What is the first thing you think about when you hear the term eco-village? Could it be that you envision a hippy-like commune, where people pass their days smoking pod and milking the cows? Then the ReGen village concept will surprise you. Envisioned by Harvard professor and tech-entrepreneur James Ehrlich and developed in collaboration with Danish architects bureau EFFEKT, this futuristic community concept went viral last year at the Biennale in Venice. It’s more than just some naive dreams: the first village is already under construction in Almere, a polder village 25 minutes from Amsterdam.
We have a problem. A big problem. The world’s population is growing, cities that cannot keep up with the rapid pace of urbanisation become unliveable, and the agricultural footprint to feed all those people is taking up 42% of all land surface on our planet. This agriculture does not only take up land, it also consumes enormous amounts of water, produces greenhouse gases in both production and transport of the food to your kitchen. In the meantime, people start feeling more and more disconnected from what they eat, and the people they used to share their meals with. Time for a change.
It was when James Ehrlich visited the solar decathlon competition finals in Versailles in 2014, where teams showed off their energy-positive homes, that he realised that technology combined with local agriculture and aquaponics could solve the energy-food-housing nexus. All homes were built at the exposition site in less than two weeks time and produced more energy than they needed by solar PV panels. Electric vehicles were buzzing around. Yes, it must be possible to build a sustainable village that can fully support itself, James thought. And this village would be sexy, it would be cool. It would be the Tesla of eco-villages!
Together with EFFEKT, he designed a regenerative community for about 100 people, containing 25 housing-units, seasonal gardens, aquaponic facilities, plazas, EV charging poles and what more. Houses are fully powered by solar panels, and encapsulated in greenhouses, that extend the warm season but still allow temperature regulation and fresh air to come in. Vegetable gardens connect the housing units and provide the community with home-grown food.
The beauty of the system is that it consists of building blocks that are connected. The output – or waste – of one is the input for another. For example, organic waste is collected and processed locally, which is then used to feed the fireflies (which in their turn are fed to the fish culture), livestock and the biogas unit. Used water is collected, cleaned and used for the seasonal garden and aquaponics. Everything is interconnected and nothing is lost.
Soon, people from all over the world contacted Ehrlich telling him they had been waiting for this for years. By now, contracts for villages in Norway, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium are signed. But the premiere goes to the Netherlands, a country with a long tradition of housing projects. In Almere, a small town not far from Amsterdam, the first village is being built at the moment and the first inhabitants should be able to move in before the end of the year. For 200 000 euros, those people will be the first to see how the modern version of an eco-village works out.
Must all be people with green fingers that like weeding, you might think. Not necessarily. ReGen villages contracts people to maintain the gardens and facilities. For 500 euros a month, a family receives the locally grown food and other services. This doesn’t mean one cannot participate in the work. For every hour contributed, the service fee is reduced. Everyone can choose how much time they want to commit. The designers hope to attract a healthy mix of families, elderly people and yuppies. The ReGen village is meant to form a strong community, where it is fun and healthy to live. This way, it aims not only to fight climate change, but also social exclusion. I could imagine myself living in one of them, what about you?