Why 'urban villages' are on the rise around the world

For years, Wayne Trevor was a typical resident of West Norwood, a suburban region in south London. He knew a couple of his neighbors and mostly thought of the area as a place to commute to and from his job as a customer strategy senior sponsor at the Transport for London. But all that changed in 2014. That year, a team of researchers and local council staff joined forces and transformed West Norwood into a hub for community participation — also known as an "urban village" — and Trevor said it was the "start of a transformational journey" for him.

The project was spearheaded by Tessy Britton, director of Participatory City, a London, England-based initiative supporting projects that strengthen social cohesion among city dwellers. Britton launched the pilot project in West Norwood, which mobilized 1,000 people to initiate and participate in 20 community projects, including starting a "library of things," sewing classes, and communal cooking sessions.

Trevor, who is interested in food systems, got involved with an urban gardening program and spearheaded a group of 20 neighbors who were also interested in gardening. Together, they wound up cultivating carrots and fruit trees and bees, and eventually began running a 200-square meter community garden. "Before, I knew just a few people," Trevor says. "[The project] completely transformed my approach to community and people — now, I’m a lot more trusting."

Like Trevor, most participants said that the initiative added to the neighborhood's vibrancy and made it easy to start new projects. Many also said that it strengthened bonds among people and increased the community's ability to collectively respond to social, economic, and environmental problems.

Search for "urban village" online and many of the entries that come up will refer to an urban planning concept of residences clustered near shops and offices. In the U.S. in particular, it's a fairly new idea that focuses on neighborhood design. But an urban village is traditionally much more than a physical space. It's a network of relationships; a community of interrelated people. Similarly, a true urban village isn't just a real estate grid and the marketplace exchanges that occur there. Among those who focus on sharing and the commons, it's a term that refers to a collaborative way of life — a relatively small, place-based urban community where people cooperate to meet one another’s many needs, be they residential, economic, governmental, or social. In the process, they wind up transforming their own experience of that community.

And these kinds of urban villages are on the rise around the world, especially throughout northern Europe. Metropolises like Berlin and Copenhagen host do-it-yourself communities like Holzmarkt and the long-running Christiania. Israel is seeing a growth in urban kibbutzim. In South Korea, Seoul is aiming to establish "sharing villages" throughout the city. While ecovillages and intentional communities are still more popular in rural areas, where agriculture plays a key role, urban villages are seen by their proponents as a natural and obvious antidote to the problems of climate change, economic inequality, and social isolation.

"The city is a normal environment for this because there's critical mass, so it's logical," says Tine De Moor, a professor focusing on "Institutions for Collective Action in Historical Perspective" at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "I've been describing these cooperatives for quite a few years, but they've only been growing since."

How urban villages look around the world varies hugely. They range from basic experiments in participatory governance to broad-spectrum projects that provide many critical services to residents. What the most effective urban villages have in common is their grassroots nature — the people who participate in them have created them.

For example, there are projects in development around the world, like Australia's Smart Urban Villages and the Deeltuin in Utrecht, that are innovative and groundbreaking, containing residential units and a broad range of shared services. However, many of these initiatives were planned by developers, not the end users, and the levels of participation in decision making tend to reflect this.

While cohousing complexes may qualify, an urban village doesn't have to be a physical space that’s built from the ground up. It can simply be a concept and an activity that's overlaid on an existing urban community — a much faster process than the seven years the average cohousing project requires to come to fruition.   

Above all, an authentic urban village is defined by its participatory ethos — and that's both its strength and its weakness. Working together to create something builds a sense of community among participants that’s otherwise very difficult to manufacture among a collection of strangers. The effort ensures that the product genuinely meets everyone’s needs, usually at a low cost.

But it's a different way of interacting than many people are accustomed to. "We're used to having someone from above telling us what to do, having one person deciding for everyone," says Genny Carraro, the managing director of the Global Ecovillage Network Europe, an international group that includes urban villages. "It's a very different mindset. You need to understand that you have to move from your individual space to the common space. If you pretend that your needs will be answered in the same way, then it’s not going to work."

An Urban Village in Seoul

That's certainly been apparent with Seoul's Sungmisan Village, a model example of an urban village and a neighborhood-level economy. In 1994, a group of families living by Sungmi Mountain in northwest Seoul created a preschool to serve their kids. That brought them together, as did a battle a few years later against the municipal government to save the mountain from a water treatment facility. When their activism succeeded, the families decided to create an alternative school for their now-older children.

They wanted something distinctly different from what was offered in public schools, but agreeing on the school’s mission and curriculum didn’t come easily. "We had endless debates. Different opinions among teachers, between parents. We had very serious splits that divided us," wrote one of the early members, explaining the negotiation and consensus-building that was required of the group.

The result was an unusual school focusing on ecology, practical skills, and individualized learning that opened in 2004. Along the way, the community collectively created other services: a low-power broadcasting radio station, an organic food cooperative, a car repair shop, a tea house, a community theater, and many other projects tailored to the residents' needs. Those projects persist today, though generational change has shifted the village’s flavor somewhat.


Video of Sungmisan Village by UrbaParis

Resident Sanghoon Kim adds that motivating residents to initiate projects is always a challenge. "A heavy burden is on a few core people. They are kind of in a constant burn-out mode," he says.

What is key about Sungmisan, aside from the accomplishments, is the collective way it’s been created. The community bonds that have been forged through collaborative activity and shared spaces are particularly critical in a country whose rapid modernization means that many residents are alienated from one another and from traditional practices. 


