(Image: CodyR; Arcosanti: one of the world’s iconic experimental communities)
In December 2016, the BBC reported that an abandoned military village just outside Heidelberg, Germany, could be set for a most unusual transformation. From post-war military base to future living commune, the new experimental community could be in for a new name, also: Patrick Henry Village.
The goals are lofty ones. Around 4,000 people would be supported by the commune, which would be built around a central Maker Square. The square would serve as the heart of the community, and just as many traditional villages are built around a market square, this one would be dedicated to digital fabrication.
An experimental community of this type is just one of the plans put forward for the abandoned outpost. And the idea is a fascinating one. What’s more, it’s been done before, so we decided to take a look at how well some of the world’s other experimental communities have fared to date.
The Farm (Tennessee, USA)
In 2007, Vanity Fair writer Jim Windolf took a four-day trip to the 1,750-acre community in Tennessee known as the Farm. It was founded in 1970 by Stephen Gaskin, a US Marine turned hippie, who started the experimental community that local press called “the Technicolor Amish” for their distinctly tie-dyed style.
In the beginning, the Farm was dedicated to living off the land and inflicting the least possible harm on everyone and everything around – and it still is. Resources were shared, residents attended sermons given by Gaskin, but life was tough. When daily soybean rations and toil became too much, many opted out. The population dropped from 1,500 to around 200, and the experimental community morphed into a more democratic society.
Today, the Farm is a fascinating mix of old-school and new-school. The intentional communal aspect is still in place, but now, residents are specialists in bio-diesel mechanics and green living. The experimental community is even starting to attract a younger crowd, with new residents applying to live on the Farm, which has its own swimming hole, a state-recognised school, and an Ecovillage Training Center.
Freetown Christiania (Copenhagen, Denmark)
The area that became Freetown Christiania in 1971 was once a pretty dark place. It had been used by the military before the experimental community was founded by squatters. Before that, the area had served as Denmark’s last execution spot. (There are still remnants of the grisly history.) When the military moved out, squatters moved in and on September 26, 1971, Christiania was declared open to those in need of refuge. Its founding principles included things like meditation, yoga, and individual dedication to the well-being of all. But one thing in particular presented a problem for the city of Copenhagen: Pusher Street, with its high number of marijuana and cannabis sales.
Conflict came to a head in 2004, when the Danish government not only cracked down on cannabis sales in Christiania, but sought to abolish the collective itself. Since then, there have been repeated clashes and outbreaks of violence, including a 2009 grenade attack and a 2016 shooting between police and a 25-year-old Danish citizen known to be involved in the cannabis trade. The Guardian reported that trade is now regulated by a branch of the Hell’s Angels, making the attempt at creating a peaceful experimental community surprisingly controversial.
Arcosanti (Arizona, USA)
Photographs of Arcosanti reflect what was once one of the most iconic experimental communities, a grand desert city whose plans were unveiled at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1970. The architect was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s named Paolo Soleri, who pioneered the concept of ‘arcology’. A mix of architecture and ecology, he thought the answer to all the world’s problems were communities in which thousands of people would live together, harmoniously, in single structures built to house everyone and everything they needed.
Soleri died in 2013, and Wired looked back at this incredibly ambitious project. Writer James McGirk paid a five week visit to Arcosanti in 1998, recounting that “the enthusiasm that had built most of the project in the 1970s and 1980s had gone. What was left had curdled into the sluggish but pleasant pace of a non-profit foundation (which, to be fair, it was).”
At the time, there were only a few dozen people working in the experimental city between Scottsdale and Sedona, though it was intended to house thousands. Over the decades that Arcosanti struggled along, its slow decline was, the author writes, due in equal parts frustration and lack of funding. Today, volunteers still cast metal bells to sell to tourists in hopes of sustaining – and maybe, even completing – the vision.
The idea of Auroville – an experimental community devoted to peace and harmony, existing above the baser things that divide us – was developed by a woman named Mirra Alfassa, otherwise known as The Mother. Working closely with Sri Aurobindo after years of studying spiritualism and the occult, Alfassa developed the foundations of Auroville, in Tamil Nadu, India, in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the government approved the creation of the commune, which started with representative individuals from 124 different countries. Each brought soil from their home countries, which was mixed in a symbolic urn in the centre of the complex. Today, around 2,500 still live in Auroville.
Auroville is divided into sections for residential, industrial, cultural and green uses. The experimental community may sound like a pleasant place to live (and you can still apply to join), but according to Slate, all is not entirely well in paradise. Writer Maddy Crowell found that beneath the UNESCO-protected, government-supported community, crime was a major problem. Robbery and murder were rife amid what was termed “a laundry list of problems.”
Crowell’s host warned her that attacks against women were common, but that something else was at work there also: dark energy. One woman told the writer: “When you start to scratch the surface of Auroville, it’s a lot more ugly than from the outside. You start to see all the problem here, and it’s deeply layered. The reality is a lot more different once you’re a part of it.”
In 1985, residents decided that Findhorn was going to become the most environmentally friendly community it could be, and it appears that they’ve succeeded. The experimental community in Scotland has 100 environmentally benign buildings. Its ecological footprint is half the national average and it’s made huge advances in ecological living. From its wind turbines and recycling system to its biological, Living Machine waste water treatment facility, Findhorn has certainly earned its Best Practice designation from the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements.
Nearly every aspect of the ecovillage has been created with environmental impact in mind. Buildings are constructed from locally sourced, sustainable or recycled materials. Most of Findhorn’s power is supplied by solar panels and wind turbines, and everything is low-energy and high-efficiency.
In 1994, an organic food scheme called EarthShare was introduced, in which the community utilises 25 acres of land to produce enough organic vegetables to supply 140 homes. A year later, the first Living Machine water treatment plant was opened, where wastewater is treated by a complex system of bacteria, algae, snails, fish, and large plants. At the end of the process, raw sewage is clean enough to be recycled or emptied into the sea, with no chemical treatments necessary.
Findhorn has progressed in leaps and bounds since the experimental community was first established in 1962. Over the years, the ecovillage in Moray has gradually attracted an increasing number of people, with their beliefs about spirituality and holistic learning, sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Keep Reading: 10 Beautiful Alternative Towns of Britain