Cittaslow in the Blue Mountains
by Paul Payten ,
In March 2007, Katoomba Blue Mountains became the second Cittaslow in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere. This was seen as exciting and very worthwhile by those aware of the concept and who did the work in its name. This, in fact, was not an entirely new movement towards a sustainable and resilient community, as it had begun many years previously under a variety of other names, many of which continue today in 2011. However, it was unique in its breadth and inclusivity of all that is in the Blue Mountains under one banner: Cittaslow.
Why Cittaslow Katoomba Blue Mountains?
The current constitution limits the population of a Cittaslow to 50,000 and there are over 75,000 in our region. Across Australia and the world, Katoomba is a known and sought out destination for tourists, whereas there are several other Blue Mountains and this might be confusing and not useful. Another reason is that Katoomba is the largest village with about 12,000 residents so a focal point of the Mountains. Although there is in reality, several recognised areas of the Blue Mountains, Lower, Middle and Upper, as locals are want to own, it was seen by the delegation and the Working Party as more practical to make it easy for the outside world to relate to Katoomba, rather than the broader region of the Greater Blue Mountains.
In all, being known as Katoomba Blue Mountains is a boon and a bust, as many locals are rather proprietary about ‘their’ village and though they live in the wonderful Blue Mountains, generally because they love it and choose the lifestyle, Katoomba is not where they live, so… somewhere else.
“In this world today, there are no silver bullets so whatever works is recommended and Cittaslow works for those who perceive its worth, ticking most if not all the right boxes for a future of sustainability..”
How did it begin and what created the interest?
Historically, both from the indigenous and modern perspectives, the Blue Mountains region has been a special place: a place of healing and celebration for the original custodians and more recently a barrier to be crossed by the white settlers, thus influential in the development of the NSW white colony. In 1813 a path over the hills was forged, giving access to the rich farm lands beyond. Later, it was renowned as a destination to visit from the mid 19th century to this day: a refuge from the heat, reminiscent of the ‘home’ land for the colonial settlers and visitors alike, though mostly for the well to do who could afford the travel and remote accommodation.
More recently, it caught the attention of the broader public and from the early 1900’s, it became more accessible and in fact a common holiday and honeymoon location of beauty, harshness yet recognised to be fragile, too.
In the 1930’s, Myles Dunphy lead a move to protect the natural wilderness and heritage of the region and it was declared a national park. As a result, it has since been perceived as a seat of conscience about and conservation of all things community and environment.
As recently as 11 years ago, it was listed on the World Heritage covenant for its exceptional and unique natural value. Prior to this, many community groups had already developed and they have rallied since to resist development of the Greater Blue Mountains into just another town or suburb.
So we have the background for the germination of a Cittaslow.
Greatly influenced by Lyn Clarke and a group of concerned and passionate residents in South Australia, a particular person in Katoomba also saw the value of adopting the model and principles of Cittaslow. It took a few years, yet the remarkable Goolwa experience illustrated how a community can be uplifted through the process of self assessment and its flow towards fruition. Shortly after that and many conversations by phone and e-mail, a small and dedicated group lead by Anne Elliott vowed to also seek accreditation as a Cittaslow.
Due to its unusual characteristics of being a conglomeration of 26 villages spread along two parallel roads of approximately 80 kilometres each, the Blue Mountains faced different challenges. How to successfully promote the idea to the 70,000 plus residents? Could we fit the existing model and its constraints designed for Europe – a maximum of 50,000 residents was the limit, for one? Can we accredit the whole of the Blue Mountains or just a village or two? These and many other complex questions were raised and explored.
Nevertheless, an approach was made to the Cittaslow head office in Orvieto, Italy and the response was positive, so action research commenced in the Blue Mountains and the then mayor, Jim Angel, fully endorsed the idea – each Cittaslow requires full buy-in if not active support by the local government body to be accredited and survive. It caught the imagination and as it happened, most of the active individuals lived in or near Katoomba. A working party was formed and evidence against the criteria was gathered and collated.
