Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sieben Linden: An Ecovillage in Harmony with Nature and with Each Other

We are on our way to Sieben Linden, situated in the little village of Poppau.  This was once part of East Germany and we see evidence of its communist past as we make our way here from ZEGG.  It’s a
novel experience to be so far off the beaten track but we are on our way to meet a friend we met at a conference earlier in the year.  She has invited us to stay at her flat and experience communal living at Sieben Linden (7 Linden Trees).    We are here for two nights.  She has asked to remain anonymous, so I will not be referring to her by name, as is my normal practice. 

She picks us up at the bus stop and we are glad to see a familiar face.  It makes our travels through Europe so much more personal.  We have heard a little about Sieben Linden but being here and seeing this wonderful place cannot be compared to reading about it on a website.  We have arrived on a Sunday, and we make a beeline for the café.  Today is  ‘Sunday Café’ – an open day at the communal house where residents from the nearby village pop in to have a cuppa and mingle with the residents.  We meet a few of the people who live here and start to get a feel for the place

Sieben Linden is one of the best examples of an eco-village that we have come across so far.  The vision to construct a village that was self sufficient and self-managed was born in the late 1980’s.  The village has been thriving since the late nineties and today about one hundred adults and forty children live in shared apartments, flats and trailers.  They don’t share a common philosophy but rather construct neighbourhoods within Sieben Linden where shared ideals are realised.   These ideals could be economic, dietary (i.e. vegan), family situations or perhaps just the need for a bit of peace and quiet! 

The community does however share a common goal of reducing their ecological footprint and claim
that theirs is a third the size of the average footprint in Germany.  This is achieved from measures such as closed energy and resource cycles, solar energy, building with natural and regional resources like straw, clay and timber as well as supplying most of their fruits and vegies from the organic garden on their land.  Many have also made personal commitments to being vegetarian or vegan; never using an airplane; using a shared car rather than owning one; living in a passively designed house with great insulation & composting toilets, all of which contributes to a reduced footprint.  It is also obvious to us that their lifestyle is not one that is consumer driven.  A little shed provides second hand clothing, books and other necessities and generally it is evident that a life without the pressures of the mainstream world is automatically less demanding on your budget. 

I loved the innovative architect-designed straw bale houses.  After coffee, we walk to our friend’s house, beautifully co-designed with her fellow inhabitants and solidly constructed with excellent workmanship.  The entire village is car free and anyone who does own a car, parks at a parking lot at the edge of the village and walks or bikes in. 

Our friend shares a flat in this house with her son.  They each have their own room, with a bed, bookcase and small couch and office space in a mezzanine area above, which can be reached by ladder.  There is a shared bathroom and kitchen and this space is replicated next door as well as in two other flats downstairs, enabling about 8 -12 people to live in a house that would normally be inhabited by less than half that population.  She gives us her room, while she will sleep next door in the flat of a friend who is on vacation.  This room is also being used by her flatmates in her absence – another great example of communal living! 

We didn’t have the best weather while we were there, but it was wonderful to lie in bed and look
outside at the wind howling and to feel so warm and cosy even with no heating on.  While heating is required in the long cold winters, the house stays warm during a few days of wet/cold weather.  Our friend has triple glazed windows and the thick clay clad walls of the straw bale house provides great insulation.  In fact, Sieben Linden has the highest density of straw bale houses in Europe and as they keep building more, the techniques and design methods are also being improved.  The straw bales come from local organic farmers, the clay used to plaster the outside often comes from the ground and the timber mostly from their own forest! 

Beautiful communal spaces and buildings offer space for shared meals, celebrations, meetings, dancing,
screening movies, conducting forums, mediations and more personal gatherings.  We eat at the communal restaurant.  We have a choice of rooms and we choose the library, beautifully lined with a huge variety of books, which speak volumes to me.  This is obviously a place that believes in being resilient to climate change, peak oil and the looming financial crisis that will inevitably follow. 

Over dinner our friend shares more stories of her time in this incredible place. 

Stories of how she came to live here; how she designed the neighbourhood she lives in and then got approval from the co-op to build her dream.  It hasn’t been an easy journey but she is passionate in her commitment to living a low impact life. 

