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Gold Coast women leading the charge for environment and sustainability

Samantha Morris | March 7, 2019

Michelle Benson is a native plant propagator and Land for Wildlife member

Everyday Gold Coasters are working behind the scenes to protect our precious habitats and educate people about conservation.


Women play an incredibly important role when it comes to conservation and here on the Gold Coast many women are leading the charge across research, technology, wildlife preservation, education, habitat restoration and hands-on restoration activities.

This International Women’s Day let us introduce you to 10 Gold Coast women doing just that.  



Increasing weather and climate related risks are posing new challenges to countries like Australia but people like Dr Johanna Nalau are working on understanding how people make decisions about adapting to climate change.

Johanna is a scientist with a PhD in climate change adaptation and she’s based at the School of Environment and Science at Griffith University here on the Gold Coast. Her research is focused on understanding how, why and when people make decisions to adapt to climate change, and what role science can and should play in that process.

“Adaptation in short is really a change in mindset in how we do things: for example, with more potential extreme storms, and higher temperatures and heatwaves, how do we adjust to such changes in practice?” Johanna said.

Johanna is embarking on a three-year project to explore the gap between academic theory and real-world practical climate adaptation actions, thanks to Australian Research Council funding. She’s also filling the role of Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report while juggling solo parenting and balancing career and family life.

“I have been lucky enough to have great mentors at the university and through my scientific networks internationally, all of which are making it possible for me to progress my career. Griffith has a great track record in supporting women at the workplace and I am part of the Griffith Women in Leadership Program as well that focuses on supporting and enabling emerging leaders across the university.”

“My advice for other women working in science is to reach out for mentors, to remember that we deserve to be where we are as much as anyone else and that our voices matter,” Johanna said.



Katie Norman had a ‘Lorax’ moment when she was living in Hong Kong and couldn’t go outside due to intense air pollution. She was breathing air purified by a machine in her home and she knew she had to do something. That something is the Sustainable Schools Network – a new network for students, teachers and school communities to explore sustainability.

“We hope to build a common language regarding sustainability, raise the profile and accessibility of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and to establish personal connections between schools to ensure students, teachers and school communities are supported in their goals to become more sustainable,” Katie said about the Network’s goals.

“Ultimately, we hope that school communities will take action in their local environment but also value the creative, critical, and important voices of their students,” she said.

But for now Katie is busy with the network’s first networking event and the inaugural Sustainability Symposium to connect Gold Coast and Tweed schools.

City of Gold Coast is proud to partner with the Sustainable Schools Network and sponsor the Symposium.



In 2013, Jordyn DeBoer and Tonia Potts started a conversation about plastic. Specifically the fact that more than one million plastic bags are used every minute and 10.46 million tonnes of fabric ends up in landfill each year. Jordyn and Tania galvanised the passion and generosity of Gold Coasters from all walks of life to collect post-consumer materials and dust off their sewing machines. And so Boomerang Bags was born.

“Boomerang Bags supports the diversion of this post-consumer material into reusable bags to replace plastic bags and most importantly, start conversations and create conscious connected communities,” Tania told We Are Gold Coast.

Not surprisingly, the humble Gold Coast initiative spread like wildfire, and is now in over 800 communities worldwide.

“Hundreds of thousands of plastic bags have been saved from entering landfill, and behaviour change goes way beyond the bag to other single-use plastics and sustainable living.”

What started as a project to replace plastic bags is now a national one that helps break down social fragmentation and create meaning and purpose in people’s lives. Around Australia, organisations like schools and correctional centres have been involved alongside groups such CWA, job-seekers, mothers’ groups and aged care support contributing to the movement to address this ecological crisis.

Boomerang Bags is just the start. The duo are also part of the Travelling Trash Troupe, a local school based educational program aimed at reducing marine debris. City of Gold Coast is proud to provide funding to support this great initiative.

Dr Johanna Nalau | School of Enviromental Science, Griffith University
Katie Norman | Sustainable Schools Network
Tania Potts created Boomerang Bags in 2013


Kerry Shepherd, with her late husband Chris, dreamed up Gold Coast’s award-winning environmental development, the EcoVillage. They were passionate environmentalists but also property developers – looking to create the most sustainable dwellings they could. It was the late 1990s when they attended an event called ‘The Living City’ – a joint initiative between Gecko Environment Council and City of Gold Coast. That forum, which focused on the future of the city in terms of nature conservation, water, traffic and transport was the first time they’d heard the word ‘sustainability’

“We were inspired but apparently we also inspired others who advised us to take our property knowledge and do something wonderful with it,” Kerry said.

