This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
It's pretty easy to make fun of intentional communities, if that's the sort of thing you enjoy, but utopias have their purposes, and intentional communities often offer the leverage of instantiation -- they're not just plans on paper, they're sitting right there in front of you, ready perhaps to offer the threat of a good example. It's easy to dismiss a plan, but harder to dismiss a demonstration.
Which is what makes Berlin's ufaFabrik such a delight. For three decades, ufaFabrik has been pushing the boundaries of the possible, turning the old pre-war UFA studios (where classics like Metropolis were created) into a thriving-if-threadbare arts, community and sustainability center.
I'm sitting at their outdoor cafe, surrounded by people having meetings and young mothers chatting. A cacophony of young unicyclists rides by. The wind turbines spin in the breeze over the green roofs. The solar panels glint in the sun. It'd take a heart of stone not to feel that the ufaFabrikators have earned a little satisfaction in all they've accomplished. They're certainly nice people, and their vision has been impressive.
ufaFabrik now features a theater, a dance studio, natural food store, a bakery, the cafe where I now sit, a guesthouse (which we would highly recommend), the largest solar installation in Berlin, 4,000 square meters of green roofs, rainwater harvesting systems, smart lighting that turns itself off when no one's around, bike racks and foot paths, a 90% solid-waste composting and recycling rate, extensive gardens, a children's farm (with horses, pigs, chickens and geese), a community center offering a variety of classes and programs, a Free School, even a circus.
The paint's peeling, the residents perhaps a little long in the tooth, but unlike some grandiose visions, this one actually works, and works pretty well, both strengthening its local community and greatly reducing the ecological footprints of those who live and work here. It's useful and beloved and still fairly radical.
So I'll set aside the Hippie jokes, and just note that many of the things ufaFabrik has made happen (the hard way, through thirty years of sweat equity and trial and error) are the kind of things that are now landing in the mainstream, from clean energy to green building to local food. Folks like these have brought us the tools we're now widely adopting, and helped make the advantages of those tools clear by actually using them in public. That's worldchanging, and makes me wonder what young punks out there are launching some idealistic and foolhardy venture now which will make our kids grateful.
ufaFabrik and the Power of Intentional Communities is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.