It seems fitting that Gilbert Roucheste and I meet at CERES, a community park in Brunswick, Victoria which brings together a garden, market, café, celebration space and any number of environmental ventures. Whilst he isn’t directly responsible for CERES, Gilbert is a leader in place-making. He’s worked with reinvigorating dysfunctional rural communities, creating innovative new suburbs and reviving Melbourne’s famous laneways. He creates places where people can thrive, with a strong focus on sustainability.
We take a seat at the café and order lunch, locally grown produce – some sourced from just 100 metres away, in the CERES garden. It’s the most amazing beetroot salad I’ve ever had. So much so that transcribing this interview causes a Pavlovian response… The meal is outshone only by the company. Gilbert is warm, welcoming, positive, generous and although it sounds naff, extremely wise.
After a chance meeting many years ago with a pod of dolphins, he left retail giant Chadstone (the largest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, located in Victoria) to follow his instincts. He founded Village Well, in a time before sustainability was cool, before global warming was an accepted fact, and well before councils and commercial business wanted to hear about sustainable, meaningful communities. Although he was well-regarded because of his success at Chadstone, his philosophies were foreign and it has taken time to establish himself as a credible expert. The battle is not won, but Village Well is now an incredibly successful place-making organisation turned to by local councils, developers, retailers and communities.
Gilbert is still distinctly aware of the issues facing the planet though, and is focussed on making positive changes – as swiftly as reasonably possible. “There is a little bit of anxiousness. I do wake up with that feeling and have a good cry and go, ‘my God this is hard work.’ I let out my tears – that’s a good thing, that’s a release.” Gilbert is reassured by the community of people he’s met who have common aims. Academics, business people, leaders, and media like Peppermint. We in turn, are inspired by Gilbert’s unique approach to encouraging sustainable and joyous living. He speaks about a clash of narratives – stories we’ve been sold as the ultimate – the house with an entertainment room, a backyard, a hills hoist and several cars.
“The way I see it, the world is run by stories. We all have stories, sometimes the stories are broken stories or stories that don’t really deliver – they’re very sexy some of those stories, but in some ways they don’t leave legacies, and they’re momentary. We need to sell different stories – that’s what I’m talking about, we need to be sold really positive stories of hope. We’re in, at this time, the battle – I hate using that word, the war word – but it is the battle of narratives at the moment. There’s a dominant paradigm of narratives. It’s not that these people are evil, they’re just scared. They need to be given safety and new road maps.”
There are plenty of people who stand to gain from the old narrative, developers, car manufacturers and oil tycoons are just a few. But slowly, people are starting to doubt the credit of the traditional dream. “People don’t want to be stuck in traffic for two or three hours a day. They’re tired, their spirits are tired they don’t have time – there’s agitation, there’s more mental depression. [They’re starting to ask] do we build our fiefdoms or do we say enough’s enough? They’re asking that question – what’s enough? That’s a big question, not only from an individual but for a community and society to start to ask. Is another flat screen going to make us happy?”
Gilbert’s vision for the future, his narrative, seems to be becoming more and more a possibility. “This is a living embodiment of what it could look like,” he says, looking around CERES. A dog plays on the lawn behind him, there are children running about and, I kid you not, a butterfly idles by. “The reason why this place is important is this is all off the grid, there are microconnected energy resources in this whole area, that are shared. There are food securities and water, there are also bands playing in the celebration space.”
In Gilbert’s world of the future, he imagines, “there’s shared garden spaces – it’s a gifting economy really. It’s very local, there’s a strong localised story, but I call it glocal – I think that glocalism sets a new narrative for the one earth but many many millions of hands and feet.” It may sound fanciful, but we’re well on our way, and major players are starting to take notice. Rouse Hill is a two year old suburb in New South Wales. Rouse Hill town centre is owned by a shopping centre, but it’s not a box on a corner with layer upon layer of shops. Gilbert assisted in the design, which is essentially the classic main street many of us remember from our youth.
“They’re old ideas repackaged. The partnership came about with the GPT group – they’re the only property developer in the global sustainability index, which is extraordinary in itself. I’ve met some very interesting enlightened people there who do want to make a difference but who know they have shareholders like ourselves with super funds who want return on their retail trusts. They’re pushing the innovation envelope, saying ‘well ok, we can we make these environments, more or less, places instead of retail spaces.’ That’s a paradigm shift, the reactivation of these malls into places you can live, you can work, you can go to the library, to the youth centre, sit in the piazza, go to the secret garden, go to the community garden – there’s a main street, there’s laneways, there’s green technology that wraps around it. Everyone’s watching at the moment – saying are we going to go there or do we just build a box?”
While the jury’s out in terms of whether real estate in Rouse Hill is more valuable due to the town’s structure, the shift is apparent nonetheless. “I think the important thing is that everyone – all the councils – are saying we want that, we don’t want a box, we want Rouse Hill, we want a community.” It’s not just a more enjoyable community experience though, it’s the permanency, where a shopping mall can be knocked down and remodelled, a main street can’t, and from there grows history, familiarity, grit, roots, tradition and community.
Whilst Gilbert spoke frankly with us about his dreams in our terms, it is obvious that he is an effective communicator with any audience – for example on the importance of murals and street art. “The role of arts is central. ‘Beauty is a great economic driver,’ I say, to get to the voices of the mainstream. They say, ‘what do you mean?’ and I say, ‘people stay longer in beautiful places.’ For them there’s an opportunity for people to spend more money. You might have another cup of tea – I don’t have a problem with that – I’m a positive pragmatist about that. Let’s just make it happen and then the more radical things can happen later – it’s a bit of a subversive plan I have – the biggest way to cut your carbon footprint is to live, work, play and grow food locally.” Sounds like a great home to me.
This article first appeared in Peppermint magazine. To see a pdf: VILLAGEWELL