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Close to Nature

Living close to nature and to balance a hectic 21st century lifestyle with touches of the natural joys of the environment was always part of the every-day life of Scandinavians.

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Living sustainable in Scandinavia

Living close to nature and to balance a hectic 21st century lifestyle with touches of the natural joys of the environment was always an important part of the every-day life of Scandinavians. Small wonder then that living green is becoming more and more popular in all of the Nordic countries. People want to get away from the inner cities, build houses that cooperate with nature, cultivate their own land, and live in harmony with Mother Earth. Or build enclaves of a more eco-friendly kind in inner cities—making way for such sustainable urban developments as Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad, introduced at www.nordicreach.com/its_about/architecture/181/

But ecovillages aren’t exactly a novel phenomenon; they were already being built in the 1980’s and 90’s and in many parts of the world. The Scandinavian closeness to nature and a lifestyle that offers ample opportunities to lead a life that puts family and quality time outside of work on par with career and work does, however, generally make the Nordic societies a perfect fit for these 'new' living conditions. The main principle is to build houses as environmentally friendly as possible, using renewable energy whenever feasible, recycling garbage, and bringing human waste back to nature. There’s often a social ambition in these ecovillages: share tools and machinery, and work together in order to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible. Add to that a desire to use locally grown produce. New ecovillages pop up all the time and are now found from north to south. The concept develops further with locally produced energy, nursing homes, banks, and carpools.

Self-subsistent households are also becoming more common, as knowledge about permaculture increases throughout Scandinavia. Permaculture means lasting cultivation, creating a sustainable attitude, and utilizing whatever sources are available. It’s a planning device. One example of permaculture is to grow crooked plots so as to follow the sun; another is to make use of frogs in a nearby pond, since they make a difference ecologically by eating vermin. The main idea in permaculture is to create a sustainable society, which in turn creates meaningful jobs and better health for the people.
There are ample opportunities to experience the Nordic way, learn more and incorporate a side tour on your next trip to Scandinavia. ECEAT (European Center for Eco Agro Tourism) Sverige is a non-profit foundation which promotes small-scale tourism at organic farms. It began as an initiative that would meet both the interests of tourists and the needs of small farms to maintain the best of their farm practices and, at the same time, develop organic farming. For more info, see: www.eceat.se

Baskemölla Ecovillage
Baskemölla ecovillage is situated on the east coast in Skåne, the southernmost part of Sweden. On green pastures with sweeping views of the Baltic Sea, some fifteen families have gathered around a vision of living as sustainable and self-subsistent as possible.
“It is doable to live smaller and commute and work less, yet live much more,” says Gabriella Påsse and Karl Gustavson, who moved here in 2003.
It’s not quite done yet. Their dream project. Gabriella and Karl run an architect’s office, and have been working on a house of their own for the last few years. We take a tour and they show me what "living sustainable" looks like. They don’t use any plastic, they keep the house well insulated, they take note of weather and wind and how to find lee, and they use recycled and locally produced material. They show me their beautiful closet doors, found at a flea market. Their huge windows create well-lit rooms, and wood burners keep the house warm along with solar cells.
“It all began 12 years ago. We had an architect friend who lived in this village and we were visiting. I fell in love with the place,” Gabriella says.
They had been traveling the world and were looking at houses. They had been inspired and encouraged. After closing their office in Gothenburg, they moved south.
“It’s interesting to come to a small society like this one. There’s a higher degree of participation in the decision-making. Here we can make more of an impact on how we live than in a big city,” says Karl.
The ideas for an ecovillage began to take shape at the end of the 1980’s, but municipal bureaucracy and local protests delayed the project. Finally in 2001, it all began. Today there are 16 more or less finished houses as well as a day care center. The village consists of a self-subsistent organization from which the villagers lease their land. The goal is to become as self-subsistent as possible. Everyone in the village will use whatever is grown, and all cultivation is, of course, ecological – built on the principles of permaculture: that all plants and animals work together and benefit from each other.

