By Racha Haffar
ZEALAND ISLAND, Denmark – On the Danish island of Zealand sits an ecovillage composed of 20 families.
The goal of an ecovillage is to become more socially and ecologically sustainable than other communities. And Zealand’s ecovillage of Hallingelille certainly reflects these philosophies. Colorful and whimsically-shaped houses are nestled in forests that sit beside a pristine lake. Inhabitants describe living on the compound as “a dream come true.”
The success of Hallingelille is mainly the result of Suzana Maxen’s work. As Hallingelille’s founder, Maxen had imagined a community where people lived with the values of communal integrity and lifestyles that respected the environment. She also wanted residents to care for the well-being of one another rather than only be self-interested.
The ecovilllages movement, which began in Denmark in 1995, gained traction following the creation of the National Association of Ecovillages. The movement has since spread worldwide, but Denmark remains the country with the highest number of ecovillages per capita.
In 2000, Maxen posted an announcement in local Danish newspapers in an attempt to gather people with like-minded values representative of the ecovillages movement. She wanted people, she said, who would be “walking the talk.”
The people who responded to Maxen’s announcement reached a consensus that they wanted to break away from mainstream Danish life for something different.
Maxen’s message certainly piqued interests. Today, 50 adults and 35 children live at Hallingelille. But finding residents for the village wasn’t always easy.
“At the beginning it was actually difficult to gather people and make them agree to start the village,” said Camilla Nielsen-Englyst, who helped found Hallingelille and now works for the community as a board member and as a member of the welcoming committee. “We were a group of dreamers with big visions. We wanted to establish a sustainable village with all its centers and houses, a hospital and a school.”
Nielsen-Englyst added that it was difficult to find available land to settle on. By 2005, she and other founders were able to find space to build 22 houses in addition to a common house that would serve as a space for celebrations and meetings.
Hallingelille is a community without a formal set of laws, but decisions affecting the community are made democratically through consensus. There is also a five-member board in place with a chairman, each member elected to a one to two-year term. Meetings are also held every Monday, where residents discuss issues pertaining to the village and solicit courses of action.
One of the biggest challenges to the ecovillage system is people who want to take initiative on their own without getting help from professional experts. This has been seen in cases where professionals are needed to do things like build houses, wire them for electricity, and install sewage systems. But eventually, said Nielsen-Englyst, community members realize that such projects are difficult to undertake without professional help.
“We need support from other communities to help us in constructing ours,” said Nielsen-Englyst. “Local municipalities were a bit skeptical at the beginning and didn’t help us with what we needed,” she added.
The houses at Hallingelille are especially distinct in their architecture and function. All houses are equipped with solar energy panels and water pipes that collect rainwater for use it in toilets. Many of the houses are built from materials that have been recycled and are ecologically friendly. Residents augment this eco-friendly trend by sourcing food from outside communities that would otherwise be discarded.
Like every society, Hallingelille has its share of problems. However, residents say following a democratic system of government makes solving them much easier.
“There will be always problems but they are constructive,” said Nielsen-Englyst. “We work on conflict resolution in practice in everyday life, and we make sure that we all communicate properly in a manner where no one leaves the discussion with unresolved matters.”
For the most part, living in Hallinglille is extremely safe. Safety and honesty are fundamental principles of its community, and many residents leave their doors unlocked, leave keys in their cars and let their children play outside without much supervision.
Nielsen-Englyst added that every member of the compound has to learn to share responsibilities and chores. “Everyone knows their rights and duties in a very democratic way,” she said.
Individuals also undertake their own projects while living on the compound. Many independently raise vegetable gardens and produce dairy products. Some residents also do small projects on their own houses. Many also practice yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation in their spare time. Altogether, the ecovillage lifestyle is one that attempts to strike a balance between independent and communal work.
The main goal of ecovillages, Hallinglille residents say, is to provide an escape from city life and enjoy a relaxing yet productive lifestyle. Sustainable practices, vegetarianism, daily exercise and outdoor activities are all a part of this. “When you are together you do more, said Nielsen-Englyst. “That’s the strength of togetherness.”
The village receives many visitors who are curious about how Hallinglille residents live. Many also want to know more about the sustainability movement to incorporate aspects of it in their daily lives. Sometimes, the reach of ecovillages is especially broad. Hallinglille, for instance, is collaborating with villages in Ghana, sending materials to help people there build homes in a sustainable manner.
Ross Jackson, the author of Occupy World Street and the founder of The Gaia Trust, develops software that supports various sustainability projects related to ecovillages. In an interview with The Atlantic Post, Jackson discussed the benefits of the ecovillage system over normal societal structures.
Early ecovillages that sprang up in India, Scotland and Australia turned out to be very successful, he said, illustrating the global reach and appeal of the ecovillage system.
In 1995, The Global Ecological Network was launched, after which point Jackson founded The Gaia Trust to support the movement.
“The whole idea is a model for the mainstream in the long run,” said Jackson. “Sooner or later, people will notice that they have to turn inward and start surviving on their own resources rather than importing others’ models.” Jackson added that the movement remains relatively obscure, and that it has received little support from politicians since many are unaware of its existence.
In total, there are about 10 ecovillages located throughout Denmark. The largest ecovillage community is based in the city of Aarhus, in the eastern part of the country.
The early 1970s witnessed a boom in the co-housing concept in Denmark, defined by groups of people living together and sharing facilities. It was this movement that paved the way for ecovillages to take hold in the country. There were elements of socialism in the ecovillage movement, but overall it was viewed as something distinct, and without overt political elements.
The ecovillages movement was formalized in 1995 with the establishment of the National Association for Ecovillages. It is part of the Global Ecovillages Network, which Jackson helped found.
“The Danish government didn’t even know about this, they gave no support as they don’t think in terms of grassroots activities,” said Jackson. “For them, it’s too much top-down rather than listening to what people say and trusting them, they just listen to large corporations. The key is not whether you are rich or not, it is actually in doing things together.”
Though it was initially difficult to get permits to construct ecovillages from local municipalities, Jackson said local governments were eventually receptive to the concept.
“Personally, I see that it will be for the politicians’ own interest to support this movement,” said Jackson. “It is going to bring about a positive change, reduce the Ecological footprint and CO2.”
Meanwhile, a country as small as Denmark is making it easy for people to reach ecovillages. Regardless of where a person is in the country, the closest ecovillage is usually no farther than an hour’s drive away.
For some people, living in an ecovillage is especially attractive for the tightly-knit community it fosters, the privacy and simplicity it affords its residents and the philosophies of sustainability it embraces. Many adherents of the movement say they prefer this societal model to ones instituted by large governments and masses of people who cannot seem to reach consensuses on topics easily.
“We make sure we are all well, happy and satisfied,” said Nielsen-Englyst. “Try it out. It only takes one person to start a dream.
Racha Haffar is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Dubai, UAE and Tunis, Tunisia.
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