Ecovillages: utopias or real models for a sustainable future?

Sieben Linden — a small settlement in East Germany whose residents share a dream © Sieben Linden

It was a Sunday in April 2010 when Andrea Bocco headed to the village of Sieben Linden in the East of Germany for the first time. His journey took him through hundreds of kilometers of wheat, corn, and potato monocultures. “The landscape was dull, devoid of biodiversity and people,” he recalls. Arriving in Sieben Linden was like arriving in an oasis: “It was rich in biodiversity, in people, and there were so many things going on,” explains the Italian professor of architecture.

Sieben Linden’s 145 residents are living their dream of a so-called ecovillage. Researchers around the world are fascinated by the place. Ecovillages strive to act as models for a life within the planet’s ecological capacities. They range from spiritual to pragmatic communities, from low- to high-tech structures — with residents willing to follow specific rules for a more sustainable life. Scientists wonder whether Sieben Linden and other ecovillages can really be models for society at large. Sieben Linden was founded in 1997. With compost toilets, straw as insulation, mobile phones on flight-mode, and constant community discussions, life in the village can seem very different to the one lived outside of it.

“I was quite surprised by the quality of the environment,” says Bocco recalling his first day in Sieben Linden: “The houses, the gardens, the forest: everything was very well taken care of.” It seemed to him that there was a plan behind everything, and he could feel the clear set of rules people were sticking to. Bocco set out to study the environmental footprint of Sieben Linden. He created a research team with the ambitious task of identifying the village’s resource use and carbon emissions. They spent days counting all items and activities in Sieben Linden — a first step to be able to know what works and what could be applied in other contexts.

The way Sieben Lindeners build their houses has already become a model. The village has set a new national standard for thermal insulation with straw. Jonas Duhme, who moved there just over a year ago, recently took part in a Sieben Linden building seminar with his father, a building surveyor. “With straw, clay and wood you can build a very nice house,” Duhme points out: “My father, who is used to concrete construction, was fascinated how simple, efficient and affordable this way of building is.”

The “Libelle” is one of Sieben Linden’s houses built with straw, wood and clay © Sieben Linden

All houses have solar panels to generate electricity and hot water. “After a good day of sunshine, the water stays warm for two more days,” says Duhme. Otherwise, they burn wood from their sustainably managed forest. A villager uses a quarter of the electricity needed by the average German. 65 percent of the electricity is generated on the site. Typically, solar panels on German roofs cover between 25 and 35 percent of the household’s electricity needs.

Energy is but one of the areas in which the villagers lowered their impact on the planet. Synthetic soap is banned as the villagers use their wastewater to irrigate the gardens. Special compost toilets don’t require any freshwater and the composted waste is used as fertilizer. A Sieben Lindener consumes half as much freshwater as the average German. The villagers relied on their own wells until the local authorities ruled that for legal reasons, they had to connect to the municipal water network.

On Bocco’s first visit, he was offered vegan cookies and cake. “They were very good,” he remembers before adding: “vegan food is not always appealing to the taste buds.” He asked if the herbal tea was from the garden. It was. Sieben Linden tries to function as self-sufficiently as possible.

“We produce around 70 percent of our own food,” explains Jonas Duhme. Every resident pays 6,60€ per day for access to a cellar stocked with vegetables, fruit, bread, organic soap and other basic items. Those who want other products can go to the village shop which sells clothes, beer, chocolate and more. If the products are not organic, they are regional to save CO2 in transport.

“When you really want something, you can achieve a lot together with a group,” Duhme affirms: “This is as much an ecological project as it is a community experiment.” Sharing space and resources is efficient but requires a massive time investment by the whole community. “I was impressed by the number of group meetings,” recalls Bocco: “When you are chatting with someone, they often say, I need to go now, I have a meeting of this or that group.” It is also not easy to catch someone on the phone. “No one here officially works more than 30 hours,” says Duhme: “but still no one has much free time.”

The organization and community work take up many hours of the residents’ free time. Instead of a leader, elected councils steer the village life. One group organizes the guesthouse. Other councils manage the land use, the buildings or the vetting of new members. There is a full assembly every month. If one member vetoes a decision, the issue has to be reconsidered. Other meetings address personal issues between the residents.

