Envirohubs – there are now 17 of them around the country. Many used to be called environment centres, but the name has changed because they now do much more than provide information and education about sustainability – they have become community hubs, helping to bring people together, create networks and strengthen communities – as well as getting individuals, whānau and communities on a pathway to sustainability and mitigating climate change.

We talked with people from just two of these hubs, Jo Wrigley, the Manager at Waikato’s Go Eco, and Sam Tu’itahi, the Community Activator at North Shore’s Kaipātiki Project.

Go Eco’s mission is to be a voice for the environment, a centre for learning and a catalyst for change. They started as a small council-supported Hamilton centre and grew rapidly: since 2010 they have been a regional organisation increasingly focused on systemic change.

All of Go Eco’s work is guided by their position statements on the Treaty and climate change. Central to this work is developing and maintaining long-term relationships with community-based organisations, mana whenua and hapū. They acknowledge that hapū in Aotearoa never ceded tino rangatiratanga and actively support Māori to realise kaitiakitanga in their rohe.

The organisation is community driven.

“We look to our community to work out what is the next step,” says Jo,” and we deliver education in that space. Six years ago it was about becoming plastic free. That’s quite old hat now. This year we are working on biodiversity, predator control and transport.

“We also provide spaces for people to think outside the dominant capitalist model and make community connections. We support a time bank, a fair share market where people can bring small appliances for repairs or swap food from their abundant gardens (as well as share knowledge) and a permaculture collective. Our repair shop, e-waste recycling; plant pot recycling – all support communities to develop habits that create changeconversations while reducing waste.

“We have a large food rescue project which redistributes food to community centres throughout the region.

“When we apply for funding, we look for grants that will support a new job. For example, one of our transport initiatives has been to set up a cargo e-bike delivery service. That has meant a job for the courier, as well as work for the person coordinating the service and the person who set up the delivery system. Businesses like pharmacies are now reducing emissions by using the cargo bike.

“We are also working hard to create jobs in the biodiversity and restoration spaces. For example, we help to up-skill people working in plant nurseries so that they are able to coordinate volunteers. People who learn to love the environment may go on to get part time or even long-term work, we support that by becoming referees and providing a record of their training with us.

“Most of our education programmes are informal – such as the weekly garden workshops at the community garden, the workshops where people learn how to make tunnel traps to catch predators, the plastic free workshops at the local library, bike maintenance and adult bike safety. For many people participation in these workshops gives them skills that may translate into jobs – as well as a love for the environment.

“The learning that we provide is values-based, and helps people transform values into actions – engaging heads, hearts and minds – which is our theory of change. We also use the UN SDGs to help people understand the intersections that exist in ecosystems (social, cultural, economic & environmental) as climate impacts.”

Go Eco has a staff of 16 and 100 – 150 volunteers.

In 2019 they actively engaged with over 30,000 people. Jo says that while they are currently working on quantifying their impact, one piece of research has already shown that 80 percent of the  volunteers are able to effect change in their families and extended families – so more people are taking actions like accessing public transport or trying to live waste free.

“The most significant change we have made in recent years,” says Jo, “is working with the community centres throughout the region. Food depots and freestores are redistributing food directly to communities.

“When people go to a community free store, they can take food such as milk bread, groceries, fruit and vegetables and meat – depending on what has been rescued. They become connected to their centre – and it builds a relationship of trust. They start asking, what else does the centre provide? So they may start coming in to access other services. It connects them to other people in their community. In time, many want to give back, so they go on a volunteer roster too.”

Kaipātiki Project is an environmental hub running a thriving native plant nursery, facilitating forest and stream restoration, and promoting local food and zero waste initiatives.

There are 15 people in the project’s team. One of them is Sam Tu’itahi whose job is to build relationships and engage with diverse groups in the community though sustainability workshops and volunteering activities in the nursery, teaching garden or local reserves:

“Part of my task is to create new ways of connecting people to the environment. It’s no use going to go to a Pasifika church and saying, come and help me dig these weeds out! We need to listen openly for people’s interests and needs. For example, many people are interested in growing their own food. Many of the knowledge-holders of our traditional crops are our older people in the Pasifika community so we work with them and help connect young people back to that knowledge.

“We are also working with our refugees and recent migrant communities, to connect them with what we know about New Zealand gardening. As part of the process, we also ask what they like to eat and see if we can help them grow that here.

“Recently I have been working with a group of Tongans who were keen to learn how to make a fangufangu, a traditional instrument which is made from bamboo. When we go and cut the bamboo it can spark an interest in the environment, and we have talanoa about what is happening. It can be a long way around – to connecting them to the environment.

“If we can find the right opportunities, we will bring all the different groups together with a common goal for the environment. I think of my work as building connections between people’s hearts and minds, so that we find similarities between different groups – while recognising the diversity.”

Together, the team at Kaipātiki Project work to inspire and empower people to share in nature’s revival and live lightly on the planet. In 2020 they engaged with over 2,700 volunteers – an increase of 17 percent on the previous year.

They grew 40,000+ native plants in their chemical-free plant nursery and removed 662kg of pest plants!

They are also building the capability of the community in terms of mātauranga Māori, helping people learn about indigenous ecological knowledge, so they are better able to protect the environment and support mana whenua and help realise their outcomes.

The Kaipātiki Project provides professional development for people working with streams and estuaries, restoration and ecology. A regular event is their Community Restoration Leaders’ Training workshop.

It’s a series of 8 – 9 sessions open to 20 people who are taught about how to plant, where and why, how to recognise weeds and how to organise a restoration group event. After being involved with and leading a restoration day with Kaipātiki

Project, students gain valuable hands-on experience, and many start running their own restoration projects.

Now in its 23rd year, the Kaipātiki Project is working alongside over 32 local volunteer groups working in their own reserves.

The groups are facilitating planting, pest management and maintenance activities, and help restore nature.

These days now both Kaipātiki Project and Go Eco are supported by their national organisation.

In 2015, environment centres around the country came together to establish Envirohubs Aotearoa, which facilitates peer to peer learning so the centres can share their vast experience – scaling up the positive effects on the environment and implementing an agreed strategy to be more inclusive and build community networks.

Georgina Morrison, the CEO of Envirohubs, says that today the hubs, many of which have social or community enterprises to support them, are increasingly taking on contracts with councils and DHBs.

“There is now scientific recognition,” says Georgina “that getting people out into nature supports wellbeing and health.

“The need that our hubs are trying to address is huge – the connection between social and environmental issues has never been more obvious. If we think about hungry people, that is an immediate need met with our food rescue projects, which saves thousands of tons of waste going to landfills, yet our hubs are also working on long-term food security. We are educating people about energy – many of our hubs provide advice to help homes become warmer and dryer which has social and environmental benefits. Education workshops and events often involve global themes such as reducing water use or beach clean-ups. And our hubs are all providing a welcoming and safe space for people to get to know each other.”

Envirohubs Aotearoa has just received three years’ funding from the Ministry for the Environment. This funding is increasing their capacity to support the local hubs and allowing them to pull together more data on activities and outcomes.