The most obvious difference from a regular village is the architecture. Here you find straw bale houses, houses built with fiberboard, clinker-built, with trampled dirt walls and wooden houses. The object is to build with materials that don’t further pollute the environment, but most importantly the houses must be energy effective. Close to 30% of the emissions come from our living and the conventional building trade is lagging behind. In Baskemölla the disposal system is looked after and waste turned into fertilizers, solar cells are nearly obligatory, and the houses are well insulated, needing little electrical heating.

Social life is important in Baskemölla, and perhaps the greatest difference from an ordinary community.
“There’s social ambition here. People made a choice when they moved here, and they want to be involved socially. It’s exciting."
Baskemölla ecovillage runs a joint nursery school based on the Waldorf philosophy, which emphasizes the intellectual as well as the emotional aspects of a child’s development.
There are also apple orchards, a joint greenhouse, and a communal house. But the vision is grander than that. The local authorities have bought more land, and new houses will be built. There are also far-reaching plans to build row houses, which will serve as homes for older people.

Gabriella leads the way to Ninni’s Garden, the village’s market garden. We walk along a little dirt road and cross a field. The blue of the Baltic Sea spreads out at the horizon, the sun is high. When we reach the garden it looks like creative chaos. The house is being extended, and there’s stuff everywhere, the chicken coops, filled with newly hatched chickens, overlooks the market, and there are plants all over the place. Amidst it all stands Ninni, picking vegetables for dinner with her daughter Ellinore.
“Right now our garden covers about 75% of our nutritional needs,” she says. “What’s left we sell.”
The market garden is also run according to permaculture. All must be in symbiosis with nature, and all must, again, be ecological. Ninni and her British husband Ian are building their house themselves.
“Our house, when it’s done, will cost around 200,000 SEK. We’re doing everything ourselves, from sweeping the chimney to decorating the bathroom. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Ninni says.
It’s a straw bale house. The bales are stacked in a wooden frame, which forms the very foundation of the house. It’s a material that’s energy effective and well insulated, keeping the electric bills down. It’s often also a recycled product.

So why build an ecohouse?
“Why not? It’s not more expensive or harder to build than a regular house, and it’s more energy effective and kinder to nature. I think building ecologically ought to be the norm. Today only about 1 out of every 10,000 houses built in Sweden is an ecohouse,” says Karl.
How do you go about it then?
“There are several smart and environmental friendly solutions. For example, we brought over a mobile sawmill, which made planks on the spot. Also, I’d advise you contact someone with experience. We’ve seen several examples of houses that simply don’t last,” Karl continues.

There’s a great interest in Baskemölla ecovillage - at least once a week there’s a visit from interested individuals or groups. Schools, architects, politicians, and journalists come – all year around. At first the village was viewed as a bit bohemian, and there were local protests. Gabriella remembers how she had to explain herself at social gatherings. People were skeptical because it was something different. But skepticism changed to curiosity, and now the village is growing by leaps and bounds.

I continue my tour; the village is in clear contrast to other nearby villages. In the center is a large orange straw bale house, with an elegant tower facing the sea. Across the little road other villagers have chosen to build houses with big, arched windows. There are green open spaces, with ecological gardens as well as wild nature. Hens are pecking in the chicken coops, and children are getting dirty playing in the mud. A bit further away new houses are being built. There is no big machinery or cranes, everything is simple and small-scale. Life here seems natural. It’s sustainable. It’s beautiful.

The Global Ecovillage Network will surprise you. Ecovillages are not a new phenomenon and this website offers directory listings from every corner of the world: www.ecovillage.org (Some of these villages, in the USA, may actually be quite close to you.)
Here are some useful links for eco living in Scandinavia:
www.eceat.com - European Center for Eco Agro Tourism
www.permakultur.se - Swedish Association for permaculture
www.naturligt-byggeri.org - Swedish clay-building Association
hem.fyristorg.com/assets - a list of eco villages in Sweden

Written by Emil Sergel
Photography: Emil Sergel
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