And so the idea was planted. They visited the world’s best examples and came back determined to create a small-scale development here on the Gold Coast.

“The Ecovillage set the benchmark for sustainable development certainly here in Australia – winning over 30 awards. But its sustainability features also created lifestyle qualities that enabled community to grow,” Kerry explained.

500 people live in the village now. They’re self-sufficient for water and completely solar powered. There are amazing food gardens and streetscapes that include edible trees and tonnes of wildlife. There’s also a no dogs or cats rule.

As well as leaving an incredible legacy in the Currumbin Valley with the Ecovillage, Kerry also runs the sustainability programs at Currumbin RSL – responsible for diverting 100 per cent of the facility’s organic waste from landfill. They’ve changed more than 500 lightbulbs to conserve energy, installed heat exchangers on the air-conditioning plant, zoned areas of the club that can have lighting and air-con switched off when not in use and installed 120,000L of rainwater tanks onsite, amongst other initiatives.



Professor Catherine Pickering is based at Griffith University’s School of Environment and Sciences and she’s wildly passionate about using technology to help people take giants leaps towards sustainability. One of her recent projects is a free app called groNATIVE that was developed alongside environmental consultants Natura Pacific and helps people identify which native plants will grow best in their gardens.

“There has been a massive use of the app including by gardeners and landscapers wanting to make their gardens more attractive, as well as more sustainable,” Catherine told We Are Gold Coast.

Given the impact introduced species can have when they escape gardens and move into bushland, there’s no questions the app helps to protect the city’s natural assets. But there’s plenty of other reasons to choose natives as well.

“By growing native plants we reduce our use of water and nutrients as they are already adapted to the local climate and soils,” Catherine explained. “They also support local biodiversity providing food and habit for native birds, bees and butterflies.”

Professor Catherine Pickering is an ambassador for City of Gold Coast’s Our Natural City Strategy.



Michelle Benson’s 24-hectare property has eucalypt, wet sclerophyll and rainforest habitats, rich with biodiversity and home to threatened species including koalas, Richmond birdwing butterflies and glossy black cockatoos, but since 2011 she’s been working to restore degraded areas.

It was in that year that Michelle signed up to the City of Gold Coast’s Land For Wildlife program. She credits the program for their “huge support” through her environmental restoration journey. But of course, it’s Michelle’s physical on-ground work, that reaps the biggest rewards for conservation. She used council assistance to control cat’s claw creeper – an insanely invasive weed – that was invading Richmond Birdwing Butterfly habitat through a six hectare area. And while she says she has a ‘compulsive weeding disorder’ she’s also passionate about propagation, channelling that energy through Michelle’s Native Plants.

“For me there is nothing more magical than planting a seed and watching it grow,” Michelle said. She’s learned so much about the biodiversity of this region, coming to the realisation that we have altered the natural environment to such an extent that both feral plant and animal species are making life difficult for vulnerable species.

“I want to encourage more awareness in the general public about the need for wildlife friendly gardens, and I love to show people what amazing diversity of native plant choices there are to suit every need.”

And she’s conscious that that knowledge pales in comparison to Traditional Owners.

“I give thanks to the local Yugambeh / Koombumerri people whose intricate connection with the land and its flora and fauna sustained their lives for thousands and thousands of years,” she said.

Kerry Shepherd | Co-Founder, Ecovillage
Catherine Pickering | Griffith University + ambassador for the Our Natural City Strategy, City of Gold Coast
Maggie Muurmans | Griffith Centre for Coastal Management


Maggie Muurmans worked on conservation projects as far afield as Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific before she took up the reins on Griffith Centre for Coastal Management’s CoastEd program four years ago. The program runs in partnership with City of Gold Coast and is focussed on helping people better understand the coastal environment through hands-on involvement.

“Council has supported CoastEd for over 16 years so we are able to provide subsidised coastal education sessions for schools and community,” Maggie said.

“When I started coordinating the program we had 29 schools and 2000 participants as part of the program. Today we have 193 schools on our books and a total of 8500 participants each year!”

