A town shrunk its footprint when the residents showed their colours.
IF you pass through Heyfield, a small timber town in Gippsland, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, you’ll notice something strange a-flapping: flags. Hundreds of them – white ones, blue ones and green ones – flying from businesses and homes throughout the streets.
It all began a year and a half ago, in front of the local supermarket. “We did a survey to see what the community thought,” explains Julie Bryer from the Heyfield Community Resource Centre. Volunteers from the centre had already installed thousands of efficient light globes and hundreds of shower roses around town, but residents weren’t sure what to do next.
“What came up was that people wanted more information on environmental sustainability practices. They were concerned about costs and they also didn’t know where to start,” she says.
The resource centre hatched a plan in three stages: white, blue and green. To meet each level, householders must tick-off several items from a list of about two-dozen things you can do to save water, electricity and waste, and to live longer in your home.
Participants must stay on each stage for three months before they’re eligible to step up. Items listed under the white flag are free or very cheap; big-ticket expenses, such as solar panels or hot water, come later on.
“We insisted that everyone do the three step process, because if I put solar panels on my house while I have the bad light globes and leaky taps and haven’t mulched my garden, then really I’m not helping myself and the environment as much as I can,” Ms Bryer explains.
“When we assessed houses for the blue flag, a lot of people asked to re-do the white stage first, because they’d gone back and completed most of the requirements they hadn’t met before. That was really encouraging.”
Ms Bryer started the program by asking all the businesses in town to participate, and only one refused. Since then, nearly half of Heyfield’s 2000 residents have taken part. The resource centre also coordinated a bulk purchase scheme for solar panels. “We’ve found that people are becoming more interested in growing vegetables as well,” she says. “They’re coming into the community garden here asking for information.”
The flags, by virtue of public participation, have been crucial to the scheme’s success. “People thought, ‘Joe Blow across the road has got a flag, so I better get one too’,” Ms Bryer says. Interestingly, while the women in town were the early adopters, many men have led their family’s push to achieve blue flag status.
“It worked right through the community: young ones did it and oldies did it too. We held information sessions at the primary schools, and often mums and dads came in with their littlies, saying their children were interested,” she says.
The resource centre funded the program itself, in part from the proceeds of its weekly local paper, the Heyfield News. Late last year, the scheme’s extraordinary success was recognised when it won a world environment day award from the United Nations Association of Australia.
“We had lots of fabulous volunteers and the participants in Heyfield were really enthusiastic – they just ran with it,” Ms Bryer says. “You can imagine when we won the United Nations award! Oh my goodness, everyone was beside themselves.”