Green living in Sweden's Ecological Village of Solbyn

| 23rd February 2015
Ingeborg Löfgren, a pillar of the Solbyn community. Photo: Gillian Thomas.

Ingeborg Löfgren, a pillar of the Solbyn community. Photo: Gillian Thomas.

Solbyn, a sustainable community in southern Sweden, is a cold place to spend the winter, writes Gillian Thomas. But for all the snow outside, the well-insulated homes stay warm in the harshest conditions - and the welcome is warmer still. Come summer, there's an organic farm to nurture, but February is a month for friendship, making plans, and brilliant starry nights.
Solbyn shows us that a neighborhood can be a source of beauty and scientific discovery; a place to teach our children how to interact with nature; and a place to build relationships with a shared ethical commitment.

Solbyn is an ecological village of fifty apartments, situated on a forested hill near to Lund and Malmö in Southern Sweden. I moved here two months ago with my young children and partner. We arrived at the start of winter, which is not the best season for admiring all the carefully tended trees and plants.

On this February day it is minus 5 degrees C, the light reflects off the snow, and the wide stretch of south-facing windows means my living room and kitchen are bright.

Solbyn is attractive, with its pretty beige and black two story buildings, the wide gravel pedestrian lanes between the homes, the sinewy trees and the huge expanse of allotments. Even without an allotment of our own for now, we have a sizeable patch outside our door, and we could create a winter garden in our glass house extension.

There is a common house and a cooperative pre-school here, and on the evenings and weekends they can be used by the residents. It is useful to have access to the large meeting rooms for get-togethers and parties. The communal children's play area is a great perk because our own apartment is small and when the boys tire of their own toys and books, we go there.

Meeting the people

I interviewed four residents in the common house - three of the founders and one recent arrival. In discussing the finer points of the design of Solbyn, it is clear that these people were ahead of their times when they created Solbyn, and in a lot of ways, they are still ahead of the times. In 1978 the plans for Solbyn likely looked quixotic, but the experience of living here is evidence of material success.

Dr. Åke Stenram is a distinguished, 90-year old retired doctor and ex-Social Democrat politician, who was the director of a rehabilitation clinic at Lund university hospital, and, Dr. Nils Cronberg, a cheerful biology lecturer at the university.

There is also Ingeborg Löfgren, who worked with Åke in his department as an occupational therapist; she has been involved with the party planning for decades. After listening to her description of the parties, I asked if the residents know each other very well, and this was answered with loud laughter.

Lotta Pettersson, a project manager for cultural projects, moved here five years ago from her cooperative house set deep in the countryside. "The summers were nice there, we had WWOOFers .." What? "You had wolves?" I ask. "No", she says, "World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms."

But, the winters were long and difficult in the remote location, and she was attracted to the social life in Solbyn. I can also identify with that aspect of living here - it allows you to experience the countryside while living closely with others.

We enjoyed ourselves at the party mid-December, where we sang traditional songs and sipped mulled wine. There are 13 working groups including an energy group (dealing with questions of energy efficiency); a group to take care of the sauna; a flag group (who raise the Swedish flag on holidays); a group that orders bulk, reduced priced, organic dry goods; party organizers; a group for tree and plant maintenance; and a group for taking care of the hens. Participation is entirely voluntary.

In the 1970s Dr. Nils Cronberg helped steer the pioneering campaign for the use of more sustainable materials in food packaging and for more widespread recycling. The seventies campaign was a success and contributed to the rise in recycling and the introduction of better materials in food packaging.

Ingeborg mentioned the influence of the seventies feminist movement as contributing to her vision of how she wanted to live and raise her family. Simplicity was a key word in my discussion with Ingeborg; beer also ranked highly.

From idea to reality

I get the impression that Solbyn is so highly treasured partly because of the time and energy invested in its construction, including ten years of planning from 1978 to 1988; over these years there were triumphs and disappointments.

The planning association was formed from a group of people who had met for a vegetarian lunch most weekdays for several years prior to that. The members of this group were inspired by Rachel Carsson's book Silent Spring.

Together they started Solbyn Association, consisting of nearly 50 people who met every six weeks over the next ten years; Åke was the talented leader at the head of the group. They contacted an architect, Krister Wiberg, at Lund University who had written his PhD on ecological houses, particularly those built in France in 1979.

Protracted dealings with the local government required clever negotiating skills. According to Åke, the bureaucrats in local government had never considered an ecological building project before, and they were skeptical.

After a long delay the plans went to the politicians, who decided they should be treated positively and, finally, the bureaucrats stopped placing plans for Solbyn at the bottom of the slush pile and things speeded up.

As the project developed, there were quite a few concessions made in order to reduce building costs. According to Åke, Solbyn association did succeed in getting cheaper loans from the State and a larger proportion of State loans.

However, there were further battles between the association and the construction company over costs, and plans for solar panels were regretfully abandoned. According to Ekoby, the plan to build the rows of houses on terraces was modified, and a few of them were levelled, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the bottom floor in some of the apartments.

Efficient, well lit and constantly ventilated

Despite these concessions, the houses were 30% more energy efficient than comparable houses built in the 80's, due to the insulation and heat exchange system. According to Åke and Nils, two years after the completion of Solbyn the energy costs were half that of similar houses in this region and Solbyn is still considered to have high standards of energy efficiency.