“CoastEd has been developing some great resources for the community and provides a platform to interact with coastal engineers, marine scientists, geomorphologists and oceanographers first hand, creating great awareness as to what goes on behind the scenes to manage our biggest asset: our beautiful coast,” Maggie said.

“I love making the connection between people and their natural assets in their backyard…this could be a coral reef, a rainforest or for the Gold Coast: an amazing beach,” she said. Environmental education has been a wonderful tool to create these connections.”



Victoria Bakker found her feet in ecological restoration while she was a Horticulture apprentice in Grafton, volunteering with Nymboida Landcare. It became obvious to her that introduced plants had become a serious problem for the natural environment and so she made it a career goal to develop skills in ecological restoration.

Since then, she’s worked in some of the most significant vegetation communities: from Newcastle to Mackay and from coast to hinterland, now specialising in restoring high conservation remnants, which includes endangered ecological communities.

“I have risen through the ranks in this industry through hard work, determination and on-going learning with one objective in mind – to make a positive difference to our environment,” she said. “One of the main priorities I have is to learn and respect the local Indigenous culture and heritage of our First Nations people and to work for them and their ancestors to restore this great land we share.”

Victoria now has more than 20 years experience, spending half of her life working outdoors as a hands-on warrior eradicating serious weed incursions.

Victoria is a rare breed of ecologist, having started in the industry in its early days – it’s physically challenging and sometimes difficult and dangerous work and she’s the only woman we know that has solo-pioneered a business, Forest Rehabilitation Ecology in this field. She’s giving back to her own industry as well, volunteering on the Management Committee for the highly respected Australian Association of Bush Renegerators.



Karen Scott has been involved with Wildcare, here on the Gold Coast for more than 19 years and has served as Treasurer, Vice-President and President – a position she’s held for the past ten years. The organisation focuses on rescuing and caring for sick, injured and displace native animals and then returning them to the wild. They promote the protection of wildlife and protection of habitat, raise public awareness and train volunteers to care for injured and orphaned animals. Karen is particularly passionate about educating others and regularly panels the City of Gold Coast’s Koala Conversations series.

“I have been involved with Wildcare’s education program for the past 15 years,” she said. “I enjoy sharing my experience, knowledge and passion for helping our wildlife with new members.”

“I am also an active rescuer within the Wildcare volunteer network and rescue all species of wildlife but we are mostly called upon to respond to critically injured macropods and sick and injured koalas and echidnas. I am currently caring for orphaned koalas, echidnas and bandicoots,” Karen said.

“My main inspiration is to improve animal welfare outcomes for our local wildlife.  I believe that it is essential that our wildlife are treated with the same level of dedication and professionalism that domestic animals are.”

Karen said City of Gold Coast has supported Wildcare with establishing a plantation / fodder farm, coordinating the release of rehabilitate koalas into suitable habitat and by providing  a financial grant for the past few years which assists with covering expenses like operating a 24/7 emergency hotline, new rescue equipment and volunteer training.

Victoria Bakker | Bush regeneration expert | Forest Rehabilitation Ecology
Karen Scott has been involved in Wildcare Australia for nearly 20 years
Water quality testing at Silkwood School


Kalindi Brennan has been leading Silkwood’s journey to sustainability for 18 years. She believes parents are drawn to the school partly because its students learn in a bushland setting with high conservation values – evident in both the physical environment and natural spaces.

“I get a big thrill out of seeing students walking through our interactive bush trails to get to their classroom or pausing to have a look at the creek or other changes noticeable in the environment along the way.  What a great start to the school day,” Kalindi said.

The school signed up to the City of Gold Coast’s Land for Wildlife program more than ten years ago – and at the time had a lot of weeds and overgrown areas. But with guidance and support they’ve restored most of the 20 acres of habitat which is now weed-free and they have budgets to ensure ongoing maintenance. The school grounds have two creeks, bush trails, yarning circles and interpretive signage. They’re sustaining habitat for endangered animals and have planted more than 30,000 native plants in the past nine years.


We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve in a school environment, engaging young people, mentors, partner organisations and our local community along the way.


“We also integrate Aboriginal ways of learning both visibly and intrinsically to show respect for the local Yugambeh language community,” Kalindi said.