The Village Niche – new horizons for planning & sustainability agendas
Over half the world’s population lives in rural or peri-urban areas. According to statistical forecasts, somewhere near half of these will live in cities by 2050. The implications for sustainability are drastic and require a search for alternatives in both urban and rural areas. In general, due to the atomised nature of villages and rural settlements, these fall under less planning scrutiny, at least in terms of how they can be used to challenge some of our assumptions about how we want to live and what to do beyond having these ‘hinterlands’ as resource stockpiles, temporary retreats or forgotten places.
A scale for impactful holistic design & happiness?
CLEAR VILLAGE believes that the village scale is optimal for tackling issues of sustainability systemically, developing innovation clusters to achieve lasting solutions faster. This scale allows for systems thinking to be demonstrated in its entirety – technologies can be trialled from start to finish and the results will be experienced by the residents, who will then be able to provide realistic feedback. It embodies the notion of a nucleus of sustainability. It is something that can be scaled up, grafted, connected or be used as a magnet for further development in areas that lack a sense of community, which is a growing problem in peri-urban and rural areas as economic activities are fleeing towards city centres along with the youth and vital energies in human resources. A village of between five hundred and five thousand residents would be a tangible environment in which to experience the future of living, a community of sustainable wealth created through open collaboration, collective intelligence and inspired design. Also a key motivation for focusing on the village scale is you can engage in a strong conversation with local inhabitants and future residents. You can therefore apply design thinking that starts from the desires of dwellers and avoid the constraints that larger demographic settings bring in terms of decision making, diverging opinions, factions and so on. There can also be benefits for communities in larger cities that fail to develop a sense of interconnectedness and spatial correlation, which tend to be erased by extensive commuting, lack of time, and digital ersatzes.
A natural identification sphere
Most of us already live in a ‘village’. That is, even in large cities and across the urban sprawl, most of us perform most of our daily tasks within a defined space and have a sense of community that we can identify with. It includes things like our favourite local restaurant, most frequented corner shop, the friends we visit most often… Of course, modern transport systems make commuting over greater distances more possible and frequent. Also, digital space helps us to transcend previously insurmountable spatial and geographic boundaries, facilitating teleworking and reducing the problems associated with intercity and even international commuting. Yet, most of us do have a smaller radius within even the largest of cities that we consider our ‘turf’, our ‘homeground’, our ‘hood’ or our own personal ‘village’. Often, the village is inhabited by other people with whom we imagine ourselves sharing common values or ideals, despite diverse social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. The interpersonal relationships and sense of ‘community’ they produce is another important part of human living environments and how we conceive of our ideal living conditions.
Some observations on urban-rural developments
The vast majority of sustainable villages and neighbourhoods existing today tend to be isolated or personality driven and barely define a vision that most people would embrace. Few of the ambitious real estate projects that have tried to solve the equation of intensive urbanisation and environmental concern have been community centred. Most often, the notion of appropriate scale for holistic and systemic development of solutions has not been the starting point. Rural, peri-urban and other economically marginalised areas have struggled to find their path into the 21st century, and the potential of retro-fitting existing locations with partial new builds is repeatedly overlooked whilst collaborative tools and information technology for complex planning are underutilised.
That is not to say that many of the existing projects or those in development do not have their strengths. CLEAR VILLAGE does not operate in a vacuum, nor does it wish to reinvent the wheel. Rather, CLEAR VILLAGE wants to build on what has come before it and pave the way for what will come after it. In fact we are also establishing a filtered database of projects through our Observatory, which looks at the whole range of pioneering experience including the more extreme and more incremental approaches in order to take their experiences into account.
Keeping the big picture in mind
We need dense and efficient cities if we are to live with 8 billion people soon, not just for the environment’s conservation, but just as likely to meet needs for food, water, and fuel. On the one hand, villages are not an answer to this problem and we make no claim that they address it. On the other hand, we strongly believe that having a multitude of communities that are helped to self-organise with smart strategies and appropriate technologies that people can visit and contribute to, and which provide a living example of alternatives to urban sprawl would be a step forward, demonstrating what pleasurable sustainability could look like.
From a greater perspective, we also believe that by working at this nano-scale of urbanism we can durably bridge the gap between the living conditions that people aspire to and what is possible within the resource limitations we face -environmental, economic and political. It would be fair to say CLEAR VILLAGE aims to bundle needs and means in a molecular structure that is stable enough to reinforce urban contexts and positively contaminate their sociological formula. Villages could become village-towns or midsize towns and, later, cities. Similar to the central-business-district planning theories and multi-polar urban constellations, these villages could be healing neighbourhoods grafted into existing or new cities.
The places we might look to learn from in this initiative are not necessarily the most polluting or problematic places -environmental problems have sociological roots and the solutions will lie in understanding holistically how to address people’s wide-ranging needs and desires in a way that is at the same time environmentally positive. What CLEAR VILLAGE has at its heart is the drive to start a movement of collaboration, just as the Transition Towns have done, and provide sharable designs such as the Open Architecture Network has done, to support communities with knowledge and ground know-how as the social entrepreneurship organisation Ashoka is doing.
Last but not least, to many sustainability feels like a regression leading to an austere lifestyle. We need an aspirational vision for living in the midst of financial and ecological crisis to drive the shift through realistic yet desirable outcomes. They may combine low-tech romantic ideals with 21st century high-tech solutions and offer alternative routes to disregard and apathy or the alarming proliferation of non-sensical new builds.