The site has a southwest exposure, which enables maximum utilization of the sun's energy (so called 'passive solar heating'), with large windows and a built-in glass house extensions, and smaller windows to the north. In my house there's plenty of natural daylight in the living room and kitchen.

All the windows have triple paned glass, which was unusual for the late 80s. The 'heat exchange system' contributes to the energy efficiency and increases the ventilation. The contraption is above the stove, and ensures that the air exiting heats the air entering. The air of the house is entirely exchanged in just two hours, without costing a fortune in heating.

Thick insulation and cement walls means the house cools down and heats up slowly. There's also a white tiled fireplace in the living room.

Closing the nutrient loop

Dry compost toilets were a feature of each of the original apartments, as these toilets facilitate the nutrient cycle in enabling the conversion of human faeces to nutrient rich soil in just two years. And, according to Nils, there's really nothing odious about the final product.

You also need to remember to put vegetable peelings into the toilet every week to increase the carbon content. Unfortunately, fruit flies liked the compost toilets too and gathered there, and for this reason many occupants chose to replace their compost toilet for a conventional toilet, but a few still remain.

Organic agriculture has its challenges, namely Roe deer and slugs. Lotta has seen deer tracks in the snow leading to the place where her kale once was. But, she has successfully grown potatoes, carrots, beetroot, polkabeet, squash, zucchini and pumpkin. There's also fruit and berries.

Some measures to deter animals include the use of nets for the strawberries, sound and light machines, and wood shavings. Fortunately, the wild boar don't seem interested in Solbyn's vegetation, yet.

Democracy and lifestyle

Åke said he would recommend living in an eco-village, primarily for the social life. He highlighted the monthly meetings as being important. Ingeborg also underscored the monthly meetings as the wheel of democratic decision making; some members of the board of Solbyn are changed every two years after a vote.

I asked both Åke and Ingeborg about the obvious risks to any community - feuds and misunderstandings. Ingeborg said there were rarely conflicts, and when there were, it was mostly about cat poop.

Åke replied that there are two women who work in conflict resolution. I asked what their names were, and he refused to name them. This is intriguing - the idea of secret agents in the village, adept at building good relationships. I wonder if the language divide has led to some misunderstanding, and I let the matter lie without further inquiries.

Both Åke and Ingeborg are retired; they stay fit by taking long walks daily in the surrounding nature reserves. Friluftsliv is a Swedish word that means outdoors life, and Solbyn is situated near to several nature reserves that provide the residents around Lund City with friluftsliv.

On our walk together Ingeborg pointed out the permaculture project set between the houses, with a well-placed bench in the middle of the foliage. I haven't seen Spring here, but I hear there's carpets of snowdrops in the beech forest.

Ingeborg talks about parties back in the days when her kids were young; those were long evenings where the children could sleep in the adjoining rooms of the communal buildings. And, after a day together maintaining the grounds someone drives round a wheelbarrow full of beer.

It was Ingeborg who decided that the village needed a communal preschool, and one was formed fairly quickly. She described how young families found it easy to socialize in the village, taking stew over to the neighbors for dinner.

Lotta said she was raised to listen to her moral compass, which includes reducing your carbon footprint. She tells me about how great it is to live amidst people who value similar things. "It is nice to know that your neighbor can probably answer your questions about how to grow a particular vegetable, or where to buy a more sustainable product."

Rediscovering my inner nerd

In discussing compost toilets with Nils for nearly an hour, the nerd inside of me was rehabilitated. "Wow, here is a place to indulge my interest in sustainable technology, botany and soil, with likeminded people. Maybe I'll learn quite a lot along the way." That's a nice thought to have at the end of the day. I, eco-nerd, am at peace with my interests.

Nils and I discussed how difficult it is to romanticize nature, when you are more intimately involved with it. The absence of street lights means the stars look closer, larger, more clear, but this doesn't kindle a Romantic spin. Yet, I might get used to looking up on my evening walks and seeing them there. Similarly, I could get used to not having water in my toilet or watching the deer munching away on my kale.

Lotta also mentioned the Swedish idiom, "to have a high ceiling" - which means people here are supposed to be tolerant of each other. Lotta recalls how an anthropologist had said that a group of 50 households was about the right population to get things working properly.

Lotta suggests that Solbyn can advance and develop beyond what it is now. "Solbyn was founded on big visions, and we can continue in this spirit; we should listen to the changes going on around us - in the wider world."

We discussed whether Solbyn could be engaged in outreach to the wider community. Of course, changes must be democratically initiated, so any ideas will be put to a vote. And, like many democratic structures, lobbying is effective.

I want to praise the creators of Solbyn for their vision of well-built houses, nestled in a marvelous landscape. I admire their tenacity in pursuing their project, and I share with them the notion that a neighborhood can be a lot more than a random collection of people thrown together.

And Solbyn shows us that a neighborhood can be a source of beauty and scientific discovery; a place to teach our children how to interact with nature; and a place to build relationships, with a shared ethical commitment at the heart of the community.



Gillian Thomas is a freelance journalist, writer and copyeditor based in Lund, Sweden. She can be reached at gialfredsson (at) gmail (dot) com

More information: Solbyn community.

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