Live Laugh Lettuce

Live Laugh Lettuce

He Kāika toitū, he Kāika ora: The Sustainability Neighbourhood

Dunedin students have long copped a bad rep when it comes to sustainability. Google “Otago Uni student culture” and you’ll see images of crappy $2 store costume-clad Hyde Street Party goers, couch burnings, and streets littered with broken glass. These depictions don’t exactly scream “environmentally friendly”, and while they are accurate to a certain extent, they are only one piece of the puzzle that is Dunedin student culture. If you look beyond Castle St, Ōtepoti is thriving with eco-pockets and Uni staff and students who genuinely give a shit about climate issues and taking care of our environment. One such pocket is the Uni Flats He Kāika Toitu, he Kāika ora: the Sustainability Neighbourhood.


Critic Te Ārohi sat down with Sustainability Office Head Ray O’Brien, who was integral to the creation of the neighbourhood. It was one of the first projects Ray picked up when he started his position at the Sustainability Office. “Students came to us with frustrations about their flats not being sustainable, we responded with the He Kāika toitū, he Kāika ora,” he said. “There is an emerging culture that we have seen and heard and the neighbourhood is one way to support and nurture it.”


“So there were students in situations where they were not able to live by the values that they wanted to live their life by, and I wanted to find a way to resolve that.”


Ray had already begun chats with Uni Flats about finding a suitable place when Covid came around in 2020. The lack of international students freed up space in flats which would normally host those students to be utilised in a different way. “That gave us an easy option to just get something up and get it started,” he said.


In the planning stages, Ray said that what he didn’t want to do with the neighbourhood was to create a “hot house of intensity and anxiety around sustainability issues…Having a six-star luxury eco home would never have been relevant. So they had to have a level of normality.” One big thing he was looking for when choosing which Uni Flats to use for the neighbourhood was a “communal area where they could actually form a neighbourhood rather than an isolated flat.” The three flats they ended up settling on have a massive back garden which was perfect for the sort of central area of the neighbourhood.”


The neighbourhood also has a greenhouse, bike shed, veggie gardens, worm farms, compost, and even some garden furniture that was manufactured in a “social enterprise to create a bit more of a community feel in the back garden.” They also have beehives run by the Uni beekeeper Otto, who also runs the hives at halls such as Aquinas, Carrington and Toroa. Ray told us that hall kitchens are buying the honey produced on campus from the hives, “So when you put the honey on your toast in halls, it’s likely to be the honey from the garden.” Critic scored a pot after the interview, and can confirm that it also goes hard in peppermint tea as a cheeky hangover cure.


When asked about what challenges the neighbourhood has faced since its birth, Ray replied, “What hasn’t been challenging over the last two years with Covid? It all happened in the midst of all that disruption…it made it really hard for us to run events. We [had to] cancel a whole lot of events last year because we just couldn’t be around there. We just couldn’t turn up.” He said that “this meant it was much harder to build a neighbourhood community.”


The residents at the neighbourhood have changed over the past three years, from primarily domestic students in the absence of international students during peak-pandemic years, to this year being back to a predominantly international and exchange student make-up. “Now that we don’t have the travel restrictions from Covid, they’re going back to their original purpose,” said Ray. He said that this has given some “nice opportunities'' in terms of Kiwi Hosts, who are the domestic students that have a leadership role in Uni Flats. According to the Uni Flats Tautiaki (Warden) Tracey de Woeps, this year’s Kiwi Hosts “either all lived in the Sustainability Neighbourhood in 2022 or requested a role in the [neighbourhood] for 2023.”


The role of Kiwi Hosts, according to Tracey, is to be the “friendly flatmate and welcome the new students into the community and assist them with the culture changes that come from living and studying in a different country. This could involve a wide range of support, from a trip to the local supermarket and understanding the New Zealand lingo, to how to set up a bank account and advice on life in New Zealand.”


This year, fourth-year Human Geography student Demi is the Tētēkura Student Lead for the Sustainability Neighborhood, working in direct contact with the students living there and organising things like regular hui and workshops. Before that, she was a resident there in 2022.


Demi has come from an environmentally conscious background. She grew up on a deer farm with a “pretty expansive garden”, and went to a country school that had “sustainability at its core…lots of environmental chat.” She said her parents are also quite passionate about the topic, “so it was always kind of discussed in our household and cared about.”


She was keen to join the neighbourhood to surround herself with people with “similar values” to her, and be in a place “of living environmentally and sustainably”. In her second year of uni, she said that she definitely agreed with the other students’ frustrations of living with peers who didn’t have the same susty drive that prompted the neighbourhood to be set up. “We had a compost that we would take to the Students for Environmental Action garden - it was usually me taking that, not anybody else. I would try to get everybody to recycle correctly, but often it wasn’t the right things in the right bin.”