It’s all very well to say that the Blue Mountains community sought to enhance itself by becoming a Cittaslow, yet the fact is, there was only a very small number who embraced it as a desirable framework and few who were the driving force behind it locally. It is a traditional European idea of a village supporting itself from the surrounding farming and producers, maintaining the local culture and moving more slowly into the 21st century. Yet, this resonated with our own village mentality and could consciously offer a viable alternative to amalgamation in the first instance and then globalisation – a main criterion of the original framework. Many Aussies in the Blue Mountains also felt and still feel it is too foreign, too retrogressive or even capable of reducing our ‘way of life’; progress is the focus which naturally demanded more consumption, more efficiency and growth of all things civilised and many voiced this ethos.
Timing seemed to be of the essence and serendipity in train because there appeared to be so many activities, policies and procedures in place that aligned with our endeavours and one example was the Blue Mountains Business Advantage program created in 2005 by the local TAFE and consultants in sustainability to educate the commercial entities across the Blue Mountains. It readily fulfilled the criterion focussed on that sector and its present and future direction.
Also established and burgeoning was the Blue Mountains Tourism Limited organisation which had full support from the Council. A Slow Food convivium had been running for several years and this was virtually a requirement of any community seeking accreditation, so a done deal in that regard. Local producers had been meeting the demand for organic and local wine and foods for some time and the Blue Mountains Food Co-op, awarded Australia’s best community co-op around that time, demonstrated our community’s concern about and support for healthy living. The long standing and respected Blue Mountains Conservation Society added credibility and unusual depth to our submission, along with the BMCC recent process and documentation entitled Our Future – the Next 25 Years, encapsulating and outlining the communally and collaboratively developed vision for a sustainable region.
From architecture and design, diverse small and medium businesses, NGO’s, consultants, council staff, environmentalists and families came people to explore how their community fitted the model. The relevant questions were posed and scores allotted honestly and openly with documentation, graphics, footage and acknowledgement presented en masse to form 7.5 kg of evidence to send for approval to Orvieto. This process took place in a rush, over a matter of about 6 months, involving discussions groups, fund raising, promoting at all kinds of local events, as well as engaging Council and its regulatory input. A DVD of the upper mountains was funded by BMCC as support for Cittaslow and the ever growing tourism market. We had scored 75% and that was sufficient for us to feel reasonably confident yet leaving the thought: is it enough and could we have done better?
How does a town actually gain accreditation?
To our surprise and pleasure, the normal process is for a delegation for Head Office to visit and site the town and its nature, so… We were tasked with fining funds and offering accommodation for 4 officials to join us and assess our situation in person. The idea arose that Goolwa and the Blue Mountains could share this responsibility and kill two with the one stone, as it were, by having the delegation visit Goolwa first, then roll on to Katoomba, ideally confirming our status as Cittaslows. And that is what happened. In both cases, a civil banquet was planned with their own Chef Extraordinaire, Madam Barcarolle, guiding and featuring in this feast of local produce. The Mayors and local dignitaries, working party members and guests, producers and indigenous elders were all invited and a gala evening was had by all.
Neither we nor Goolwa actually knew if we had achieved our status and we all were on tender hooks until that evening, when the Director called on each of the Mayors and Conveners to receive the official certificate, plaque and town flag as their approval. What a relief and joy, after the hard work, aspirations and future plans that were made!
Well, subsequent to the endorsement, some of the Working Party became the Management Committee and a number of projects were launched during the following 12 mths, including a web site and the Kitchen Garden in Every Blue Mountains Home program. The relationship with Slow Food international was cemented locally and internationally as mutually supportive and joint activities planned and carried out. However, other interests and as often occurs in volunteer organisations, burn out and disillusion set in for many, so the original spirit and energy has waned.
Is it to do with lack of numbers of volunteers, the current economic and environmental climate or is it lack of funds?
A new wave of active support is certainly needed to revive the energy and progress the initiative. To have smaller groups at a village level working towards their own individual accreditation could bring a difference, thus further localising the movement and encouraging ownership. As in Alexandrina, where Goolwa is located along with 3 or 4 other towns, the idea of numerous centres gaining separate endorsement, with the bigger shire based picture. this is perhaps the best way forward as it keeps the connection and focus on a local community. Our Australian condition dictates that this issue needs to be resolves and happily this is currently under discussion by the Board of CAI.
