As a suburban child of the eighties in Australia, my first impression of Nimbin was beamed to me from the butt of a joke. It was either The Comedy Company or Full Frontal, and there was a character who would read a poem from the audience. She was a Hippie, and her poem went like this:
My parents explained that the woman was meant to be Stoned. (This was a touch confusing given the Biblical context of much of my other cultural education but I struggled on, managing to make it through Coning 101 at high school without committing adultery.)
Nimbin looked a bit dead when I drove through with some colleagues earlier this year. We were visiting community services in the region and working with them on some local advocacy for more mental health and housing support. Tales of this significant town were shared by some people we met, many of them about the isolation of young adults brought up in the area who didn’t seem to have anything to do other than sell drugs to upper-class tree-changers from a certain alleyway between shopfronts on the main street. The “ice scene” swept through Nimbin a few years back, said a few of our interlocutors; shocking many with the swiftness of its cuts.
But of course it turns out there’s more to Nimbin than cheap shots and drug youth. 2013 will see the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival, which catalysed the “recycling” of Nimbin from a dying dairy farming hub to a home for “new settlers” seeking life beyond the cultures of capitalist consumption. And, one of the more interesting aspects of this moment in time (for the purposes of this hackneyed blog, at least) is the role of architecture and planning practitioners who used their skills to refashion the built and otherwise moderated environment into spaces intended for living consistently with values variously itemised as peace, non-violence, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, sustainability and autonomy. And yes, drug decriminalisation.
As Graham Irvine noted in 2006, the legacy of this nearly-40-year-old moment includes the building and use of alternative technologies on a town-size scale; including wind, solar and water power. Further, Nimbin’s ‘renewal’ is marked by some legal and policy shifts that enabled a kind of life that was previously not so possible in post-invasion Australia. Specifically, “the construction of low cost self help housing for the many hundreds who would otherwise have been on the Government’s five year waiting list for housing”, and “the introduction of State Environmental Planning Policy Number 15 which enables, with Council endorsement, the construction of multiple community dwellings on rural zoned land throughout NSW.” Indeed, activists and educators in urbanism and architecture led the planning application for the Aquarius festival to take place. They also wrote much of the do-it-yourself housing material that helped create dwellings Council couldn’t rule against. Col James from Architecture at Sydney Uni carried these ideas into his work on other ’empty’ or recyclable places around New South Wales, suggesting a framework, in 2001, for residential reuse of vacant city buildings.
It’s quite broadening to be considering the do-it-yourself impulse of certain present-day urban interventions in view of such a history, and I’m fortunate to be able to do so. An undertow of occupation, possession, settlement, and Australian-ness feels particularly strong. So does the register of cultural refuge. Graeme Dunstan writes that “we wanted to expand our consciousness beyond the… blandness and rigidity of the suburban wastelands”; of people who “came for personal convictions … in sufficient numbers to make personal dreams a cultural reality.”