THEME: A Thriving Village: Vision for 2035

What will a thriving village look like in 2035?

BY Iain Watt | September 2013

What Will A Thriving Village Look Like in 2035?

In this think piece series, leading architectural thinkers critically explore the future of rural settlements against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation, technological advances and calls for sustainable development. With globalisation opening up the countryside to new opportunities and threats while issues of subsidiarity promote local distinctiveness, how can villages come to terms with modern life without losing the past?

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Jim wakes up and wanders through to the kitchen. The screen there is gently flashing – letting him know that the chickens have laid – so he pops outside to grab a couple of eggs for breakfast. He picks up the extras too, and the household computer logs them into the community foodshare database (and finds a match almost instantly – Brian down the road is looking to trade some of his apples).

After cracking open his eggs, Jim puts the shells in his compost bin as usual, but pauses for a second to think about his options: should he use the garden compost today, or the organic waste pick-up scheme? Either way, Jim stands to benefit; either through better veggies from his garden; or a few pennies via the community-owned anaerobic digester (in which Jim is a shareholder).

“That reminds me,” he thinks, “I should pop in at the farm today.”

Jim had moved to the village 5 years previously. Wanting a place with a garden – and not being able to afford housing in London – he had started to scan the suburbs, and then the market towns, and then the villages beyond the commuter belt. Even then, the only viable options were part of the government-sponsored RuralReGen scheme, intended to help revitalise struggling rural communities.

He was somewhat apprehensive at first – he had never dreamed he’d move to an out-of-town development (“Noddy houses” he remembered his dad calling them). But this development felt different. As with all new developments it was zero-carbon (focusing first on ultra-efficiency, supplemented by ground-source heat pumps and the latest solar roofing and paint); and the developers had gone the extra eco-mile by adding in allotments, a lake, and a native woodland that connected to the growing network of local nature trails. This little bit of connectivity symbolised to Jim what it was that made this development different: it felt like part of a community.

The Council – and the villagers themselves – were already experimenting with new ideas when their village was ‘picked’ for the RuralReGen scheme, and they embraced the development as an opportunity to up their game. Regular ‘new faces’ evenings are held at the re-opened pub (the Badger and Turbine), and every new arrival receives a ‘welcome pack’ delivered by hand by a neighbour.

This pack, of course, highlights the various efforts to knit the local farm more closely into the fabric of the community, and as Jim cycled to the farm later that morning, the success of those efforts were plain to see.

On the way there, he passed Julie from the village maintenance team. She had just mown the sports field and was taking the clippings to the farm to feed the anaerobic digester. Maggie, a retired teacher, sat in the passenger seat – her local lift-share app alerted her to the fact that Julie was going that way and had space for a passenger. Julie’s van was one of the few non-electric vehicles left in the village. But with regular trips to the farm there was always a reliable source of biogas to take advantage of.

As Jim arrived, the Year 6 school kids were maintaining the beehives and collecting honey. Profits are up they told him excitedly: partly due to a good summer; and partly due to the brand revamp they had launched in the spring (which had seen internet sales jump 50%). They now had plans to invest in a number of new hives – including a few ‘off-site’ ones. Jim signed up as a host; the kids agreeing to take care of all the set-up and maintenance (“we’ll be round once a week to check up on them!”) with Jim getting a few pots of honey in the summer (and some welcome pollination services for his garden).

After entrepreneurship class, the children moved onto biodiversity monitoring. The regular records the school has kept of bugs and birds for the past 15 years (increasingly supplemented by others in the village) have proven a valuable tool in monitoring the impacts of climate change. A fair amount of local pride has even built up around the village’s ‘hotspot’ status (their population of corn buntings has even been growing steadily – a rare outlier against the national trend).

Watching the kids log their sightings on their computers, Jim recalled the school headmistress’ presentation back when he was considering the move from the city. “We want our pupils to be equally fluent in nature and technology,” she told the prospective villagers.

Jim stopped by the farm shop, picked up his groceries, then started the cycle home (he had a holo-conference with his colleagues in London at 11am). As he left, Brian arrived to check that the anaerobic digestion unit was working properly. For all its benefits, anaerobic digestion remains hands-on work. But with so many units up and running around the region these days, Brian had carved a niche for himself as a roving ‘AD technician’. He and his small team check that all the pipes are clean, and that the bacteria are happy – freeing up time for the farming team to focus their efforts elsewhere.

As Jim’s visit highlighted, the farm had become a genuine hub of social activity – as well as a thriving enterprise. This represented a huge change since Jane and Tom, the resident farmers, had first reached out to the local community to part-fund an anaerobic digestion unit all those years ago. Those first tentative steps have now grown into a fully-fledged partnership. The farm shop is thriving; the farm hosts the bi-annual village food festival (which draws in a couple of thousand visitors twice a year); and part of the farm is now dedicated to community growing (with villagers paying an annual fee in return for as-much-as-you-can-carry seasonal produce).

Like the village itself, the farm is now a net producer of electricity, with the AD units supported by significant solar investments (including 0.5 MW of ground-mounted solar in a field that doubles up as a free-range chicken coop) and three 1.5MW community-owned turbines.

Back in 2013, this would have been enough to power almost all of the 1400 of the homes in the village. But with today’s ultra-efficient homes – and with many other small-scale systems scattered around the village – most of it is surplus.

What is more unusual – even today – is that three 120 metre-tall turbines went through planning with zero local objections. “Well the community approached us with that idea,” Jane points out whenever asked about this unusual situation, “and as we all get a share in the profits, why would anyone object?”

“We’ve learned two key lessons,” Tom expands. “Firstly that it is possible for communities to power themselves. If you start thinking about powering the country as a whole – and the need for many gigawatts of capacity– you inevitably get drawn towards big centralised solutions. But if you start at the scale of a house, or a farm, or a village, and build up, you quite quickly realise that a whole host of small-scale options are available – and that they often bring a whole host of co-benefits along with them.

“And that leads into the second point – if we had simply tried to maximise energy production, rather than looking for ways for energy to support everything else we wanted to achieve on our land, we’d have gone down a completely different route than the one we’ve embraced here. Instead, we have a suite of energy investments that have helped us, and the local community, thrive while enhancing our ability to grow food – all while creating a space for nature.”

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Iain Watt is a Principal Sustainability Advisor at the Forum for the Future – a leading sustainability non-profit specialising in futures work, innovation and capacity building. He leads on the forum’s work on climate change and energy, and has launched the \Farm as Power Station Project\ in conjunction with Farmers Weekly and Nottingham Trent University, intended to bring about a step change in the uptake of farm-based renewable energy across the UK. Iain is particularly interested in exploring and promoting an integrated approach to energy – such that energy investments complement, rather than compete with, food production, waste management, pollution control, rural economic development and the like. Before joining the Forum for the Future he worked at Ceres leading on the first two editions of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Reporting Guidelines.