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Ecovillages in Scandinavia, Part I

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By Etienne Gernez

Our adventure began at Hurdal Ecovillage in Norway.
(July/August 2010)

In the spring of 2009 six other young people and I — Radu Burtescu (Romania), Micah Sewell (US); Kinia Adamczyk (Poland/Quebec); and Adrien Raybaud, Alexis Pawlak, Ben Miller, and myself (France) — went on the road for three months visiting ecovillages in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We traveled 1300 km (808 miles) — mostly by bike, train, bus and hitchhiking — and took a camera and microphone to document our findings. We called the project One Step Beyond. We wanted to know not only how ecological practices in ecovillages could reach a wider audience, but also how people could benefit from these innovations and take “one step beyond” towards making their own lives more ecologically sustainable.

"We filmed every ecovillage we visited."
The idea for our One Step Beyond project began when I participated in an introductory course on ecovillage life at Hurdal Ecovillage in October, 2008. The first ecovillage in Norway, Hurdal, is now 13 adults and 13 children living on a 1126-hectare property (770 acres) 61 km (38 miles) north of Oslo, with forest, farmland, wetlands, and a beach on Lake Hurdalsjoen. The community’s values include organic agriculture and sustainability education. The group began their land search in 1998, and after looking at 50 different properties, moved to their land in 2002 and purchased it in 2004. They plan to build 55 ecologically sustainable homes and a conference center.

In the course at Hurdal I learned about a lot of good ecovillage ideas and methods. I thought, “These practices deserved to be more widely known!” So our One Step Beyond team assembled at Hurdal Ecovillage to begin our adventure in May, 2009.

In this two-part article I’ll describe some of the ecovillage innovations we saw, and use them to illustrate my belief that the closer an ecovillage is located to an urban center, the faster and more effectively its innovations will spread to the wider culture. Let´s start with how water is managed.

Utsikten Ecovillage, near Göteborg

Utsikten members dancing in the meadow, their passive-solar homes in the distance.
In June, 2009 we visited Utsikten Ecovillage in northwest Sweden, 70 km (43.5 miles) north of Göteborg. Utsikten means “the view” in Swedish. The residents of Utsikten share an amazing view of a lake surrounded by forests and wetlands. Here 40 people live in 15 different houses. With 500,000 inhabitants, Göteborg is the nearest large city, and this is where most Utsikten residents commute to work. Since there are no direct busses between Utsikten and Göteborg, a bus trip takes time because of transfering between several buses and the fare is expensive. So driving a car remains the most practical way to go to town for work or for other reasons.

The water supply at Utsikten Ecovillage is pumped out of the lake, mechanically filtered, and piped to each house. After being used in kitchens and showers it becomes greywater and is piped through a series of gravel beds in which certain water-loving plants are growing. Microorganisms on the root hairs of these plants purify the water passing through the basins. The water is mechanically filtered again, tested to make sure it has the same quality as when it was pumped out, and returned to the lake.

"We live extreme, but we don’t feel extreme." —Magnus, Utsikten
This system is possible because Utsikten members use only organic detergents, soaps, and shampoos with biodegradable ingredients. Each household also uses urine-separating toilets: the feces and urine are separated by a centrifuge, the is urine sent to the community’s large collective tank, and solid waste is treated with ultraviolet rays and composted in each house. The result is that the urine is not poured into the lake water, and no “black water” (water in contact with feces) is produced. (One example of this kind of toilet is the Aquatron toilet.

Imagine the benefit to the environment if all half-million inhabitants of Göteborg also used the same system Utsikten uses and released clear, clean water into the Kattegat Sea between Sweden and Denmark? And, given the snowball-effect of good ideas, why couldn’t this happen in other large cities in Sweden too?

Our traveling team had these insights:

(1) Utsikten can use its own natural infrastructure to use and recycle clean water from a lake because the commuity is far from any urban centre and its associated large-scale water treatment plants. And for the same reason, only Utsikten’s 40 inhabitants have access to simple water management practices that have no impact on the environment

(2) However, there is not necessarily less water pollution in a rural location, since agricultural run-offs can pollute water too.

So how to spread such simple good ideas from 40 to 500 000 people? I believe that if Utsikten Ecovillage was closer to Göteborg, this good idea would be more easily adopted.

Tuggelite Ecovillage, Karlstad

Touring Tuggelite, near Karlstad. Common House with attached greenhouse, left.
Tuggelite is an urban ecovillage with 16 households in five apartment buildings on a one-block area near Karlstad, a city of 60,000 in the centre of Sweden. Founded in 1984, Tuggelite is 10 km (6.2 miles) to Karlstad’s city centre, a 20-minute bus ride. Because of its unique location, Tuggelite has managed to influence other ecovillages in Sweden, as well as cities nearby, as it demonstrates the efficiency of alternative techniques. It is, in other words, a “laboratory” for innovative new methods! Their website reads: “We hope Tuggelite can serve as an inspiration for other housing developments with social cohesion, active stewardship, and low-energy and resource use.”

