Are Ecovillages Large Enough to Influence Mainstream Culture?
By Etienne Gernez
Svanholm in Denmark manages a herd of 100 dairy cows.
In the spring of 2009 six other young Europeans and I went on the road for three months to videotape our visits to ecovillages in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We called our 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. (See “Ecovillages in Scandanavia, Part I”.)
Former GEN president and Findhorn member Jonathan Dawson describes two kinds of ecovillage innovations: (1) “visible and tangible” technologies, systems, and projects, and (2) cultural innovations which contribute to what he calls the “transformation of values and consciousness.” Technologies, systems, and projects can include ecological housing, biological wastewater treatment, renewable energy solutions, etc.
The One Step Beyond team on the road in Scandinavia.
As noted in Part I
of this article, I believe that the proximity
of ecovillages to populated urban centres is key to the spreading of these “visible and tangible” ecological innovations, based on our group’s experiences in three ecovillages in Sweden: Utsikten, Tuggelite, and Suderbyn.
In this article I would like to analyze how cultural innovations are spread — including the size of the community and the scale of its influence — using the example of three other ecovillages: Svanholm and Munksøgård in Denmark and the residential neighborhood of Augustenborg in Mälmo, Sweden.
Svanholm: Promoting Organic Food in Denmark
Located some 60 km (37 miles) west of Copenhagen, Svanholm is a large farming community with more than 85 adults.
This vibrant ecovillage has always been large enough and successful enough to invest in technological innovations; for example, using wood-pellet furnaces to heat their buildings and provide heat for a Stirling engine that generates power for their electric cars. (See “Svanolm Goes Carbon Neutral” in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of this newsletter).
Svanholm's primary income source is its organic food business.
Less obvious, yet fundamental, is Svanholm’s income-sharing economic model. All adult members generate income for Svanholm by working either in their community-owned businesses or in jobs offsite. Each adult receives housing, shared meals, use of a community car, and support for their children’s education. Twenty percent of what they earn is returned to them as pocket money. Svanholm members pay no insurance or taxes personally, as these are paid by the community.
While Svanholm’s businesses include a food-packing factory, a furniture workshop, and a shop selling local products, their primary business is organic agriculture: producing and selling organic milk, butter, and vegetables to to a national supermarket chain called “Coop.” In fact, since the 1970s Svanholm has been instrumental in spreading organic farming methods throughout Denmark and making organic food available in Denmark. More recently, in order to honor a contract which requires them to provide Coop with a minimum amount of organic food, Svanholm has imported organic food from other countries. It costs them less to buy this food than to grow and raise it themselves!
Svanholm’s relatively large scale is key to their successful business arrangement with Coop, because with 408 hectares (998 acres) of farmland, 100 Jersey cows, and 85+ ecovillage members, Svanholm has the capacity for a large volume of production. (However, their business success means they have to play by the rules of the market economy, making them both a “master” and “slave” in Denmark’s organic food market.)
Munksøgård: Ecological Solutions in a Suburban Context
Munksøgård near Copenhagen uses the cohousing model.
Located only 30 km (about 18 miles) from Copenhagen’s town hall, Munksøgård is five 20-unit cohousing neighborhoods clustered together on a 10-hectare (25-acre) former farmstead, and home to more than 235 people (160 adults, 75 children). Most Munksøgård residents work in the Copenhagen area, commuting by train (a 25-minute ride, with trains running every 15 minutes), bicycle, or car-pooling with one of the community’s five shared cars.
Munksøgård clustered its five cohousing neighborhoods on a former farm.
Far from being simply a classic suburban cohousing neighborhood, Munksøgård is also an ecovillage with a low carbon footprint — with homes heated from wood pellet-furnaces, solar hot water heating, shared laundry appliances, low-flow toilets, and some use of natural building materials like strawbale, earthen bricks (and a mussel-shell roof for the bike shed and one Common House); an active social life in each Common House in the five neighborhoods; and extensive organic food gardens. (We have vivid memories of the delicious strawberries, raspberries, red currants, black currants, and blackberries our group picked and ate when we visited!)
