ReGen Villages: is this the future of sustainable living? 

0031

‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

The Netherlands covers an area of 41,543 km², and has a population of 17 million people. That works out at 488 people per square kilometre, making Holland the most densely populated country in the European Union. By comparison, the UK has a population density of 413 people per sq km, while the figure for Scotland is just 68 people per sq km

Statistics like that matter when it comes to waste management. Lack of space in the Netherlands has prompted successive governments to divert waste from landfill, and encourage more recycling. The waste management movement was strongly influenced by Ad Lansink, a chemistry lecturer turned politician, who developed “Lansink’s Ladder”. This tool has six “rungs”, with disposal on the bottom, then recovery, recycling, reuse and on the top rung prevention.

The Dutch approach has reaped impressive benefits, with high rates of recycling and most of the remainder being incinerated to generate electricity and heat.

However, there is a growing sense that recycling in the Netherlands may be close to its limit. In 2015, Green Growth in the Netherlands reported that since 2000, the percentage of recycled waste has remained more or less constant.

“Recycled material reached 81% in 2012, a high share that has been fairly constant over the years. This may indicate that the recycling percentages are close to their achievable maximum.”

The Dutch are now looking for further ways to create more value from recycled waste.

ReGen Villages

One such idea is the development of  “regenerative villages” (ReGen). These self-reliant communities will produce their own food, generate their own energy and recycle their own waste.

The ReGen model is the brainchild of California-based ReGen Villages, which is partnering with EFFEKT, a Danish architecture practice, to launch a pilot version in the Netherlands this year. 

Each ReGen community will contain a variety of homes, greenhouses and public buildings, with built-in sustainable features, such as solar power, communal fruit and vegetable gardens and shared water and waste management systems.  The five principles underpinning the concept are:

  • energy positive homes,
  • door-step high-yield organic food production,
  • mixed renewable energy and storage,
  • water and waste recycling,
  • empowerment of local communities

The first 25 pilot prefabricated homes will be located at Almere in the west of Holland. Almere has experienced exponential growth, rising from farmland in the 1970s to become the seventh largest city in the Netherlands.

Waste management is a key element in the ReGen villages, which will have  ‘closed-loop’ waste-to-resource systems that turn waste into energy.

0026

‘Illustration © EFFEKT’

Prospects and problems

There are plans to roll out the model in other communities, in Europe, North America and the Middle East. Off-grid communities are not a new idea. But the necessary technology, falling costs and consumer demand have reached a point where the ReGen approach may become truly sustainable. The idea offers the promise of meeting the challenges of rising populations making unprecedented demands on limited resources.

Interviewed in The Guardian, Frank Suurenbroek, professor of urban transformation at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, acknowledged the need for such projects, but also highlighted potential problems:

“A possible field of tension is how the technological demands of sustainability and circularity [interact with] spatial configurations needed to create attractive places and the desire to create new houses fast. Both worlds have to learn how to connect. Experiments with new sustainable quarters are interesting and needed, but a major issue is how to do this within existing built areas.”

All eyes on Almere

Once the first 25 homes are built, a further 75 will complete the village. It will take a lot of time, money, skill and muscle to make the project a success . We’ll be watching with interest to see if the vision can be turned into reality.

Our thanks to EFFEKT in Copenhagen for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, you may also like our previous posts on recycling and the circular economy:

Flood prevention and protection: how the Dutch do it

Dredging to make a new canal and new recreation area, for flood control, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Image by Steven Vance via Creative Commons

“Every time there is a crisis, we see an opportunity”
– Jan Hendrik Dronkers, director general, Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment

It’s been another stormy weekend, with large parts of the UK experiencing damage and disruption from high winds and flooding. Storm Gertrude is the latest in a succession of storms to hit the country since December. Thousands of homes and businesses have been flooded, not only in rural areas, but in the city centres of Leeds, York and Manchester. The storms have also left stretches of Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire under water. And in Cumbria, one especially hard hit village has been flooded four times in eight weeks.

Although unprecedented, the most recent storms to hit the UK follow significant flooding events over the past decade. A report by the Met Office in 2011 suggested that this exceptional run of bad weather may be part of a trend towards more intense rainfall.

The increasing prevalence of flooding in the UK has put additional pressures on local and national government. Local councils have had to make provision for those made homeless, inform householders about support, repair roads and support the emergency services. At a wider level, initiatives, such as the Scottish Government’s flood prevention action plan, and the review of flood defence investment in England are indicative of how seriously the problem is now being viewed (although one recent opinion poll indicates that more needs to be done). The human costs of flooding are incalculable, but the economic impact is significant. Research by the Environment Agency estimated that record-breaking floods in 2012 could have cost the UK economy close to £600m.

Flood prevention in the Netherlands: making a virtue out of a crisis

In the Netherlands, where 60 per cent of the population lives below sea level, the threat from flooding has been an ever-present worry for hundreds of years. But in recent decades, the risks have appeared to be escalating. In 1953, a severe storm in the North Sea caused floodwater to inundate south-west Holland, resulting in 1800 fatalities (the same storm killed more than 300 people in the UK).

The Dutch response to the 1953 flooding was the Delta Project, a system of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers, intended to prevent similar disasters striking again.

Spijkenisse_-_Hartelkering_gesloten

The Hartelkering storm surge barrier in Spijkenisse, Netherlands, part of the Delta Works project .  Image: Quistnix at nl.wikipedia via Creative Commons

Making room for the river

In 1993 and again in 1995, the focus of concern shifted to the south-east of the Netherlands, when heavy rains threatened to breach the dikes holding back the waters of the Meuse and Waal rivers. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and although the flood defences held, the experience came as a profound shock to the country. “We thought we were prepared for everything,” an infrastructure and environment ministry official told The Surveyor magazine, “We thought evacuation was for other countries.”

This time, the Dutch responded with the Room for the River programme. The spatial development scheme not only involves the construction of higher, stronger dikes, but also the creation of wider, deeper floodplains. These give rivers additional space, reducing the chance of flooding elsewhere. The project has also involved difficult decisions, including the displacement of 200 families. But the near-catastrophes of 1993 and 1995 brought home that there was no alternative to relocation.

While the Dutch government is funding the €2.3bn project, it is being delivered in collaboration with local authorities, water boards and private sector partners. As well as improving flood defences, the project has generated some impressive spin-offs.  In Holland’s oldest city of Nijmegen, a completely new island has been formed from a flood control channel, providing additional land for housing and recreation. In effect, a new section of the city is being created from the river that once threatened to submerge it.

Learning from experience

At the end of 2015, as Storm Frank brought further misery to many residents across the UK, an analysis found that 10,000 homes are being built on floodplains in Britain each year. Although many of these may be protected by existing flood defences, recent flood events provide cause for concern.

Hard experience has reminded the Netherlands that flooding is a natural function of rivers. Instead of fighting the elements, the Dutch are becoming experts in water management, and offering advice to other flood-prone countries, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam. Perhaps the UK can also learn from the Holland’s flood resilience know-how: it may be time to look across the water.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Further blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on flooding and climate change: