It's a dreary scene: a few people standing on an empty field in the rain. Nothing about this place seems promising. But the people don't seem to care. Some are curious, some euphoric, but all are confident. "Here's my bed," says one woman as she points to a spot on the ground, and then jumps for joy.
The plan is to build a village on this field in the Wendland region of the German state of Lower Saxony — a village that is ecological, intercultural and based on solidarity. With the help of its own cooperative, rents will be kept affordable. 300 people are to live here, consisting of 100 older people, 100 younger people — preferably with families — and 100 refugees. The idea is for them to be there and to look out for each other.
Demographic change is a global issue
The question of how we want to live in the future is shaped not only by the climate, but also by demographic change. Most societies are aging — in Germany, one in two people are older than 45, according to surveys by the Federal Statistical Office. In Indonesia, the average age is expected to rise by eight years by 2050, and in China by more than nine years. Who will take care of the elderly? And how do we prevent an increasing gap between the generations?
The number of single households in Germany has also been steadily rising, from 34% to 42% between 1991 and 2019. One-third of women living alone are between 60 and 79 years old. In rural areas, population figures are declining as people move to the cities. Demand for alternative forms of living, such as shared multi-generational living arrangements, is increasing.
That scene in the empty field happened five years ago. Filmmakers Antonia Traulsen and Claire Roggan captured it for their documentary, Wir alle. Das Dorf (All of Us. The Village). "It's a socio-political and cultural question of how we want to imagine life in the future," says Traulsen, who actually lives close to the experimental village.
The filmmakers accompanied the project for four years. "At first, we didn't understand where their euphoria was coming from," says Traulsen. It became clear over time "that people really care about making a difference."
12 houses now stand on the former farmland, and about 50 people live there. By the end of the year, the number of residents is expected to rise to about 90. Negotiations are underway to purchase another plot of land. "Demand is huge," says Hauke Stichling-Pehlke, one of the project's initiators. He describes himself and others who were involved early on as pioneers.
Rural structures everywhere are disintegrating, says Stichling-Pehlke. "That's why this is not just a housing project, but a hub in the district that is sustainable and fit for the future." He says it's about continuing to develop the community together, and not just the one in the village. "When I see people pursuing their visions it's already close to the initial idea," he adds.
The film also shows conflicts. In the early phase of the project, locals and refugees discussed and agreed to floor plans for the future houses. Years later, when the houses were being built, one refugee family had different ideas, making it unlikely they could move into the village. One woman reacted with anger, arguing everyone agreed when the plans were presented, while another admitted that perhaps the refugees were not sufficiently involved.
"The refugees had other problems at the time, some didn't even have their residency status clarified," says Roggan. "For these people, it was about basic things; for them, it wasn't tangible that there might be a house here in three years."
In the wake of the 2015/2016 refugee crisis, the German society was faced with the question of how to integrate the refugees. Rarely were refugees asked how they wanted to be integrated. The village project shows that there is no blueprint for integration — not even if it is well-intentioned.
The film also reveals cultural traditions and reservations. A young woman from Afghanistan says at a meeting that she has to take care of her parents and stay close by, even though she had to attend college. The group reassures her that she doesn't have to stay in the area because they would help out, like organizing doctor's appointments. But the notion was unthinkable for her — family takes care of family.
Good at compromise
At first glance, the people who were part of the initial group don't seem as diverse as the project proclaims to be — there's a Waldorf school teacher, a remedial teacher, an educator, a few leftist members of the anti-nuclear power movement.
But tensions arise even in what looks like a pretty homogeneous group. Everyone is expected to contribute as much as they can and want to, but there are no binding guidelines. But is it fair that some people contribute more than others, even though they all pursue the same goal?
"It's impressive how much the people listen and constantly question themselves instead of blaming others," says Roggan. Her co-filmmaker, Antonia Traulsen, says the constant negotiation of compromises is a reason the village is thriving and growing. "It's an art to stay in the conversation even in disputes and not to be offended, but to enjoy the variety of opinions."
In this respect, this social experiment on a field in Lower Saxony might be considered a test run for the future coexistence of society.
The filmmakers are currently touring cinemas with Wir alle. Das Dorf.
This article was translated from German.