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Earth Day Voices: Michael LaFond
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A planet of cities
by Michael LaFond

The planet we live on is an urbanized one, rapidly changing as billions of people migrate towards cities. And while sustainable development is a global challenge, it calls for local responses: not any one particular technology or ideology will save the entire planet, but rather diversified, urban R&D labs with many tens of thousands of (networked) local alternatives. While our planetary challenges are often environmental and technical, they are above all else cultural and urban. And if our cities are to be sustainable - if they are to produce more joy than suffering – they need to be as creative as they are energy efficient.

Artists, such as Beuys, architects like Hundertwasser, and activists and designers of all sorts have key roles to play in opening our eyes to new options, as well as in creating transformational environments and communicating experiences. As a civil society, we have to intensify our search for locally appropriate, flexible systems and solutions. I would like to describe a culture of sustainable urban development being explored in Berlin through the initiative experimentcity, which I coordinate with a wide range of partners.

Creative Urban Housing
A culture of sustainable urban development entails lifestyle changes, and a focus on possibilities found in projects such as cooperative housing and other solutions which approach global transformation through local initiatives. Even at a local level, we can each do much more than just recycle and separate our trash. We can bigger steps such as collectively implementing decentralized energy and water systems and more importantly, get on with processes of neighborhood organizing and networking. Our urban creative classes have the task (and privilege!) of reorganizing ourselves, and of exploring more efficient and enjoyable ways of living and working together. For those ready to do more than buy health food, or choose a bike over a car, cooperative housing projects offer opportunities to directly participate in the design of buildings and spaces, and to work with others to achieve synergies of energy, water, transportation systems, and other infrastructures. The emerging culture of sustainability must go beyond the purely private choices involved in consuming and voting and learning how to create communities to collective changes across entire cities, based on new understandings of communication and cooperation.

In this urbanized world we can’t expect (and we shouldn’t want) our governments to manage and take care of everything, nor should we count on the corporations to save us with ever more intelligent products and technologies. A sustainable path is one largely built and maintained by cultural creatives and civil society. This does not mean a crude deregulation or a neo-liberalism but rather a readjustment of incentives and regulations, for example making urban land available to initiatives capable of demonstrating various aspects of sustainable development. New forms of cooperation among civil society, government and business can work toward developing housing alternatives that produce more energy than they consume, using the sun, wind and rainwater, need virtually no heating system other than passive design, and consume no new land, but rather recycle existing urban land and buildings. All of this is driven not just by motivation to “save the environment” but at least as importantly to “save money,” to find more identity and meaning, and to live in an environment where we don't need to worry about being along in old age, or unsupported as a working parent.

The vision is not entirely a new one, at least not in Berlin, which over the last decades has supported the building of several hundred participatory projects.

This post ideological city of millions where I have been living and working for many years is one of many “shrinking cities” found in Germany and elsewhere. We have the challenges and opportunities found in non-growing economies and declining and aging populations. Fewer children and a vanishing industry have blessed us with a seemingly endless supply of abandoned land and buildings.

Our Mayor likes to describe our city as being “poor but sexy.” Investors are staying away and while sky-rocketing city debts have paralyzed local government, we are fortunately seeing an increasing number of cultural creatives here, who among other things are pioneering methods for redeveloping idle real estate for, among other things, cooperative housing alternatives.

In the context of a post iron-curtain Berlin, I offer experimentcity not as “the global solution,” but rather as a regional approach to sustainability, with a cultural perspective potentially interesting for urban pioneers in other communities around the globe. The following is an overview the experimentcity vision, emphasizing innovation in the participatory design and management of housing.