Living at the flats, Demi said that she “met some really cool people…It was nice having like-minded people around me and who would do gardening bees together.” They would also have David Attenborough movie nights. “But yeah, just having a garden on site was awesome to be able to just go out, pick some fresh spinach or kale, take it back to the house and cook with it…[there was] just something really simplistic and wholesome about it.”


Unfortunately for Demi, the kaupapa of the neighbourhood did not extend to her immediate flatmates: “I don’t think there was anybody sustainable in my flat other than me…In terms of getting involved with the other neighbourhood and making it all connected and a neighbourhood that wasn't really happening like that, they wouldn't show up to the hui or come out to the garden or use anything from the garden. They would buy bags of spinach and [there] was like a whole bed of spinach…But there were others, like the ones that have carried on this year, that were super passionate and we got on like a house on fire.”


While Covid has been a “pain in the backside”, Ray said he thought that there is a “different feel around campus” this year. “The challenges were pretty much the same through Covid, but we now have Demi as a Tētēkura Student Lead and the Kiwi Hosts all working on building that neighbourhood feel in 2023. We still expect a range of different levels of commitment to different aspects of sustainability, that’s an important part of it. It’s where some of the key learning may come from – respecting each other and influencing change.”


Canadian international student Rose* said that the appeal of the neighbourhood came from what she was used to at home: “I am used to having a garden at home. I'm used to having sort of the composting facilities and having things growing and I was really going to miss that at university. So I thought this was a great chance to be able to still have that here.” Most of all, she wanted to find “like-minded people, and I'd say that that really worked out…A lot of us are vegan or vegetarian, which is kind of nice as well. I feel like it goes hand in hand with the sustainability [aspect], so it makes it a little easier to share food and cook together too.”


To Agathe, also an international student from Canada, sustainability is about “being aware of the impact of my actions and trying to seek alternatives when I can to have less environmental impacts.” She said she’s had a few jobs in the susty realm where she learned a lot. While she is careful “not to be a preacher”, she said she enjoys sharing what she’s learned along the way. “Because that’s the whole point…if you tell your friends and stuff, then they might just incorporate the knowledge without knowing and then they can do their own part as well.”


Georgia said that, being from Glasgow originally, “none of the flats that I've lived in over the past two and a half years have had gardens or much nature around them besides like the parks.” She said that seeing the mention of outdoor space in the online description of the neighbourhood was a definite part of the appeal: “Well that guarantees me a garden in a space to go and read my book, or just lie in the grass if I want to…it also mentioned recycling and all sorts of stuff and that's another thing that Glasgow isn't particularly good at at all.”


For Georgia, the initial couple of weeks was a definite learning curve in practising sustainability. She said that when she read the compost sign in the flat she initially was like, “Oh, for fuck sake, this is going to be such a hassle. Why bother composting?” And then “literally like two weeks in” she got the hang of it. “It’s just about being mindful. I think sustainability is about mindfulness, and yes it is a bit more effort than what we’re used to because we’re used to throwing stuff away like with fast fashion and that kind of thing, but yeah I think sustainability is quite a good thing.” Georgia agreed that it definitely helped to keep the habits up by living in the neighbourhood: “I would feel weird if I was the only one not recycling, you know? Which is not like a peer pressure thing, but you know you’re a bit of a dick if you don’t and everyone else is.


The Sustainability Office describes the neighbourhood as doubling as a ‘Living Lab’ where research can take place. They are currently working on getting energy monitoring up and running in one of the flats. How it works is there is a clip that goes on the different circuit cables in the flat that monitor how much power is being used. “Once we get that, we can start looking at how do we gamify that? How do students work together to help each other reduce their energy and their footprint?”


The neighbourhood won an Australiasian Green Gown Award in 2021 for the ‘Build Back Better’ category. The Green Gown Awards Australasia (GGAA) applauded the Uni’s ability to turn the pandemic travel restrictions, which would leave many of the approximate 700 beds normally reserved for international students empty, into an opportunity for a “new model of student accommodation”.


Ray is hopeful that the kaupapa of the community could spread and have an “impact on the wider flatting community. Landlords might hear about it, and standard Uni Flats might change…As we settle into post-pandemic routines, we hope to learn even more from the Sustainability Neighbourhood and share that learning for wider application to other accommodation.”


*Name changed.

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2023.
Posted 2:11pm Sunday 19th March 2023 by .