Stories—

Ecoburbia

Ecoburbia is the result of Shani Graham and Tim Darby’s journey towards increased resilience and sustainability, both on a personal and community level. This project was established as a way for Shani and Tim to address their concerns about peak oil production, climate change, economic instability and environmental issues, while creating a life that helped them to overcome physical and mental exhaustion. Shani and Tim’s endeavour has gradually transformed from providing sustainable accommodation in 2005 to educating the community through practice and challenging traditional constructions of suburban life in the hope of creating something more resilient.

In 2013, Shani and Tim purchased a house on a quarter acre block in Beaconsfield that would become Ecoburbia. They describe what they have created as an “alternative urban infill development, housing cooperative, community garden, model sustainable house and benevolent dictatorship”. In a time of population growth and increased urban density, Ecoburbia demonstrates that people can live in smaller, less consumptive spaces. The house has been divided into 4 and a half separate living spaces and a number of communal areas, with up to 10 people of varying ages calling it home. In contrast to conventional forms of subdivision, these changes have not altered the building’s footprint, leaving space for a 350 square metre garden in which produce is grown and both chickens and goats are raised. This communal garden, open to neighbours who often bring scraps for the animals, is Shani and Tim’s way of demonstrating that simple changes can be adopted to increase resource independence. Additionally, there are four water sources on the property including a bore and a 50,000 litre underground tank, grey water is recycled in the garden, solar systems have been installed, the building has been retrofitted to make it solar passive, and chemical cleaning agents are avoided. All of these measures reflect Shani and Tim’s determination to move towards a ‘new normal’, in which resource instability is combatted by households and communities empowering themselves through direct action.

Small living space at Beaconsfield

A central element of Ecoburbia is its role as a transformative educational space, helping to spread sustainable thinking and practices to all sectors of the community, enabling them to make changes that will mitigate the risks and effects of climate change, peak oil and economic instability. There is a clear focus on positivity in Tim and Shani’s approach to education, choosing not to weigh people down with the overwhelming nature of climate change, instead endeavouring to instil agency in those who attend Ecoburbia, helping to develop knowledge that will enable people to make their own individual difference. Shani and Tim deliver their message in a number of ways, including as facilitators of Perth’s very successful ‘Living Smart’ program as well as by hosting seminars from sustainability experts, holding movie and discussion sessions, tours, and giving talks to interested groups. Technology has helped to make their skills and philosophy more accessible, with a website, a blog and a Facebook page providing updates on their activities and tips for living a more sustainable life. A recent speaking tour of Canada demonstrated the interest in Ecoburbia around the world. The primary way in which Ecoburbia disseminates the message of sustainability is through practice. 

Training Session, Credit: Scott Vincent

In keeping with their philosophy of small scale change, Shani and Tim avoid direct involvement in politics. However, we see Ecoburbia as profoundly political in both its drivers and its effects.  Firstly, it builds community at and beyond the local scale – directly through its activities to share resources, skills and knowledge, and also indirectly through its challenges to conventional urban living, which constantly generate and practically resolve tensions between residents, neighbours and the City.  As one example among many, the legal acquisition of their two goats, Pumpkin and Whimsy required negotiation with neighbours to reach an agreement that reassured neighbours that they would not be adversely affected. After this, Pumpkin and Whimsy became popular residents of the neighbourhood, whose presence has brought people together and generated sustained interest in, and conversation about, possibilities for alternative ways of life.

Pumpkin and Whimsy

Secondly, Ecoburbia has been created not just as a community resource, but as a business that demonstrates on the one hand the capacity for sustainable living to be financially viable and, on the other, an alternative model of economic sustainability that is not dependent on continuous growth. Shani and Tim describe the profitability of their ventures as a peripheral matter, preferring to reduce their financial requirements rather than expand the business. Thus, Ecoburbia disrupts accepted ‘competitive’ economic regimes through the adoption of practices grounded in relations of respect and solidarity, not only with people, but also with the environment. 

While interest in Ecoburbia and the ideas behind it are growing, its greatest focus is on encouraging change on a local scale. Through the creation of relationships in their local community, Shani and Tim are demonstrating a style of resource consumption that minimises reliance on mainstream commercial suppliers in favour of sustainable sources that foster resilience and a sense of individual empowerment. Due to the immersive nature of Ecoburbia, the direct ‘scaling out’ of Shani and Tim’s venture has been limited; however, their educational programs and the sharing of their story has undeniably influenced other local activities throughout Perth, interstate and in North America, and they note that their approach is broadening its appeal across sectors, including among government and corporate entities. This has been made possible through the utilisation of a variety of mediums, including their website, the Living Smart educational courses, a segment on Gardening Australia and a video that explains what they are trying to achieve. 

Ecoburbia has also achieved some ‘scaling up’ as the cultivation of a constructive, open relationship with their local council, has not only enabled the pragmatic resolution of differences before conflict arises, but also allowed their ideas and approaches to be sympathetically heard and promoted in Council’s own policy and plans, for example in relation to community gardening. Arguably the most powerful transformative effects that Ecoburbia and its previous incarnations have had has been in the form of ‘scaling deep’. For Ecoburbia’s participants, living in an environmentally and socially conscious manner have become part of a new normal, a different way of thinking about the possibilities for a more comfortable and resilient future.

Photos thanks to Shani and Tim Graham and Scott Vincent