Sieben Lindeners take part in regular community seminars. © Sieben Linden

The villagers feel they need these social workshops as their lives are so closely knit together. “The inside of the houses is out of the ordinary,” Bocco remembers. Each adult has his or her own room but shares the rest. How many people share which spaces depends on the configuration of each house. Two families in the village even share the tasks of raising their children.

The strong community aspect can be problematic for applying the Sieben Linden model elsewhere, according to Michael Böcher, a professor in sustainability politics in Magdeburg, who also advises politicians. “Ecovillages are examples showing that alternative lifestyles are possible,” he claims. Some aspects can be widely applied such as the sharing of cars or tools. But implementing the organization of a close-knit voluntary community in a random neighborhood may be impossible. “There are members of our society who are interested and willing to live like this,” he says: “But we cannot impose the structures of an ecovillage onto our whole society.”

Böcher’s colleague, sustainability researcher Katrin Beer, also had a personal interest in the village. She has visited several times and has even considered moving there herself. But no one can join Sieben Linden on a whim. Newcomers have to participate in an orientation seminar, a community workshop and an intensive week before being admitted to a trial year. The community then decides if the new member is accepted. New residents must buy shares for 12.300€ of the cooperative, plus an entrance fee of 1.500€. There are support systems for those who cannot afford that.

“Life in Sieben Linden makes sense and is much more resource efficient,” says Beer: “There is still a high comfort and I would not feel deprived of anything.” Except, she admits, perhaps, her mobile phone and wifi signal. But driving two hours to her work in Magdeburg or any university in the region does not seem sustainable to her.

She also thought in detail about the community life: “It takes an incredible amount of time coordinating and agreeing on everything.” Some of the residents are very pragmatic, others follow a rather esoteric alternative lifestyle, she explains, which is one reason why mobile phones and their radiation are forbidden in the village. “Some of their stances were so alternative that I could not identify with them,” says Beer. Jonas Duhme knows that feeling. Especially now during the Covid-19 pandemic, the discussion on their online platforms can get heated. “But as angry as you are, when you meet in person, you realize he is actually a good guy just with a different opinion and you fool around again.”

Katrin Beer had also been part of a neighborhood project in Karlsruhe, Germany, where a Sieben Lindener presented their lifestyle to spur sustainable practices elsewhere. “It was a bit disenchanting,” she admits: “We realized that the structures are so different and that wants and convictions are much more diverse in our neighborhood.” They decided on food as a common need and wanted to set up a neighborhood canteen but concluded it was too complicated without formal community structures. “It is not easy to take the approach to a different context,” she concludes: “but it remains a model to show people how things can work differently.”

Bocco’s Sieben Linden experience supported his notion that a sustainable lifestyle must rely on a strong community: “Being ready to take your share of the consequences of what you do is much more important than just changing your light-bulbs,” he affirms. Bocco has thus started to build a community in his own neighborhood to then introduce sustainable ways of living. He created a neighborhood center offering counseling, cultural events, sharing of tools and a cafeteria to hold gatherings, workshops or celebrations. There, he also gives seminars about sustainable living.

Sieben Linden is just one experiment of life within the planet’s capacities. Others have been around for much longer, such as the Scottish ecovillage Findhorn, founded in 1962, which is also organized around a strong community. Other eco-settlements are planned but not installed yet, such as the Regen villages by James Ehrlich. His high-tech village should self-supply sustainable food, electricity, heat and water for 203 homes. A software will distribute the resources efficiently and will also organize the community. Residents contributing to the village life will pay less rent, but no one will be forced to get involved in the community life.

Researcher Bocco, who has visited many ecovillages, is still fascinated by these alternative cosmoses. “You won’t find solutions for the management of a large city,” he says: “but for villages or neighborhoods.” For him, it depends on whether there is a community that shares the same vision. Jonas Duhme says: “Our model is not enough as our ecological footprint is still too large. But we would like to inspire others to do what they can in their surroundings.”

Visualisation: Elisa Miebach. Data from: Andrea Bocco, Martina Gerace, Susanna Pollini (2019): The Environmental Impact of Sieben Linden Ecovillage. Routledge