A half-hour commute from Amsterdam, a piece of farmland is slated to become a new kind of neighborhood. Vertical farms, along with traditional fields and orchards surrounding homes, will supply food to people living there. Food waste will turn into fish feed for on-site aquaculture. Houses will filter rainwater, but won’t have driveways. A “village OS” tech platform will use AI to simultaneously manage systems for renewable energy, food production, water supply, and waste.
The 50-acre neighborhood, which will be nearly self-sufficient as it collects and stores water and energy, grows food, and processes much of its own waste, was initially planned for construction in 2017. The developers, called ReGen Villages, struggled with red tape–the area, on a piece of land that used to be underwater but was reclaimed in the 1960s when a seawall was constructed–has regulations that make it difficult for someone other than an individual homeowner to build on land that is mostly used for farming now. But after the project finally got government approval this month, it’s ready to take its next steps.
“We can connect a neighborhood the way it’s supposed to be connected, which is around natural resources,” says James Ehrlich, founder of ReGen Villages. If the project raises the final funding needed to begin construction, what is now a simple field will have new canals, wetlands, and ponds that can soak up stormwater (the area is seven meters below sea level, and at risk for flooding) and attract migrating birds. The land will be planted with trees, gardens, and food forests. Vertical gardens inside greenhouses will grow food on a small footprint. The 203 new homes, from tiny houses and row houses to larger villas, will provide needed housing in an area where the population may double in 15 years. The houses range in cost from 200,000 to 850,000 euros.
As cities become increasingly expensive and crowded, Ehrlich believes that this type of development may become more common. “In the last few years, we’ve really seen that the market has shifted and that there’s a hollowing out of cities,” he says. “They are really expensive and the quality of life is going down, and as much as millennials or younger people really want to be in the city, the fact is that they can’t really afford it . . . the trends are really moving toward this kind of neighborhood development outside of cities.”
There’s also a need to rethink infrastructure so it works more efficiently, with a lower environmental footprint. The new development considers everything–from electricity to sewage–as an interconnected system, and software links the pieces together. Electric cars, for example, which will be parked on the perimeter of the neighborhood to keep streets walkable, can store some of the extra power from the neighborhood’s solar panels and other renewable energy.
The neighborhood works differently than most. Because of the expected arrival of self-driving cars in coming years, and to encourage walking and biking, the houses aren’t designed with parking; a new bus line along the edge of the neighborhood, with a dedicated bus lane, can take residents to the town of Almere or into Amsterdam. (As in other parts of the Netherlands, separated bike paths also connect to the city.) Water will come primarily from rain collection. The on-site farming, including raising chicken and fish, will supply a large portion of the local food supply. If neighbors volunteer for the community–to garden, or teach a yoga class, or provide elder care, for example–the community will use a blockchain-based time bank to track their hours, and then provide a discount on their HOA fees.
A “living machine,” a system that uses plants and trees to filter sewage, and a separate anaerobic digester, can handle the neighborhood’s sewage and provide irrigation or water reused in energy systems. A system for processing food and animal waste will use black soldier flies and aquatic worms to digest the waste and create both chicken and fish feed. Other household waste–like cans and bottles–will be handled by the municipal recycling system, at least initially.
It’s a design that Ehrlich believes is feasible elsewhere, though it may not easily fit into existing regulations, and it would need political support. (Some other “agrihoods,” neighborhoods with built-in farming, do already exist, like Kuwili Lani in Hawaii, which also uses renewable energy and harvests some rainwater.)
“We know that governments around the world are in a desperate situation to build probably over a billion new homes around the world,” he says. “It’s a terrible housing crisis. At the same time, they wrestle with a number of things: the commercial interest of farmers, the commercial interests of traditional real estate developers, material companies who have a way of doing things that they’ve been doing for 100, 150 years. Most of the rules on the books relate to this district-scale thinking–of grid-based electricity, of district-scale water, of district-scale sewage.”
Financing is another challenge: While typical real estate developers look for large rates of return and quick exits, ReGen Villages plans to stay involved in its developments and get long-term, single-digit returns. The company is still raising the last round of money needed for the new development. Because Almere has regulations that don’t allow for high density, the initial development will also be more expensive. But once it’s built–something that Ehrlich expects to happen in 2019–others can follow more quickly. “We have access to a lot of really big money that’s waiting for us to finish the next pilot, and so we need the proof of concept,” he says.
The company has plans to build future developments near cities like Lund, Sweden, and Lejre-Hvalso, Denmark, and it ultimately hopes to bring a low-cost version of the neighborhoods to developing countries. “We can imagine going to rural India, sub-Saharan Africa, where we know the next 2 [billion] to 3 billion people are coming to the planet, and where we know that hundreds of millions of people are moving into the middle class,” he says. “And [we want] to get there as quickly as we can to provide new kinds of suburbs, new kinds of neighborhoods.”