The Village Gate to Self-Sufficiency

The Village Gate to Self-Sufficiency

She’s always on the go. And she’s dreaming of a solar pavement at the central street of her village. Pavlina, a restless and energetic young woman, has spent the last four years persistently piecing together a network of consumers, farmers and public organisations aiming to create a sustainable, self-sufficient village. A dream shared by many in Europe and around the world.

Pavlina’s idea is to take young unemployed people and teach them about sustainable farming in a village close to Lovech, one of Bulgaria’s regions with the highest rates of unemployment.

“Not all of the farmers in our village would be able to use a “bio” or “organic” label for the food they produce; but what is more important is to do farming in harmony with nature. They need to know how to work and live with nature, not despite nature”, Pavlina Petrova says. “They need to be capable of feeding their stock and caring for their crops in a way that will allow for good harvests after 20 – 30 years too.” With all participants on board, her movement entered a new, crucial phase at the start of 2017, and now the real work lies ahead.

Pavlina Petrova rarely takes a break from her work. Always smiling, her eyes shining, she is constantly pursuing the next step towards her dream. Photo: Maria Maltseva

These young farmers will be taught the ins and outs of sustainable farming. Then, psychologists will enter the scene. “One of the toughest moments for young people in areas with high unemployment is coming back after the education. During their entrepreneurship, they would have listened to inspiring stories and examples. But when they come back home, they faced the daunting reality. Their enthusiasm would be quickly washed away”, Pavlina explains. Young people need to become psychologically sustainable as well so they don’t so easily lose hope and give up on their dreams.

The next most important step is to teach these young farmers about cooperation. Nobody can succeed on their own. The young farmers need to understand that cooperation is the key to success and that they must work together to deal with the hardships they will face in their everyday work. They need, Pavlina believes, to make a cooperative. And then, some day, as their village becomes more and more successful, they will be able to start an energy cooperative as well. Pavlina dreams of having the main street of the village even covered with energy-generating street pavement.

The ReGen promise

The dream of a sustainable village is becoming more and more popular all over the world. Pavlina may keep a low profile, but others in the field are far more visible. The ReGen Villages project, commissioned by the Danish architectural firm EFFEKT, envisions a future where self-sustaining communities would grow their own food and produce their own energy. These would be off-grid communities that achieve their own food security and energy independence through sustainable design. EFFEKT planned to start building the first of these utopian communities in the summer of 2017.

Greenhouses will provide fresh vegetables all year round at the REGEN village. Image: REGEN / EFFEKT

When the announcement of the ReGen project came in June 2016, the news went viral immediately. EFFEKT then announced an enlargement of the project in 2017. “The global attention ReGen Villages receives is overwhelming, with thousands of families wanting to become future residents in our first community”, was the statement from an email sent to the people who already registered their wish to start living there. “We are very pleased to share with you that we managed to enlarge the territory for ReGen Village Oosterwold, Almere and are busy updating our architectural master plan at this moment… For those families who have expressed interest to become future residents in ReGen Villages, we are now opening the opportunity to reserve a numbered place in line for our first community before public sales begin”, the letter announced.

The village will be located in Oosterwold, Almere, the Netherlands. According to its website, there are five principles behind the ReGen Villages: energy positive homes, door-step high-yield organic food production, mixed renewable energy and storage, water and waste recycling, and empowerment of local communities.

Homes in these communities would be powered by photovoltaic solar panels, and passive heating and cooling systems would also be incorporated into the houses. Families are supposed to grow their own vegetables and fruit in connected greenhouses, making the entire community a “shared local ecosystem”. There will be charging stations for electric cars, vertical aquaponic farming spaces, community-owned water storage facilities and waste-to-resource systems, a community livestock farm, playgrounds and community learning centres as well.

The promise of ReGen Villages has been echoed in the creation of several similar projects. One of these is to be situated close to Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik. This fully sustainable community, dubbed “Aldin”, will be powered by geothermal energy, and the villagers will inhabit a series of stylish eco-biodomes designed by Spor i Sandinn.

