ReGen: Can these eco-villages solve the housing, food and water crisis?

Housing. It’s often followed by the words ‘crisis’, ‘problem’ or ‘timebomb’. Across the globe more of us live in cities than not, swelling our metropolises and pushing up prices seemingly without end. But one man has a vision of a different way of life, where your home is also a farm, water supply, power generator and high tech community.

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Tech entrepreneur and Stanford lecturer, James Ehrlich, has spent years researching the optimum way for human communities to operate. All over the world he has run into the same problem – cities are overcrowded, the rural areas have emptied out and there’s a no mans’ land in between. Suburbs, once seen as the epitome of the American Dream, no longer offer the best of both worlds – rather they lack the wildness and freedom of the rural or the excitement of a city’s bright lights.

But small communities that exist outside huge cities shouldn’t be ruled out.  According to UN Report (UNCTAD Report, 2013), self sufficient, hyper-local communities could be one of the only ways the population spike can be managed successfully (we’re talking 50 billion by 2050) – and that’s where Ehrlich’s ReGen project comes in.

“Smaller, smarter and more social might be the key to solving so many of our burgeoning living issues”

Using technology to effectively create a Tesla version of a traditional village, ReGen is the eco-community you’ve dreamt about but had no way to build. Self-sufficient in terms of energy, waste and food production but highly connected in every way, it offers a new middle ground. Debuted at the Danish pavilion at the Venice Biennial earlier this year and designed by architects EFFEKT, the homes ReGen is proposing are a long way from your off-grid, hippy homemade structures that often pop up under the term ‘self-sufficient’. These stylish houses will be power positive, run on renewable energy, be connected by the Internet of Things and act as integrated vertical farms.

In the light of water crises, global warming and increased environmental stress due to intense food production, it aims to be a new way forward – one that does no harm and proves that smaller, smarter and more social might be the key to solving so many of our burgeoning living issues.

Food for thought

“Today we spent 40% of the surface of our continents producing food. Food production is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the biggest driver of deforestation and responsible for 70% of our global freshwater consumption. We ship our food from one end of the world to another just to waste 30% of the total production before consumption – and still a seventh of the global population goes to bed hungry – we just have to come up with better models and ReGen is one of them,” says Sinus Lynge, co-founder of EFFEKT.

Each ReGen community will be a closed loop that uses aquaponics, vertical gardens, water management and waste-to-resource systems to achieve a level of off-grid sufficiency.

“Everywhere you look in a ReGen village, there will be something edible growing. It’s permaculture architecture,” says Ehrlich. “Before we build any houses, we’ll be putting in underground water cisterns, planting mature fruit trees and berry shrubs, herbs and spices, setting up the seasonal farm gardens and small poultry areas.”

While they might not achieve total self-sufficiency (the sites won’t be growing anything exotic like cocoa or mango), the hope is to hit at least 50% with many villages over-producing. Excess food (and excess energy) would be sold on with the profits going back to the village.

Ehrlich knows that locally produced, bountiful food production can not only feed a community, it can help heal economic divides that can fester into something darker.

“In a developing country like Africa or India I’m confident we can get to 100% self sufficiency and that’s so exciting. It reduces the burden on local and national governments and there’s some wonderful research from Stanford that proves that these kind of systems reduce the chance of someone being radicalised to zero,” he says.

It’s not a commune…

Through his extensive field trips, Ehrlich knows that small pods of up to 100 homes have the highest chance of success. As do those communities that don’t leave things to chance but rather have an organised, architectural framework (like any other commercial development) and a clear constitution.

“ReGen villages are a tech-integrated real estate development company, so we would manage the food production, waste and energy services for a fee that everyone pays,” explains Ehrlich. “If you want to volunteer in the vertical farms or anywhere else, then an app keeps track of your work and your fee is reduced. It removes the stigma of people feeling like they have a chip on their shoulder for doing more work than their neighbour and other people’s guilt for not doing enough.”

…and it’s not social engineering

Rather than pick people who might make a good community, ReGen is leaving the social mix to chance. You want a house? Register your interest and wait your turn.

“We have had a lot of people sign up for the first village,” says Ehrlich. “We have had people say they want to buy several homes for their extended family but it’s just like a deli counter, you take a ticket and get in line – although I’m hoping we have everyone from millennials to retirees. We have had a lot of interest from people who want to build their own eco-house or commune but it’s too hard. We’ve taken out all the complication and risk.”

While the houses are a nudge above ordinary homes cost wise, the whole point of ReGen is to foster successful and diverse communities, hence the first one not being on costly Californian land where Ehrlich is based, but in Almere, a quiet part of Holland.

We have to solve the water issue…we need to store it, use it, conserve it and we will create oases that will change the environment

The first country Ehrlich approached was Denmark, often seen as a leader in sustainable projects but a change in government saw the country drop the ball. Holland picked it up.

“The Dutch are really ambitious. They rented a banquet hall and brought in 100 stakeholders from universities, tech and industry heads and entrepreneurs to speak to us, it was amazing,” says Ehrlich.

But it’s not just about one village. ReGen has signed contracts with Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Norway and Denmark to build its tech-integrated communities, often close to high speed transport links and academic research centres. Once they’ve broken ground this year, the focus will move to the Middle East and North Africa, where a more challenging landscape awaits.

“We have to solve the water issue,” explains Ehrlich. “We need to store it, use it, conserve it and we will create oases that will change the environment.”

Dream house or just a dream? All the pieces are there for ReGen to be a success, and if it is the suburbs could finally be the dream destination for us all.