The process of joining the community and building is a little complicated but I will give it a shot for completeness.  Once your membership in the community is approved, you buy a share (13,000 Euros) in the Sieben Linden Co-op.  The co-op owns all of the infrastructure and the land (81.5 ha) on which
the community live.  You then get together with a group of people to form a neighbourhood community and put a proposal for the housing that you will need to the land co-op. The proposal must conform with the community’s overall building guidelines such as the restriction on the home building area each person can occupy (16 square meters per person of sealed land, and an overall land area of 100 square meter per person) as well as energy, water usage and sewerage requirements. It must also comply with the overall masterplan for the site and the local authority’s conditions of approval. If approved by the voting members of the community (essentially the land co-op) then work can commence.

The proposal also includes a request for a parcel of land on which your neighbourhood will be constructed.  The buildings can be financed through a separate housing co-op but this is not compulsory.  The advantage of using the co-op is that it spreads the risk over more people, so most now are choosing this option. You pay rent to the housing co-op for the mortgage on your house as well as expenses the co-o incurs such as insurance, tax, the maintenance reserve fund and depreciation.  The other advantage of living in this manner is that there is no private ownership.  The community collectively share the total land area, the infrastructure and the houses.

If you chose to leave, you will be given back your investment.  However, unlike in the mainstream economy, your house does not increase in value.  So making a choice to live in community is making a choice about the rest of your life and your financial future.  It is an investment in the quality of your life rather than an investment in your bank account.  An investment in a way of life that is sustainable for the generations that will follow, making home ownership a reality for them rather than a pipe dream.  It takes courage to make this choice and we are amazed that we have found so many people in Europe willing to make such choices. 

Sieben Linden residents also contribute up to 6 hours of voluntary time each week for cleaning duties at the restaurant and for participating in various committees. 

While Sieben Linden doesn’t have a shared economy, much of the money they generate within the eco-
village also circulates within the village a few times before it goes outside.  Many people work in the eco-village itself, managing the garden (a private business), the food co-op, the guest business, general administration, working in the restaurant, and running seminars.  Each adult pays a fee of 99 Euro a month to the co-op, which includes an administration fee as well as the costs of firewood, energy and maintenance of the infrastructure.  In addition, a 6 Euro per day fee covers the cost of access to food at the restaurant or food and other products from the cellar.  The community collectively funds these costs for the children, making Sieben Linden an attractive place for young families.

One of the highlights of our trip was having lunch with a group of participants in the Global Eco-Village Design Education Course (GEN EDE).  The participants have arrived from all over the globe and as we sit down, a number of them walk over to say hello.  Those of you who know me well, know that I have an attraction to Africa.  It is a continent that pulls at my heartstrings and the strangely, as we sit down to eat a number of men, all from Africa gather around our table.  We invite them to join us and have fascinating conversations about the work they are doing in places such as Cameroon and The Gambia.  We are later joined by a couple of young women, Theodora from Romania and Nikki from Hungary who also has a deep connection to Africa.  We chat about Africa and Nikki shares stories from the work she has already done there. 

After lunch and a brief rest, we continue to walk around the eco-village with our friend.  We stop to pick fruit from the edible landscape that is bursting with its harvest.  The wonderful bio-diversity that has been created attracts many species of birds and bees, which of course is beneficial to the plant life here.  There is a pine forest at the edge of the village that is regularly replanted while they harvest wood to fill in the energy gap created in the winter, when solar power is insufficient. 

We are also fortunate to visit one of the older inhabitants at Sieben Linden.  She persuaded the community that she wanted to live in her own little straw bale house, but was happy to share the kitchen and toilet with others in her neighbourhood.  We meet a strong independent woman who is busy cutting up vegies for her dinner.  We are delighted to meet her and get her perspective on living in community as an elder (she is in her seventies).  Later we learn that our visit brought her much joy as well. 

It’s time for dinner and a last chat with our new friends from the GEN EDE course and with our host.  We have enjoyed our two days here greatly and we are truly thankful that we got such a personal and in-depth tour of this Eco-Village – a place where people walk the talk, a place where a community is demonstrating how life can be lived in a more creative way.  Our friend shared with us that it was also helpful and exciting for her to see Sieben Linden through our eyes and thanks us for being such ‘deep listeners’! 

We have found Sieben Linden to be a trendsetter for the future.  But how many people will have the courage to follow this trend and leave a worthwhile legacy, for the generations that will follow.  

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