Located in the Elliðaárdalur Valley of Reykjavik, the biodome community is said to feature a central plaza surrounded by ample public spaces for social functions and public activities as well as a marketplace and various cafes. Inside the biodome, the interior temperature will be kept at a comfortable 25°C. The developers say Aldin will rent out spaces to green-minded tenants such as farm-to-table restaurants, green product retail stores and health-related businesses.

The German village with 500% energy surplus

The Wildpoldsried village was generating 321% more energy than it needed in 2011. Photo: Richard Mayer, CC BY 3.0

But the idea of sustainable, self-sufficient villages is in fact not all that new. In 2011, a German village in the state of Bavaria became well-known when it generated 321% more energy than it needed. And the small village of Wildpoldsried, inhabited by some 2,500 people, was able to earn $5.7 million in annual revenues from the sale of this excess energy.

Most of the people living in Wildpoldsried are actually dairy farmers, but the mayor of the village, Arno Zengerle, is a bold and tech-savvy man who introduced the idea of placing solar roofs on local homes. Gradually, most of the homes in the village got a roof covered in solar panels, and the town started selling the surplus energy generated from the panels to the grid by means of an attractive feed-in tariff.

Today Wildpoldsried has three community-owned wind farms as well. The solar roofs and the wind farms are producing 500% more energy than the village needs. But the truly great achievement is that the village can go completely off-grid: all homes are equipped with integrated batteries so that the renewable power can be stored and used at a later time. The inhabitants even created a small smart grid by connecting their home batteries in a network, which drew great interest from tech companies developing RES smart grid solutions as well.

The solar roofs and the wind farms are producing 500% more energy than the village needs.

The Wildpoldsried energy cooperative is just one of more than 1,000 energy cooperatives in Germany today, and thousands of energy cooperatives also exist in the UK. But the oldest energy cooperatives seem to be Dutch. People in the Netherlands have a long tradition of setting up energy cooperatives using the sun to heat their homes with solar district heating (SDH) that allows whole neighbourhoods to be powered by thermal solar panels.

The Marstal community spirit

Community spirit helped Marstal create an SDH system that was later replicated in hundreds of villages in Denmark, Leo Holmes said during a seminar in Sofia in 2016. Photo: Maria Maltseva

An iconic example of this is the story of the SDH system in Marstal. It started with 9,000 m2 of thermal solar collectors in 1994. After the initial testing of the technology, it became clear that the collector field could generate 1 MW of solar power through 4 KWh of electric energy (for the pump that circulates the fluid). Given the certainty about the system’s efficiency, the project was enlarged to 8,038 m2 of solar panels and a 2,100 m3 storage tank in 1996. The results were impressive, and two more enlargement projects were completed in 2002. Later on, the size of the SDH collector fields grew to 33,365 m2.

In order to complete the project, the locals formed a community-owned company that was tasked with the construction of the solar district heating, and the company then applied for a low-interest bank loan to complete the project. This was possible due to the decision of the Marstal municipality to act as a guarantor. Today the system is used by 1,600 households – and the company is owned by these same 1,600 households. The community is using the solar energy for their own heating needs and covers the interest on the loan with the savings. After the loan is paid off, they will be the owner of the solar district heating system and will use solar energy for free. “Sounds easy? And it was!” says Leo Holm, one of the veterans of the technology. “They all wanted it, so it was easy. We had a very good cooperation, just as if we were one big family.”

Today this place is still a major part of the EU’s research in the field of renewable energy and is supported by the EU’s 7th Framework Programme.

American approach

The Americans have quite a different approach for creating self-sufficient villages as they typically start with a concept town and then look for inhabitants. Babcock Ranch is one of these planned communities that is leading the way. The 17,000-acre solar-powered community near Fort Myers will run entirely on a 75-megawatt, $300 million solar-powered generator and will also use smart grid technology to allow all inhabitants to monitor their power consumption. According to Babcock Ranch’s website, “Electric vehicles, able to plug in for recharge at convenient community-wide recharging stations, will glide along avenues beneath the glow of solar-powered street lamps. Ingenious, revolutionary Smart Grid technologies will monitor and manage energy use while Smart Home technology will allow residents to operate their homes at maximum efficiency, thereby reducing energy costs”.

