Down on Main StreetHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 4 » Down on Main Street
The tiny town of Hampden might owe its economy to State Highway 1, but its residents are ready to reduce their reliance on oil. Jinty MacTavish heads home to soak in the community spirit that’s sweeping town
Hampden, Otago, isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to denounce an oil-fuelled existence. State Highway 1 roars directly through the middle of town, and it is peckish travellers who keep the local economy ticking: ice-creams from the dairy, greasies from the fish’n’chip shop, petrol from the garage. The pub and second-hand shop (weekends only) are near the top of a very short list of local businesses.
It wasn’t always this way. Hampden’s historians tell of a bustling centre with a busy main street. Two grocers, a butcher, a blacksmith, a boot maker, a baker, a milliner, two hotels and a draper—and a primary school roll over 150 (now sitting at 22).
It’s a situation familiar to many rural New Zealanders. Rural decline has seen school rolls plummet, dust settle in town halls, and village demographics grow heavy at the top end. Where once they had local jobs, local markets and local entertainment, Hampdenites, like other small-town New Zealanders, now commute to bigger centres for work and play, spending little time with their neighbours. They sleep in Hampden, but live their lives elsewhere.
Dugald MacTavish, Hampdenite, blames a combination of cheap energy and our desire to have ever more, ever bigger, ever better.
“Was life really so bad in the 1950s? That’s the last time we were remotely sustainable in terms of energy use. Ever since, we’ve been flat out globalising and centralising, becoming increasingly dependent on cheap, carbon-heavy energy,” he says. “Why grow your own pumpkin or bake your own cake if you can get three at half the price in a city supermarket? Why settle for a local job if the one in the city, or Australia, pays three times as much—and you can jet home once a month anyway?”
Okay, I confess. It’s likely the name raised your suspicions anyway. Dugald MacTavish happens to be my father, and I grew up in Hampden. Just like other young Hampdenites, I flew the nest.
In 2006, wrestling with a moody internet connection somewhere in the Indian Himalayas, I learned that my dad and mum and a few others had called a series of meetings to find out if other residents shared their alarm about peak oil and climate change. I admit I was sceptical. Like most places in New Zealand, Hampden has its fair share of traditionalists and climate change sceptics. And yet, when I arrived back in New Zealand two months later, Hampden Community Energy (HCE) had been born—a residents’ group committed to reducing Hampden’s reliance on oil.
Rekindling community spirit wasn’t part of the original game plan. But, says local Angy Corish, it’s almost inevitable when you’re running regular talks and movie evenings in the village hall, holding low-carbon skills workshops outside a revitalised village library, and working in teams to investigate and instigate low-carbon energy, transport and solid waste options for the area.
A plastic bag-free Hampden campaign illustrates the ‘whole community’ approach, involving the local school (kids designing their own cotton bags to take home), the local dairy (which offers rewards for those who bring in their cloth bags) and local sewers (who made over 60 cotton bags that were given away to locals). Week-long World Environment Day celebrations included a community tree-planting day and culminated in a locally sourced three-course dinner in the community hall.
HCE members are the first to admit that, when it comes to the sustainability drive, they haven’t got the whole community on board. As my mum says, “Changing the attitudes of an average New Zealand community is very hard graft, and will take a long time. Many people can at best only be gently nudged to think about living more sustainably.” But regardless of their environmental beliefs, most residents have been prepared to lend a hand with projects that they think might strengthen the community.
One weekend early this spring I headed home to help out with the bimonthly market. Ominous black clouds broke right on cue for the 9am start, and the last drop fell as stallholders squelched home. It wasn’t the most profitable of Hampden’s markets, but HCE members were delighted because the community had turned out in force regardless.
I spotted dad swapping a yarn with a local climate change sceptic under the shelter of the hall awning, and in the warm buzz of the tearoom the Mayor sampled pancakes and chatted to kids raising funds for a skateboard park. I ambushed HCE member Colleen Dooley in the kitchen (she’s been in Hampden about as long as I’ve been alive) and asked her what brought people out on such a horrible day.
“It’s just a wonderful thing that’s happening here,” she said, after a moment’s reflection, sudsy hands trailing in dishwater. “This is the way it used to be, people helping each other out without expecting anything back. People like that.”
If people like it enough, perhaps one day Hampden will again be a bustling centre with a busy main street—and I don’t mean State Highway 1.