From the beginning Tuggelite residents experimented with wood-pellet furnaces, which is a relatively cheap and efficient way to heat homes, since wood pellets come from the waste of lumber mills and wood pellets are highly concentrated forms of energy. The whole city of Karlstad now uses a large wood-pellet furnace for central “district heating,” heating most of its homes and building. When I asked Albert Bachs, a Tuggelite cofounder, how he could improve his heating system, he said, “I simply have to connect to the central heating. The city’s wood-pellet furnace is much more efficient than our old one!” There are now many other cities of this size in Sweden using the same wood-pellet central heating system as Karlstad uses.

Etienne lounging in the greenhouse of Tuggelite member Albert Bachs. Every Tuggelite house has a greenhouse.
It’s a similar story with waste-sorting and composting organic waste. Tuggelite managed to persuade the city of Karlstad to treat their different types of sorted waste (paper, plastic, glass, metal, and organic waste). Now organic waste is collected throughout all of Karlstad, composted, and the methane produced is used to power Karlstad city busses. And in Göteborg the waste collecting trucks run on the methane produced by the organic waste they are collecting!

Tuggelite’s ecological methods have also spread nationally. The houses in Tuggelite were the first to use triple-glazed windows and this is now standard: every new building in Sweden is required to have triple-glazed windows.

These three ecological methods — heating with wood pellets, sorting and using organic waste, and triple-glazed windows) have spread from a mere 16 households to so many more in Sweden in less than 20 years.

Would the story be the same if Tuggelite was not in the middle of a small city?

Tuggelite's fourth ecological practice — and the one that most symbolizes (in my eyes) the spread of good ideas in a high-population area — is how they the use their Common House (community building). Their Common House is not used during working hours since most residents are out working or otherwise busy at that time. So the community rents the space to the municipality of Karlstad as a kindergarden for children living in adjacent city blocks. While these kids enjoy a car-free area, with plants growing in greenhouses and solar panels on roofs, Tuggelite is earning money to introduce them to the principles of ecological design!

Suderbyn Ecovillage, Gotland

Three of the crew preparing a meal, Suderbyn.
My aim is not to debate the relative merits of urban and rural ecovillage lifestyles. I believe there is a balance to find, and that is exactly what Robert Hall and Ingrid Gustafsson are trying to do with Suderbyn Ecovillage, their ecovillage project on the island of Gotland in Sweden.

Suderbyn is on an old farm property located just outside Visby, Sweden (population 22,000), the main city in Gotland (with a total island population of 57,000). After travelling widely and visiting many ecovillages Europe, South America, Australia, and India, Robert and Ingrid purchased this farm property because it is:

Preparing a solar stir fry, Suderbyn.
(1) Not too close to urban centres to try out alternative infrastructure for water management (they have a well, urine-separating compost toilets, and in an outhouse), heating (they’re building a Russian masonry stove), and solar cooking (they use an amazing solar cooker).

(2) Not too far from an urban centre to avoid dependency on cars and be able to benefit from public transportation! The whole Hall-Gustafsson family bicycles to work or school, and it is quite well connected by bus. In addition, their waste is collected by the municipality of Visby.

Robert and Ingrid have been traveling and researching ecovillage innovations for more than 10 years. In their library I discovered that many of these are described already in widely read books; for example, Bill Mollison´s permaculture design books, and Hildur Jackson’s book on conflict resolution in ecovillages.

"Bringing people to work together is not always easy, but it gives you so much energy it’s worth it!" — Dissa, Suderbyn
Its been 18 months since Ingrid and Robert settled on the farm. Here they found what they need for their new ecovillage lifestyle, and are now seeking fellow ecovillagers to join them!

“We realize that our approach is not attracting masses of people,” Robert observes. “I don’t think this because we don’t have a flush toilet. I think what scares people off the most is that in an ecovillage project we have to do things together, we have to create a community where people work together — as that’s how you can reduce costs and energy consumption.”

Dancing around the Midsummer pole, Suderbyn. "Midsummer is the best time of year to be Swedish," says Micah.
Robert and Ingrid found a great location, benefitting from both being close enough to and far enough away from from town, with the potential to spread their innovative ideas. Yet there are not many people ready to try what they offer at this point in the project.

I believe their capacity to influence and convince others has to do with the scale of their project. And that is what the Part Two of this article (Sep/Oct issue) will be about.

Etienne Gernez, a 27-year old French engineer, works in Norway and Iceland with technologies to reduce the environmental impact of shipping (for example through the use of wind energy. Etienne designed and led the One Step Beyond project, assisted by Toril Mentzoni, leader of the urban cohousing project Økobo (in Oslo, Norway. Etienne.gronaze~at~gmail.com.

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