The community will ultimately contain 19,500 homes and six million square feet of retail and light industrial space, and all homes and businesses in the city will be certified according to Florida Green Building Council standards.

“The 74.5-MW photovoltaic plant that went online on January 31, 2016 makes Babcock Ranch the first community that will be a “net contributor” to the energy grid – generating enough power when the sun is shining to exceed the total amount of energy the town will use”, says Lisa Hall, marketing and PR manager of the company. Besides this plant, there will be solar panels on the rooftops of commercial buildings, solar shade structures in parks and solar charging stations for electric vehicles. Rooftop solar panels are being offered as an option for all homes as well.

A crucial factor for the energy independence of the ranch was the falling cost of solar systems. “By the time we were ready to start construction in late 2015”, Lisa says, “the decreased cost of solar panels combined with significant increases in the efficiency of solar PV made it possible for Florida Power & Light to construct not just our 74.5-MW plant, but two more of equal size that they were able to locate on lands they already owned surrounding some of their existing plants”.

Energy independence is supposed to be combined with fostering the “grow your own food” approach. Weekly farmers’ markets will provide easy access to seasonal produce, and “pocket parks” in each neighbourhood will include container gardens where residents can try their hand at growing their own food as well. There will also be an area for larger-scale community gardens for those who are more ambitious.

The biggest hurdle for Babcock Ranch will be convincing people to set up their lives in a brand new, unestablished city, but the community does promise 20,000 permanent jobs to attract residents.

Another example from the USA is the Kayenta development, which is especially interesting given its harsh environment. Nestled in the desert landscapes of Utah, some seven miles west of St. George, this eco-friendly community is supposed to be a dreamland for artists. The Kayenta project was started over 30 years ago by developer Terry Marten, who had the idea of creating a community of people living in a village that respects the surrounding environment.

Kayenta – a sustainable community in the heart of the desert. Photo: screen capture – Kayenta@vimeo

Marten is an architect described as “a pioneer of desert modern architecture”. What he wanted to create was a village of homes that would protect the spectacular views of the desert by using local materials when building the houses. Hence, the colours of the homes would be natural and blend into the surrounding nature.

Today the homes in Kayenta are low-lying so they have low visual impact and feature large windows so that residents can enjoy the beautiful views all around. The houses rely on a variety of “energy-efficient features” as well, the developers say, by making use of the so-called passive solar design, and some are also equipped with actual solar panels. 

“The Shaffers” describe Marten as “a very special man who never cared about money in his life”. He must be overjoyed today as the reports say that a lot of like-minded people have rushed to Kayenta to live there and embrace his dream.

Big dreams in Asia

Houses in Kayenta are built following the passive solar design principles, using natural materials. Photo: screen capture: Kayenta@vimeo

The Laboratory for Visionary Architecture (LAVA) recently came up with a spectacular design for the Forest City in Malaysia. This 20-square-kilometre green smart city is planned be built around a central rainforest. It would mimic the forest’s ecosystem by adopting a closed-loop system that reuses all of its resources and controls outflow.

The Forest City concept was created for a 24-hectare site and won second place in an international design competition. “Skylines across the world look the same—usually a couple of iconic towers in the centre surrounded by lots of lesser quality buildings, which all resemble each other”, said Chris Bosse, director of LAVA. “Here we have designed an inverse city skyline where the icon of the city is a public space, not an object/building. Our central space is a Rainforest Valley and demonstrates the equation: PEOPLE = CITY. From an object to a place.”

The proposed city for 700,000 inhabitants is supposed to be located on reclaimed land between Malaysia and Singapore. The design consists of office towers, residential areas, parks, hotels, shopping malls and an international school, and the whole city is supposed to be organised around the Rainforest Valley, which is surrounded by a waterfall and serves as a visual reminder of the city as a three-dimensional ecosystem. The plan sounds incredible, but it is still only a concept, and there are many practical questions that need to be addressed.There is no precise calculation as to whether the city will be capable of providing all of the energy required on its own. Neither is it clear whether the forest community will be able to produce all the food that the residents will need.

