Communal Living, An Alternative To Real Estate Status Quo

An insight into the Spreefeld project in Berlin (Germany)
An insight into the Spreefeld project in Berlin (Germany)
Laura Weissmuller

MUNICH â€" For a communal housing project, there are bound to be endless discussions over commons areas before the foundation stone has even been laid. There are also financial questions such as "can I sell the apartment if I have to?" But the most pressing point is just how many people will be living more or less on top of you for a very long time.

To many people, this description of communal living sounds like a personal nightmare. But there are houses being developed in conjunction by multiple future owners who won't be given immediate occupancy by a property developer as is normally the case. The future owners also forgo the possibility of making a sizeable profit with their property later on.

Nevertheless, these kinds of projects have their own, growing fan base since rental prices in larger cities are rising inexorably. Many of these city properties are also very similar, and give you the feeling of having been mass-produced. But what many people hope is that living within a tightly knit community will close a gap they feel modern life has created.

"These new type of living projects become more and more important as normal family systems fall apart," says Hilde Strobl, curator of an exhibition at the Munich Museum of Architecture entitled, "Don’t be afraid of participating!"

Her exhibition of 12 living projects demonstrates that the communal living movement transcends all strata of society and age groups. The films that accompany the exhibition, shot by Munich-based photographer Jörg Koopmann, help to illustrate the movement. They address such varying topics as the choir rehearsal of the "Women Living," an all-female cooperative in Munich, or children playing in the inner courtyard of the "Kalkbreite" cooperative based in Zurich, which transformed a former tram depot into a building with living quarters, work spaces and leisure zones. What all of these films have in common is the interaction of and with the people who live in these novel settings.

The occupants are the focus of these projects rather than the architects, which in itself is quite unusual, seeing as this is an exhibition of buildings in an architecture museum. It is clearly not about the ingenious design of a single architect and the most ecological facade or the most cleverly devised material concept. No, it's about the interaction of people who live in these buildings.

It's not written in stone that entrances and hallways have to be dead spaces in which people hope not to encounter anyone else. Nor is it imperative that the space between buildings, and which, by rights, belongs to the public, is given to the public. In fact, quite the opposite.

As costs soar

The exhibition demonstrates what a city can gain if it specifically and intentionally supports such cooperatives with financial aid and cheaper plots, as has been the case for decades in Vienna and Zurich. It's not just inhabitants who move into these buildings, but also public life itself. A good example is "Kalkbreite" in Zurich. The small workshops, shops and restaurants on the ground floor make this an attractive spot even for people who don't live there. And the large green spaces and inner courtyards make these projects hum with life, because they are also easily accessible to the general public. But conflict is nevertheless still a part of that way of life.

The inhabitants of the Berlin project "Spreefeld" weren't particularly thrilled with the fact that a growing number of homeless people began using the green areas. "This is a fight that has to be fought from the beginning to the very end," Strobl says.

So how much public life should be allowed in communal areas? How do you choose the inhabitants? And are they really willing to pay for something that, in the end, can be used by everyone? The development process is always stressful, and the exhibition addresses this. Every project is introduced not only with a Koopmann film but also with a kind of notice board where confusing words are written â€" things like flexi rooms, cluster apartments and speculation withdrawal, in addition to mind-boggling layouts that will baffle architecture novices.

All of this reflects the confusion that people who plan such a project will encounter along the way. But the exhibition aids the visitor with wall panels and a handy guide book that explain the meaning of all these communal terms and notions.

Flexi rooms, for example, are rooms "that, if necessary, can be rented for a short period of time," say for the aging and ailing mother or the pubescent teenager. Cluster apartments are those that surround a central, shared living room, something along the lines of a flat-share for adults. Speculation withdrawal means that "no individual profit can be made due to communal ownership."

It is precisely this relinquishment of profit that is essential for these projects to function. The basic concept of solidarity would no longer work if one person within the group attempted to sell their apartment to the highest bidder, given that it was a collective that developed the project. How would you even put a price tag on all these endless discussions? It should also be kept in mind that everyone paid for the communal areas, after all.

The exhibition only explores rental communities despite the fact that house building communities are becoming increasingly popular. These often produce architecturally stimulating and appealing houses, but these are in the end nothing more than privately owned terraced houses.

Above all, the exhibition highlights that the development of one of these buildings only really begins when it has been built and the inhabitants move in, as they grow older and their needs change. An investor wouldn't care, but a communal residency group does care. And cities should most definitely care too.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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