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Allmende Kontor Gemeinschaftsgarten Berlin Tempelhof Flughafen
Image: Kerstin Stelmacher

Co-designing the future

Elizabeth Owuor
July 8, 2014

Community conservation projects have been re-shaping the European landscape for the last few decades. Now, the movement is making its next big leap - acting in concert with policy makers to boost sustainability.


No cars. No cell phones. And lots of straw houses. “Sieben Linden” isn’t your typical town, it’s a thriving eco-village in the heart of the Sachsen-Anhalt region of the former East Germany where residents have quietly fashioned a micro-society in the service of sustainability.

Julia Kommerell is just one of 140 people who call this micro-society home. Kommerell has lived at Sieben Linden for nearly 15 years. Like many other residents, the artist, illustrator and raw food practitioner spends her days performing several jobs in the community: from working with the food council to painting the community mural to producing raw food cakes for sale.

And “Sieben Linden” isn’t alone. From solar villages in Spain, to co-operative wind farms in Belgium, and community energy saving schemes in the Czech Republic, green grassroots have sprung up across Europe over the last few decades. The continent is home to over 2,000 community-based initiatives.

Some are part of so-called “Transition Towns,” a global experiment that works locally to tackle climate change, food, waste, housing issues and oil dependency. Conceived in the 8,000-strong town of Totnes, England in 2006, the movement has swept 38 countries and now comprises more than 500 official Transition Town initiatives.

And the movement has global reach: Off the coast of Iran’s Queshm Island, villagers have banded together to protect the local sea turtle population. In Fiji’s fishing villages, locals are now working together to address overfishing. And South Africa’s Nholwasi Community Project inspires local children to become wildlife rangers and conservationists.

Bridging the divide

Eco-friendy homes in wood with solar panels on the roof. (Photo: Karin Jäger)
Many houses in Sieben Linden are made of wood with solar panels mounted on the roofsImage: DW

Around the corner and across the world, grassroots initiatives have made it clear that they’re willing to craft homegrown solutions at the community-level to tackle some of the world’s most perplexing conservation problems.

But for many, the way forward for a more sustainable Europe won’t be accomplished if small-scale initiatives and government-led projects continue to remain isolated from one another.

“Community-based initiatives haven’t received the recognition they deserve,” says Robert Hall, a founding member of ECOLISE, an umbrella NGO recently created to provide support for community-led conservation projects.

“When European and national governments seek dialogue on sustainability it is often with professional environmental lobby groups which advocate for specific issues and are backed up by researchers and financed by donations, volunteers and grants,” Hall says.

Hall’s group aims to bridge the divide between these community conservation groups and the top-level initiatives which would enable those very grassroots projects to flourish and acquire mainstream legitimacy. “Government-initiated structures often do not anticipate the needs of local initiatives, and have regulations and bureaucratic processes that exclude support to real community-led action groups,” Hall adds.

Julia Kommerell of the Sieben Linden eco-village says that while partnerships with the government are rare, there is growing interest in tackling conservation challenges together.

She says the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) is one example of eco-villages networking globally in concert with policy experts, but she notes these collaborations are just beginning to take hold. “We also want cooperation with governments to share our approaches with the wider society.”

A 2010 study commissioned by the European Commission on community initiatives in the EU came to a similar conclusion. It said recent bottom-up sustainable development movements have been key to creating the “culture of empowerment” necessary to affect real environmental change.

At the same time, it admitted that many of the folks at the ground level lack the necessary funds and recognition from the top to “scale-up” or take their endeavors to the next level.

Engaging the community

According to conservation biologist Guy Pe’er of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, top-down policies are more robust when the community is fully engaged.

“If we want to develop better top-down mechanisms, we may wish to see more awareness, engagement and support by citizens – and community-based projects can do that.”

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter believes one solution lies with The EU’s Fifth Project, a new initiative that aims to build on the momentum of Europe’s 2,000 plus community-based initiatives to transition the union to a truly sustainable society.

De Schutter’s project is based on the belief that new forms of governance must be introduced that meld social innovation with participatory democracy.

“Transition will depend on community-level mobilization,” De Schutter says. He believes that while many individuals may feel disempowered and see the State as captured by vested interests “communities — whether at street, neighborhood, or town level — are seen as the appropriate level for transition to emerge.”

That transition may be more difficult in a fragmented bloc that encompasses 28 countries and 500 million citizens. According to Pe’er, collective action doesn’t always transfer across borders.

“It seems that when the word ‘community’ comes up, people automatically think far rather than near,” Guy Pe’er says. “But there are beautiful communities and traditions in Europe, especially when we think about the extended EU, so marrying governmental incentives with community-based initiatives would be the right way forward,” he says.

“Conservation in the 21st century should certainly move toward a new model of co-design and application,” he adds.

Bottom-up meets top-down

In some places in Europe, that may be already happening. Peter Hobson, a conservation management professor at Writtle College says marrying community efforts with government initiatives is old hat in the UK.

“The socio-political system in the UK has made it much easier for us to devolve responsibility to local government and the communities...without actually losing sight of national targets and goals cascaded down through government directives.”

Hobson points to the country’s estimated 250,0000 conservation volunteers and its ThinkBig campaign, an environmental program that was part and parcel of the government’s 2010 push to decentralize power away from the center and out towards local folk. ThinkBig focused on the importance of partnering up all of the stakeholders in a given community in the fight to preserve biodiversity: everyday citizens, politicians, and environmental organizations were all essential to the cause.

Hobson notes that this may be due to the British cultural landscape. “Call us odd – we are hobbits in our Shires with a deep sense of independence that our government exploits to devolve responsibility and action.”

Wilma Landgraf, a horticultural assistant at the charity “Gardening Leave” in Chelsea (Photo: Anja Kueppers-McKinnon)
Many community projects in the UK have long worked in sync with government initiativesImage: Anja Kueppers-McKinnon
Bees near a beehive. (Photo: Rainer Jensen dpa/lbn)
Community-based projects support everyday people working together on conservation issues such as beekeepingImage: picture-alliance/dpa
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