Meanwhile a real “forest city” is growing up in China. Designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti, the Liuzhou Forest City is already under construction in Liuzhou, Guangxi Province. The plan says it should host some 30,000 residents, and the futuristic city will use renewable sources to achieve complete energy self-sufficiency. It will be covered with almost one million plants and 40,000 trees, achieving a sea of greenery that should be capable of absorbing nearly 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of pollutants annually.

Liuzhou Forest City. Render: Stefano Boeri Architetti

The 175-hectare Liuzhou Forest City will be the first of its kind, and the local government believes it may raise the bar for urban design worldwide.

A big failure of a big dream

Building large-scale green villages has, until now, proven to be quite challenging. One needs only to look at the planned community of the Masdar City to find evidence of this.

Masdar, designed by Foster+Partners and backed by a $22 billion investment, was meant to be a high-tech, completely self-sufficient smart city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. It was to represent the future of sustainable energy. And, for a while, it did. Unfortunately today, after more than a decade in development, the project is falling short of its original goals. Analysts say that “what might have been the sparkling gem of the United Arab Emirates is on its way to becoming the world’s first green ghost town”.

So why should we believe other green community projects can be successful?

The human aspect

A crucial part of a self-sustaining village is the role played by community spirit. The inhabitants must be involved in a cooperative and must be able to – and willing to – work together. The human scale is critical for a village to be sustainable.

The famous anthropologist Richley Crapo believes that the upper limit for such communities to work is 300 people, and anthropologist Robert Gilman claims that a community can be up to 500 people.  “Human-scale refers to a size in which people are able to know and be known by the others in the community, and where each member of the community feels he or she is able to influence the community’s direction”, Gilman says. “There is considerable practical evidence, both in modern industrial societies and in other cultures, that the upper limit for such a group is roughly 500 people. In very stable and isolated situations it can be higher, perhaps as high as 1,000, while in situations typical of modern industrial societies it is often lower, even less than 100.”

And yet, Wildpoldsried was a community of 2,500 when it achieved its energy revolution. So what’s the key?

The role of public spaces

“Today the car is a “tzar” in most cities, but we have to change that”, Jan Gehl said during his visit in Sofia. Photo: Maria Maltseva

Public spaces that foster community spirit may be crucial, too, for the success of self-sustainable villages. It is the design of our public spaces that can create – or kill – the sense of community among people who live in certain areas. 

A public space that makes people feel cosy and comfortable can encourage them to communicate, discuss matters, exchange ideas, feel together and create common projects. But how can one make a public space feel “cosy”?

Walkable streets are the first component of this feeling for cosiness, explains Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban design expert whose whole career has focused on improving the quality of urban spaces by re-orienting city design towards the people. “Today, the car is a “tsar” on the street”, Gehl says. Giving priority to pedestrians and cyclists is a must.

The human scale of plazas and buildings that we can see in the old towns is important to make people feel cosy and fosters a community spirit.

The design of the plazas, streets and street furniture can help too. It can invite people to stop for a while, look around and spend some time together with other people. These areas need to be “of human size”. Big places tend to “smash” the human feeling – a big, empty square is not the place where one wants to stop and have a rest; instead, people prefer a smaller plaza where they can have a seat on a bench in the shade of a tree. Comfortable benches, cafeterias, gardens, parklets and open-space exhibits can all foster this feeling of cosiness as well as communication and community spirit, Gehl explains in his book “Cities for the People”.

But how can one make a public space feel “cosy”?

Buildings, too, have their role. Smaller residential buildings help people get to know each other. Neighbours that know each other well tend to be much more willing to participate in any kind of local cooperation. A big building with a flat glass facade can hardly foster such a community spirit.

So, maybe the key to a the self-sufficient, sustainable dream village is somewhere in between the “human” design of urban spaces, the community spirit of the inhabitants, the strong will of a tech-savvy leader and the idealistic idea of a bold dreamer. Whatever the case, future communities, both the creators and the inhabitants, are set to change the way humans live forever. 

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