“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. This quote from William Gibson perfectly summarizes our 2-week trip with our kids to an ecological community that has started 30 years ago already.
After the lockdown, we started looking for simple holidays not too far from Brussels and easily reachable by train or by car. Last summer, we went to an “eco camp” with our kids (3 boys and one girl from 13 to 7 year old) and it was quite a disappointment (tldr: very misleading as it wasn’t much “eco”). So for this year we looked a bit further and we stumbled upon Ecolonie, an “ecological community in the heart of Western-Europe” (in Les Vosges, France).
Here are my notes, thoughts and observations on this amazing place and the great holiday we had.
TLDR: What an amazing breath of fresh air it was, we highly recommend this magical place. Picking up eggs, fruits and veggies with your kids in the vegetable gardens, joining the art workshops and sitting around campfires. Swimming in the fresh forest lakes or going for walks at dawn. This community has done an amazing job. Biggest downside: everything is in Dutch and the management is quite rigid. Rules are the rules and you better adapt to them.
History of the place 🏫
In 1989, two yoga communities purchased a 6 hectares property in Hennezel. Despite their high hopes, they haven’t been able to turn this into a sustainable place. Then a team came together to work on a common vision and project for the place and that’s when things really got started. One of the founders say: “it’s important at the beginning to have a very small coherent group of people who strictly share the same values and agree on a common set of rules. You don’t want to end up with some people that are coming to play basketball while others come to play soccer”.
Fast forward to 2020, Ecolonie has now 30 full time residents and welcomes hundreds of guests every year on their camping site and through the various different activities that they are hosting. They have also acquired a farm of 14 hectares next door where they produce goat cheese. Thanks to that production and to the production of their numerous gardens (and 75 chickens 🐓), they can provide food to all the residents and a universal basic income of €1,000 per month. That’s pretty impressive.
The great 👍
What a pleasure to be in the middle of nature. Your kids can roam free in a safe environment. No cars. Lots of trees and lots of gardens. Did I tell you that you can help pick up eggs, fruits and vegetables and then get some for your dinner?
The place is stunning. It’s also a very quiet place. There is a curfew at 11pm (9pm for kids). Common areas are clean. It’s really well maintained. They also have a couple of dry toilets that they encourage you to use but you can also use regular toilets if you prefer that. You can leave your phone unintended to charge and it will still be there hours after.
A safe space where kids can roam freely
A camp site is a model for our cities. Keep the cars in a parking lot at the entrance so that kids can safely roam freely in the area. It makes a massive difference. Compare that to our cities where the streets are hostiles to our kids, where we have to ask them to constantly pay attention to adults in their noisy and polluting vehicles. No wonder that they spend so much time on their screens. It’s the only place where they can still roam free.
The vegetable gardens 🌱
What a pleasure to be able to help harvest fruits and vegetables in the garden with your kids. It’s a very mindful activity and they are rediscovering where our food comes from in the process. You can also pick up the eggs (they have 75 chickens).
The local organic shop 🍅 🥔
You need fresh bread? Vegetables? Spreads? Cereals? No need to pick up your car and go to the city (10mn drive). There is a small shop on site with good local products. Very convenient.
On site coffee shop and library ☕️📚
They offer coffee (sadly no Espresso, but I came prepared with my nanopresso that I highly recommend), tea, beers and artisanal ice cream. 2 days a week you can order fries and one day a week they do pizzas. They also have a few board games that you can use there.
There is a library where you can borrow books. Sadly they were all in Dutch ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Wanna try stone or wood carving, making mosaics, playing with clay? Those are some of the workshops that they offer on site for €12 per adult or €9 per kid (for 3h). Creating something with your hands is also a very mindful activity that forces you to be present. It is very nice that they offer such workshops. I had fun making a mosaic 😊
The playground 🏓 ♞
It’s nice to have a playground for the kids. With all the trees there is plenty of shade. It has 2 ping pong tables, a giant chess board, a small carousel, two seesaws, a football goal, a petanque field.
There is also a pond where you can swim but the water is stagnant and if it doesn’t rain, the water becomes unsuitable for swimming. Luckily they have another property 2km away with a larger lake where you can swim.
No cell phone connection 📱
In those times of Internet addiction, it’s refreshing to be in a place where you have no cell phone coverage (you barely get EDGE). They have one wifi hotspot in the parking lot if really needed. This makes it much easier to “forget” your phone. You end up spending much more time being present, with your head up, and reconnecting with nature and people.
I’m always surprised by how easy it is to change your habits if you change your environment. It is so hard to reduce my screen consumption in the city, but it was so easy at Ecolonie.