To me, Munksøgård is an example of combining ecovillage values with an urban lifestyle. It’s a real “myth-buster” for those who misunderstand ecovillage living as anchored in the past or as going against “progress.”
“We built our strawbale house ourselves.” —Lars, an engineer at Munksøgård. Notice the abalone-shell roof.
I believe the relatively close proximity of Munksøgård to Copenhagen will help naturally spread their ecological innovations, both visible and invisible, to colleagues, family, neighbours. Copenhagen residents can easily visit Munksøgård and see what they, too, can do to change their lifestyle and lower their own ecological footprint. Anyone moving to Munksøgård would naturally adopt a new lifestyle, just by having these ecological innovatons available to them right onsite. In my view, this availability and a readiness to switch to a more ecological lifestyle is an important way to spread the innovations of ecovillage living. I understand that such a transformation is internal, and that physical aspects such as one’s house or furniture will not change one’s behavior, yet I believe that proximity to large numbers of people living “one step beyond” in a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle can show others how fascinating and rewarding it can be.
Munksøgård resident Jytte Abildstrøm
Munksøgård has a long waiting list of people who’d like to live there — one indication of the success of this suburban ecovillage model. And so far there is no other model like it in Denmark. But what if this model were applied to a whole town? That’s what we wondered when we visited the city of Malmö in Sweden.
Malmö: Empowering Sustainable Change in the City
Augustenborg’s storm water system is integrated into the landscape.
With 500 000 inhabitants, Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city. We traveled there to meet Trevor Graham, who moved from England to Sweden to head the sustainable development agency in Malmö. We wanted to hear about the experimental project he conducted in Augustenborg, a district within Malmö. Augustenborg is a historically low-income area where some 3,000 immigrants from Thailand, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other countries live in rental apartments. The project started in 1998 with an aim to reduce the turnover of people moving in and out of Augustenborg. The idea of the municipality and the company owning the apartments there was simply to increase the quality of life without increasing the cost of living.
Trevor Graham and his team began by asking Augustenborg residents what didn’t work well and what ideas they might have to improve things. They learned:
- Electric bills were too high, especially in winter, since people used electric heaters in apartments with poor insulation.
- Water bills were too high.
- Storm water runoff would flood basements and schoolyards after intense rains.
- Household waste accumulated too fast, without adequate ways to remove it from the neighborhood.
The open water system retains 70 percent of all rainfall onto the site.
So the team conducted workshops to help people learn new habits to reduce electrical use. Adding an insulated exterior siding to many of the buildings reduced energy use by 10 percent, and adding 400 square meters of solar hot water panels to roofs in a nearby industrial park created hot water. A ground-source heat pump installed under the soccer field in the park was connected to the central heating system.
Trevor Graham’s team also held workshops to help change water consumption habits. Hot water use was reduced by providing more efficient thermostats in the hot water supply system and fitting low-flow shower heads in bathrooms.
An open, surface-level storm water system was created for water run-off, with canals, ditches, ponds, and wetlands that eventually drain into a traditional closed sub-surface storm water system. The system was designed by the inhabitants themselves, using the knowledge of one unemployed man in the neighborhood who experimented in his basement with many different designs of canals, gates, and pipes. (His work became so valued that he eventually created his own consulting company specializing in storm water management.)
The insulated building façades have helped reduce energy use 10 percent.
Green roofs were also used to reduce water run-off, because vegetation can absorb a heavy downpour, slow and reduce its entry into the storm water system, and return some of water to the atmosphere through transpiraton. All new buildings in Augustenborg have green roofs, and some existing garages and offices were retrofitted with green roofs. A 9,500 sq. meter Botanical Roof Garden was built on top of Malmö’s Technical Administration building. The storm water system and roof gardens retain about 70 percent of all rain water that falls on the 32-hectare (79-acre) district.