Sungmisan Village map. Photo by Monica Bernardi

Sungmisan Village has run parallel to a broader sharing movement that Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, launched in 2012. His "Sharing City" project utilizes idle spaces, common goods, and shareable services across the city by encouraging grassroots, bottom-up efforts by citizens as well as facilitating the work of local startups. It’s a brand-new experiment and a major step for a metropolitan area with 10 million inhabitants. Mayor Park won the 2016 Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development for the project.


Sungmisan grocery cooperative. Photo by Monica Bernardi

In order to focus the initiative more closely, Park and his team are going hyper-local — turning entire apartment complexes into "sharing villages" where resources that can be shared are more intensely sited. The project is still getting off the ground, and two apartment complexes were selected as pilot sites earlier this fall.

Senior Urban Villages

A very different type of urban village is the "senior village" that has become popular in the U.S. Originating in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood in 2001, senior villages are member-run organizations that allow older urban residents to age in place and delay or avoid having to move to retirement homes. The groups utilize volunteers, and members sometimes pay an annual fee to hire staff who provide assistance — like transportation, home repairs, and medical services — to those who need it.

The groups now number around 230 and are spread out across the country, though particularly concentrated on the coasts. They provide social opportunities and fortify bonds among people who might otherwise become isolated. So when an elderly woman calls on volunteers to help her with repairs in her home, gets a ride to a doctor's appointment from a village member who's still driving, and asks another village member to accompany her to an exercise class, she is deepening her sense of social cohesion, contributing to the stability of her community by staying in her home, and remaining relatively independent and vital.

Those conclusions are borne out by research. An article in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work by Carrie L. Graham, Andrew E. Scharlach, and Bradford Stark published last year showed that a majority of senior village participants felt that membership had enhanced their sense of connection to others and ability to count on others — and those feelings increased the longer they were part of the group. And it's all grassroots-driven. A hallmark of senior villages is that they start from the bottom up, says Natalie Galucia, executive director of Village to Village Network, an umbrella group that helps senior villages get going and shares best practices. "Family members or friends hear of it, realize it'll benefit them and their community, and work together to create it," she says. Later, the members can adjust the group's structure as needed.

That's what's occurred with At Home in Alexandria (AHA), one of roughly 35 senior villages in the Washington, D.C. area. Founded in 2011, the group is like most other senior villages, providing members with transportation and assistance with home related-tasks like hanging pictures or installing new computer software. But members have also developed a wide range of social activities, including monthly brunches and dinners, current events gatherings, and trips to the movies.

"I lost my husband not quite two years ago, and I've made so many friends through AHA — I've met people I'd never have met otherwise,” says Nancy Kincaid, who's been a member since the group’s founding. She's part of a new effort to create a "buddy" program that will pair older and younger members on a one-on-one basis.

The villages' missions are fairly specific and limited, and once they’re up and running, they don't require too much effort. As a result, explains Galucia, few of the villages experience problems. "They're mostly good about resolving whatever the conflict might be," she says. Plus, her organization acts as a facilitator when problems arise, and can flag worrisome practices before they become a real problem.

Participatory Living in London

Standing in stark contrast to the simplicity of senior villages are Britton's London experiments in participatory living. For Britton, the West Norwood project was just a successful prototype compared to the big project that her team are now scaling up to. Using the detailed information gathered from the earlier program about how and why people participate in community activities, Participatory City — in collaboration with the local council — is launching Every One Every Day, a five-year initiative that will cover the entire London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Every One Every Day from Participatory City on Vimeo

With groundbreaking funding totaling $8.5 million, the project — which began in November — aims to work with over 25,000 people, creating 250 projects, and 100 businesses. It may feature many of the projects that occurred in West Norwood, but will also include retrofitting an old warehouse to create a makerspace where businesses in food, manufacturing, or retail can incubate and flourish. Essentially, Britton and her colleagues are making a giant bet that collaborative city living — that is, a giant urban village — will improve the health, finances, and overall well-being of Barking and Dagenham's residents.

But right now, exactly what those projects will look like is unknown, and that’s because the area's residents will come up with the ideas themselves. While Every One Every Day sounds like a top-down initiative, it's not. The organizers will help with infrastructure and provide support, but by and large, they'll simply be creating an atmosphere that builds on already-occurring activity and encourages residents’ involvement and sense of ownership.

Graphic from "An illustrated guide to Participatory City" by Amber Anderson

After all, facilitating genuine participation among members of an urban village or other collective gathering isn't particularly easy. Some people wind up taking on too much responsibility, and everyone frequently has to wade through long discussions to come to an agreement. Britton and her colleagues acknowledge that while public participation is likely the key to a more healthy, egalitarian future, getting there can be challenging.

So they spent their time in West Norwood looking at what works and developing best practices, and now they’ll apply them in this new project. "We're trying to be completely person-centered," says Britton. Activities will be short and close to home, groups will be welcoming and non-threatening, and the aesthetic will be cheerful. "We're serious about trying to chop down every barrier possible so everyone can participate. We're enticing people back into public life, inviting them, making it exciting," she says.

It certainly worked for Trevor. Following the West Norwood project, he quit his job with London's transport authority and is now working with Britton on the new initiative. He's confident the same thing can work in Barking and Dagenham. "One thing leads to another, then another, then another — and suddenly you have all those people engaged," he says.

Barking and Dagenham is one of London's poorest boroughs, and one of a handful of boroughs that voted for Brexit, making the experiment particularly intriguing and important. The goal, ultimately, is to utilize the growing "participation culture" to build resilience and build community.

After all, in a world where the social fabric seems to be rapidly fraying, the economy is uncertain, and the future of the planet is at risk, is there a better way to hit the reset button than to come back to the neighborhood level and begin to genuinely rely on one another again?

Header image: Top left: Sungmisan cafe, top right: childcare cooperative. Bottom left: consumer cooperative, bottom right: theater. Photos courtesy of icoop.

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