What can be improved
The entire parking lot is 99% Dutch plates. Everything is in Dutch. Only a few signs are translated to English and French. For a place that promotes permaculture, apparently that doesn’t apply to humans. I have nothing against Dutch people, they are nice people and most of them speak very good English. But it just feels wrong. It gives the feeling of a very closed community that is not open to the world and its different cultures. At the very least get some french speaking people (you are in France, you got to be able to find some) as full time residents. Make sure all signs and announcements are at least in English. Make sure that there are books in French and English in the library (I bought a comic book for my daughter that we left there, hopefully more people will do the same).
Welcome pack 🤗
It would be nice to offer people a welcome pack with the list of activities, the different amenities available to them, etc. We had to find out on our own (luckily my partner is Dutch speaking).
More participation and co-creation 🙋🏻♂️
I love the fact that they offer various activities and that they invite people to offer their own and even charge for it if needed. I’d love to see more of that. Think of it like an App Store in real life. They offer the infrastructure and the audience so that you can easily offer your talent.
How cool would it be if on every pitch, every tent or caravan would offer one activity for an hour or two during the week? This would give a reason to go and meet other campers, learn about their passion, learn new stuff. Some could do a workshop about vegan cooking, zero waste, others could organise a yoga or meditation class, or simply hold the space for some board games or drawing with kids. Burning man style.
There is no shared fridge. Instead, to save energy, you can borrow ice packs for your frigo box and swap them for new ones twice a day (at 9am and 8pm). Great idea in theory but in practice it’s annoying. If you are not in line on time you get half frozen ice packs and they don’t really keep your food cold reliably. It would be better to have a shared fridge with containers (one per pitch) and a shared freezer where you can put your own frozen elements or rent some.
Water and energy consumption metering 🚰
This one is a bit hard to put in place but I’d love to find out how much water and electricity we used during our stay and compare that with our usual consumption in the city. Living in a camping is a great opportunity to go back to basics and re-learn to live with a much lower ecological footprint.
We couldn’t rent the same spot for two weeks so we had to move. But checkout was 10am and check-in 4pm. And we moved from a stationary caravan with a fridge to a tent without one. You would think they would try to help us in some ways but no, “our problem”. Seriously? 😳
They do provide an icebox when you rent the tent but the icepacks can only be picked up at 9am or 8pm. So we had to wait. The lack of not even trying to find a solution was very surprising to me, especially given the mindfulness of the place. And that was not the only example where they were super strict on the rules independently of the situation.
A vision for the future 🔮
Spending two weeks in nature in such a community was inspiring. I want our kids to have more opportunities to experience living in harmony with nature. We need a thousand of those places across Europe. Apparently they are currently applying for European grants to do that. I don’t know much about this project so I cannot judge but I’m worried of repeating the mistakes of the past. We don’t need hundreds of Ecolonie, we need thousands of places like it but that will be different. Not every place, not every community is the same. Not everyone can and will resonate with the same rules and ways of working.
We need to help people start their own sustainable community. The ones that already made it such as Ecolonie can offer inspiration and support to new ones. And if our institutions want to help –in the same way that they wanted to help startups to boost our economy– their best bet is not to give away grants, but instead focus on leveling the playing field to remove the barriers that get in the way of the people that are already in the process of creating such communities. If Silicon Valley was the place to start your startup, let’s make Europe the place where you can develop a sustainable place for your community.
We would love to walk the walk and start such a community in Belgium. It will take years. It won’t be easy. But it will be a blank slate from which we can relearn how to build community in harmony with nature. It won’t be a closed community, it will be open to the world and we will share our learnings along the way as openly as possible. Our hope is to be able to contribute to the knowledge loop to make it easier over time for such new communities to emerge. It also perfectly aligns with my goals when I started open collective: sharing in open source tools to help make communities sustainable.
Wait? Are you leaving the city?
Not really no, we love the city. It’s the place where you meet new interesting people, where knowledge can be shared face to face, where innovation happens. We plan to stay in Brussels (Schaerbeek) for the foreseeable future. Our plan (for now) would be to use that new place in nature as a shared second residence where we can go during long weekends and holidays. It’s a bit like our laboratory where we can freely experiment, learn and be inspired by nature. We will take that inspiration to continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible to do in the city to make them more sustainable, more resilient and more connected to nature.
How can I help?
We are looking for a large piece of land to buy within a 30 minute bike ride of a train station in Belgium. Ideally alongside the Ravel network (we want to be in a very bike friendly area). Our goal would be to put a couple of tiny houses and a camping to welcome guests. Access to water is important and we need enough land to create numerous vegetable gardens.
If you have any tips or feedback, let us know! 😊