From where does this come?
No clear source of impetus is perceived for Katoomba or the Blue Mountains in general, though some possibility exists in relation to the formation of Cittaslow Australasia Incorporated and its brief to foster existing member towns, facilitate new members and promote the whole value proposition of Cittaslow to the wider Australian community.
The sustainability of the slow cities movement in a larger scale?
Traditionally and for some reasoning yet to be explained, a Cittaslow is to be a community of no more than 50,000. As far as we here in Oz have explored and considered, we feel a smaller number is even more effective and sustainable. Katoomba Blue Mountains is about 12,500 with the possibility of expanding to the full 70,000 plus, yet there are about 8 villages with between 2 – 7,000 which could be come Cittaslows
Goolwa has about 3,500 pop with 3 or 4 other towns of a similar size nearby within the same Shire so they may end up with closer to the 50K. The Cittaslow Australasia Board is actually looking closely at this very issue and will have a consensus and direction soon.
Considering the smallest Cittaslow in the world is about 1,000 and working in many ways, it is up to the town itself to sustain the concept or not. The intention of Cittaslow is ultimately to sustain its community so if the population can not be supported by the local produce, for example, then that is the limit and constraint to deal with and the natural indicator of size.
How does it tie into the hard economic times and how it caters for population growth?
The original premise is to support the local community so if the money fails then the natural system of growing and making take over. If anything, Cittaslow surely becomes a default position for communities feeling economic pressures. So far, we do not have a real case to point to in Aust of this, yet for sure the Goolwa Cittaslow has generated great spirit of sharing and self sufficiency even if it is not literally been called on to provide in the place of lack. Definitely, families in Goolwa have been supported simply by providing a safe and friendly place for young mothers and their children to meet and enjoy. This is the case of other Cittaslows elsewhere too.
Cittaslow marries the idea of business and community, as one of its principles, so if work and income can be generated in a Cittaslow, this is certainly promoted. Tourism is one industry that aligns with Cittaslow in many parts of the world and here too. Artisans and craftspeople at a cottage industry level have a major role in Cittaslows as well as advocating telecommuting and utilising latest technology to reduce impacts of travel and other careers. Because it is so encompassing of diversity that is evident in any given town from top to bottom, the economics is not the main consideration or basis for it to function. In one way it harks back to older times when money was not the main exchange system, without excluding modern attitudes and means of living.
What is its potential as a growing movement in Australia?
According to the ABS, the greater majority of Aussies live in cities larger than 50,000 with about 11% living in towns of less than 1000. About 14% live in 678 communities of 1,000-19,999 and there are 42 centres with 20,000 – 49,999. Though these figures relate to 1996, they indicate that there is huge opportunity for Cittaslow to flourish, by current parameters.
Does it have a wide enough appeal? Can it be applied on a larger scale?
There is currently sufficient consciousness across the country and the world of the need to live locally and with a smaller footprint and Cittaslow meets these aspirations. From corporations to governments at all levels to communities large and small, the slow movement is flowing and there are many other examples of partial responses and a few claiming to be a complete answer. Yet, because we are living amongst 21 million there is room for a range of solutions and Cittaslow is one valuable and accessible path with great potential.
Though the main population live in cities, within these there exist suburbs or enclaves or somewhat isolated towns or centres and these can adopt Cittaslow, without challenging the limitation of size of one unit. In fact, one model that has been talked about is that of a residential building in the middle of a city being accredited, providing the appropriate criteria and facilities are available and embraced.
In part, the original remise continues: retain focus on local, unique and humane, not bowing to globalisation and its pressure to homogenise. Perhaps one reason to develop larger Cittaslows is that they may withstand these pressures better than smaller centres, however, this may be a false assumption. They do say that power corrupts and could it be that the larger the power base the more corrupted? Once again, uniqueness is what it honoured and preserved so to each his own. Cittaslow is not set in concrete and it is alive and organic.
In this world today, there are no silver bullets so whatever works is recommended and Cittaslow works for those who perceive its worth, ticking most if not all the right boxes for a future of sustainability.