In addition, 100 sq meters of solar panels have been added to these green roof to increase the amount of electric power available to the neighborhood.
The problem of household waste was addressed by installing 15 recycling stations, with large graphics explaining visually where to to drop off all the different types of waste. The local school played a key role in educating the kids in the process of sorting trash, so they could convince their parents to recycle as well: “If my child can do this, why not me?”
All newly built buildings, and some existing buildings, now have living roofs.
Community parks were created between the buildings, providing areas where residents could visit with neighbors and where children could play, and small allotments where people now grow food. The speed limit was reduced to 15 kilometers per hour (9 mph) on most local roads to encourage walking and bicyling. A community car club with electric and ethanol-powered cars was introduced, as well as an experimental electric street train to provide public transportation through the district.
In order to afford some of the innovations, the municipality of Augustenborg decided to save money by transferring law enforcement and garden maintenance from paid workers to volunteers from among the local inhabitants instead. And it worked! Benefitting from the cultural diversity of Augustenborg residents, the concept of “local” takes on a new sense —in the community garden Wasabi horseradish grows next to potatoes. Not to mention the children’s grain garden supplying food for their shared rabbit nursery.
Trevor Graham, Director of Malmö's Sustainable Development Agency, lives in Solbyn Ecovillage.
Soon after he arrived in Malmö Trevor began living in an ecovillage himself: Solbyn
, near Lund. As he experienced ecovillage living he applied some aspects of ecovillage culture to the Augustenborg project; for example, “less planning, more experimentation.” Instead of spending the next 5 years planning a hypothetical sustainable city that won’t be manifested for 20 years (which is what most urban planners do), Malmö is experimenting now, in smaller areas of the city like Augustenborg. Another aspect of ecovillage culture that he applied was being willing to make mistakes. Staff members of the municipality now communicate with each other openly about the inevitable problems that come up when trying something new, so these become lessons learned and not mistakes made again. Another aspect is working with the residents themselves and benefitting from their own local knowledge to bring about change smoothly.
Like at Munksøgård, there’s now a long waiting list of people who want to live in Augustenborg — one measure of success. Trevor Graham notes that residents have radically changed their perception of quality of life from a sense of, “We’re unhappy because we don´t have much,” to “We’re happy because we have enough to have a great quality of life.”
In this example ecovillage innovations arrived “in the luggage,” so to speak, of a relative newcomer in an influential city position, who championed these methods to the public by applying them successfully in an urban context.
The One Step Beyond team relaxing with Jytte at Munksøgård.
I personally think the ecovillage movement needs more champions like Trevor Graham — people who create pathways to spread these innovations to the wider culture. (See Jonathan Dawson’s article, “From Eco Kooks to Eco Consultants,” in Communities Magazine, Winter 2007, #127.)
Education of the public, through courses like GEN/Gaia Education’s Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course; ecovillage work exchange programs; student groups visiting ecovillages; teams of researchers with videocameras like our own One Step Beyond project; and the Transition Town movement are certainly creating these pathways.
To facilitate the “transformation of values” in mainstream culture we need ecovillages which are located close enough to cities to affect mainstream culture, and which — like Svanholm, Munksøgård, and Augustenborg — are large enough to have influence with architects, urban planners, and local politicians. Let us ecovillage activists open the dialogue with these mainstream professionals and supply (flood!) them with ecovillage innovations! Are ecovillages visible enough yet to influence people in the mainstream? Let’s make it happen!
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. In Part I of this article Etienne describes the One Step Beyond team’s visits to the ecovillages Utsikten, Tuggelite, and Suderbyn in Sweden.
1 From Jonathan Dawson’s chapter, “Ecovillages and Transformation of Values” in State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures (WorldWatch Institute, 2010).
- Ecovillages in Scandinavia, Part I — Jul-Aug '10
- Svanholm Goes Carbon-Neutral — Nov-Dec '09
- Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I — May '09