naming of elements of the village.

“Every time there was a civil contractor on site there was a cultural heritage consultant on site in case any artefacts were uncovered.”

They learnt that the ridgeline above the site had been a pedestrian thoroughfare for thousands of years and agreed the development would not interfere with it. A memorandum of understanding was reached to enshrine the partnership with the Kombumerri people.

All civil works followed the principles of “soft engineering”, following the natural contours of the land to minimise earthworks and disturbance. Natural drainage was enhanced with swales and water features. No earth moving equipment was allowed on the building lots so that the top soil remained intact and wasn’t compacted.

The Eco-village neatly turned the traditional development model on its head. Rather than 80 per cent housing lots and 20 per cent open space, the village comprised 20 per cent housing lots and 80 per cent open space. They aimed to preserve 99 per cent of existing trees and planted thousands more.

Planning laws had to be challenged and in some cases re-written to accommodate their idealistic visions for sustainable living.

“We had to communicate with regulatory authorities and educate them,” says Kerry. “Gold Coast Council officers were usually excited to hear from us about what we were going to come up with next. They were excited to innovate. Then it became a model for council and they’ve used it as an example in many cases.”

A display home in the village, dubbed Innovation House, became a popular destination for school groups, academics, architects, builders and others researching sustainable living.

But convincing buyers to throw their faith, money and lives into the village presented a formidable challenge. A strict architectural and landscaping code governed all development. Domestic animals were banned because of the threat they posed to native wildlife. Air-conditioning wasn’t permitted because of its high energy use. Solar hot water was mandatory. But those who bought into the vision did so with passion and commitment.

Monthly information days and guest speakers, on everything from weed eradication to composting to cultivating tropical fruits, built strong relationships and a sense of community with potential residents.

“The day we launched we had a cocktail party under the fig tree,” says Kerry. The black tie affair, with live music and an open fire, aimed to set the tone for the community lifestyle they hoped to nurture.

“The first wave of people, they were true pioneers, they put their money and their belief and their lives into our vision,” says Kerry.

Diversity was a key priority for the village and house lots were designated as one, two or three bedroom dwellings and intermingled to encourage a range of ages, couples, families and singles in close proximity.

“Every time someone moved in, that night a group of residents would congregate together and all bring food and rock up on their doorstep with meals, drinks and friendship. This went on for a couple of years. There was a party every night,” says Kerry.

In 2008, Chris and Kerry flew to Amsterdam to receive the FIABCI Prix d’Excellence global award for sustainable development, the fulfilment of that vision generated in black texta on a whiteboard years before. Remarkably, one of the other finalists was Rockcote, another eco-conscious Gold Coast business recognised for its environmentally friendly headquarters in Nerang, where they produce a range of sustainable paints and building products, many of them developed in collaboration with, and used in, the Eco-village.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing though. The architectural code has been a particular point of contention for some residents and arguments over its implementation and occasional relaxation have sometimes become divisive. The close community living has required patience and conflict resolution tools to be learnt. Dark rumours of a contraband cat in one residence or a rogue air conditioning unit circulate through the village enflaming environmental passions.

Yet, for all that, the village works. Neighbours swap produce, children free range throughout the development, playing in the creek, making rope swings, enjoying the kind of nature-based childhood some might have thought had been relegated to history.

Having realised their vision, and after years of hard work and planning, the Eco-village hit hard times when the Global Financial Crisis cruelled the housing market in 2008, just as they were releasing the third stage of the development, the Highlands. Four years later, Chris was tragically killed when a shop awning collapsed in James Street, Burleigh, two days before Christmas in 2012. It was a cruel blow for a couple who had followed their dreams, achieved so much and left an incredible legacy that residents of the Eco-village still enjoy.

Today, Kerry works as the community relationship manager at Currumbin RSL, a role that suits her love of community down to the ground. And she’s brought some of that environmental consciousness to the club, which has introduced a range of impressive eco-friendly measures.

And despite the pain and hardship, she still looks back on their grand experiment at the Eco-Village with pride.

“We watched friendships being formed. They were stronger than friendships. These people would do anything for their neighbours – planting gardens together, sharing chooks, chook poop and eggs. No one knows where their boundaries are because no one puts up fences. They’re allowed to but no one does. The social element is what I’m proudest of.”

Now, fittingly, an old friend of Chris and Kerry’s, long-time Currumbin Valley resident Peter Aubort, has stepped into the breach to acquire and develop the village centre to help complete their vision. ‘Ground at Currumbin’ combines a weekly local produce market, a healing centre and café.

“Everyone loves coming out to the valley but it never really had a centre for the community to come together. When we looked at what we wanted to do there we saw the vision they had was perfect and we’re now carrying it on with our own touch,” says Peter. “Our goal is to create a health and wellbeing precinct in the Currumbin Valley, but it’s an organic process and will take time.”

But his ambitions don’t stop there. “What we want to do here in the village is change the world, one small community village at a time. What we’re going to do is create our local sustainable community and we hope that inspires the next generation of town planning around decentralised, small, community-based villages. Ours is one example of how to do it and we hope it inspires others.”

Photography Credit: Alex Hunt

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