id22: Institute for Creative Sustainability
id22 (the Institute which I direct) studies, networks and publicizes communicative initiatives such as experimentcity. The institute has been housed for some time in Berlin’s ufaFabrik, which itself arose out of a squatter arrangement in the abandoned UFA film studios in 1979. Sometimes laws beg to be broken (in the name of sustainability!). The creative spirit of the ufaFabrik, dating back to the German expressionists of the 1920s with films such as Lang’s Metropolis, has thus been built upon as a demonstration of the cultural dimensions of sustainability. The ufaFabrik is a fantastic example of the local integration of culture and ecology, combining a cooperative residential community with a variety of projects and businesses including an international cultural center, organic bakery and natural foods store, alternative children’s “Free School", guest house, and children’s farm and neighborhood center. The ufaFabrik collects and uses rainwater, manages solar panels and co-generation motors to produce and sell energy to the power utility, and has ecologically renovated its dozen or so buildings. Its work was recognized in 2004 by the UN Habitat Program as a Best Practice for improving the living environment.

The ufaFabrik was born out of the “alternative” movements of the 1970s -- the most spectacular of a couple hundred building occupations in West Berlin -- many years before Agenda 21 and sustainable development got wide public attention. While many of the other Berlin projects founded in those years have long since quieted down, the ufaFabrik has been around long enough to now be joined by a younger wave of housing initiatives emerging in Berlin in recent years.

A type of cooperative housing project rapidly gaining attention in Berlin is the “Building Community” (Baugemeinschaft), of which there are a few dozen currently being planned and built.

In September, 2007 I will be moving into the “MARIE”, which is one example of a “Building Community.” Since 2005, about twenty-two families and households have been cooperatively planning the future homes and workplaces there. This new ecological building, located on the edge of the urban MARIE Park in the Berlin District of Prenzlauer Berg, will have its own co-generation energy and heating system in the basement, a green roof with community terrace and solar panels, rainwater harvesting systems, a community garden with meeting space, as well as a physical therapy and wellness center. No new parking spaces will be created for cars, but we will have about forty covered bike spaces in the garden, and space for another forty bikes in the basement. Unlike its 1970s ancestor, there is nothing illegal about this project. To the contrary, we can see with projects like this that environmental technologies and cooperative structures have been mainstreamed and now draw encouragement, rather than scoffing and laughter, from bankers, politicians, and funding programs from local to EU levels.

The next years
The hundreds of housing alternatives realized in the last decades in Berlin are currently being surveyed and published through the experimentcity internet platform, linked with a database of thousands of similar initiatives at the German federal level.

Such projects are, in the global perspective, small steps, but when networked, they amount to real impact, as demonstration models from which to learn and build. Slowly but surely the top-down structures and linear systems that exploit natural resources and produce excessive waste are being replaced with more participatory, decentralized and attractive urban infrastructures. Is it all moving fast enough? The next decades will show us…

By 2010 we estimate that about 30.000 people or 1% of Berlin’s population of more than 3 million will be living in a total of about 600 cooperative housing projects emerging since 1990. Such projects are expected to amount to more than 10% of the new housing construction in the inner-city in the next years. By 2020 we predict about 5% of the city’s residents to be involved in around 3000 projects, adding up to about 150,000 people. As the inhabitants of such housing alternatives tend to be engaged not just in their own buildings but also in the surrounding neighborhood and city, we expect to see sustainable, cultural processes take big steps forward in the next years in Berlin.

While designing and managing our own housing isn’t easy, it is doable, and it provides us with living R&D centers -- building blocks in the larger project of the sustainable redesign of our cities. In the end, we have the challenge of saving as many of our natural resources as possible, in the process saving ourselves and together creating a culture of sustainability.

For more information see: and, email: institute[at]id22[dot]de

image: ufaFabrik: Culture + Ecology

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April - May 2007
This spring an experienced Earthship crew will be starting construction on Europe’s first residential Earthship to have a building permit. The total project consists of enclosing the structural shell of the building; tire walls, roof beams, insulation, greenhouse framing, and glazing. The water and power systems will also be installed enabling the project owners to utilize solar power and the water caught on site for further construction purposes. Greywater planters will be constructed, interior walls will be built, and with time permitting finishes will be started.


Posted by: Jonah Reynolds on 25 Apr 07



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