Heading to new shores: Communal and ecological living at the Großer Zernsee lake
Living in the Uferwerk alternative housing project
The Uferwerk ("shore works”) in Werder an der Havel is a cooperative multi-generation housing project. Wenke Wegner has accompanied the project from day one. In an interview she tells us what makes the housing estate so special, how the community is organized and what drives the people who live there.
Wenke, what drove you to start a project like the Uferwerk?
On the one hand it was that our apartment had become too small for my family and me and because of the rising rents in Berlin. On the other hand, I also had a strong desire to create something new and to create more community spirit and sustainability in our lives.
How do you go about finding such a housing project?
Back then, that was in 2012, we came across a cooperative through an online portal for co-housing that wanted to convert a building and grounds in Potsdam into a housing project. We were a small group of people with two female planners at our side who had founded the cooperative and initially also occupied the board of directors; this enabled us to quickly enter into the purchase negotiations. But this plan didn't work out and so we increased our search radius. We then came across the factory site in Werder via another online real estate portal. Someone from our group went there the same day and spoke to the owner. In the following months we had a lot of challenging negotiations and had to do a great deal of persuading and convincing. After a long time of hoping and worrying it actually worked out and we had a sales contract.
Did you already have a vision for the site back then?
Yes, certain ideas about how we wanted to live in a location as a community were already circulating on the first info evening. Even before the purchase we held workshops to get to know each other as a group and find out what drives us. People tabled their wishes such as permaculture gardens, ecological construction, social rents, multi-generational living and a neighbourhood built on solidarity. No ownership, but rather shaping the project as a cooperative. Permanently withdraw the property from real estate speculation. When it came to the specific plot of land in Werder, we organized workshops to discuss how and where these wishes could be put into practice on the site: where we could set up a bathing area, where there was space for gardening. We then really did manage to realize many of those ideas.
Who are the people who have gradually moved into the Uferwerk?
Many residents or members came through friends or learned about the project through an online portal. A newspaper article was also published: About the "trend" to move out of Berlin. Thanks to this many elderly people became aware of our project. They then came to the information evenings. We started in Potsdam with twelve people, half of them are still with us now. In order to manage the financing for the purchase, we had to grow quickly. In the meantime 165 people live here - from babies to 78-year-olds. We have almost 100 adult members. Professionally, it's a mixed bag: In addition to many social scientists, two violin makers, programmers, designers, a lawyer, an acoustician and others live here. More than half commute to Berlin or Potsdam, some work in the Potsdam-Mittelmark region, others in our shared office.
What do your living concepts look like?
In the Uferwerk there are 65 residential units, each with different types of housing. Most live as families, singles or patchwork families in separate apartments. But there are also shared flats. Some residents do not have their own kitchen, but share a large kitchen as a "kitchen group". Three families also share a living room. Our common rooms are an important meeting place: In summer this is the large garden and the shore, otherwise it’s the exercise room, workshops or common Sunday breakfast in the atrium.
How are you organized in the Uferwerk community?
A cooperative is a type of company with a long tradition and its own legal regulations. Within this framework, however, each cooperative gives itself its own rules and these are laid down in the statutes. As a cooperative, we hold annual general meetings. The monthly plenums where we make decisions are important for discussing our life together. We are very much a grassroots based democratic set-up. We have working groups for innumerable topics - for example for building projects, the future sauna boat, the jetty or the garden. But also for financial and administrative work. There's always something to do.
Regionality, sustainability, community: What is special for you about the Uferwerk?
As a group on this site we have great opportunities to simply try things out and welcome our neighbours to take advantage of the opportunities at the Uferwerk. Anyone can come to the Climate Workshop, for example - these are workshop rooms in a former hall, which was built by the Halle 36 e.V. Wood, metal, electrical and sewing work can be done there, and there is a bicycle repair shop as well as a repair café. With the Climate Workshop and other projects, the Halle 36 e.V. association promotes education and commitment in the fields of art, DIY and environmental protection. It creates the opportunity for neighbourly encounters and exchange in Werder.
Then there is Stadt Land Move e.V.: This is an association that wants to contribute to developing stable, diverse and lively regions that are based on solidarity and resource conservation, where new forms of economic life and coexistence are practised. The food-coop of the Uferwerk is also linked to various solidarity-based farms. And together with a Hamburg start-up, we have built up a car sharing community. Here residents make their private car available for shared use via a booking platform. The Waldorf School and various other initiatives in Werder offer some of the inhabitants important points of contact for networking in the region.
These are just a few examples. In my opinion, life in the Uferwerk is generally characterized by many spontaneous encounters. Living here means a lot to me and my family and I feel very connected to the people.
What would you want the economy of the future to look like?
I would like to see a climate-friendly, grand-children-oriented, decelerated, public-interest based, resource-saving economy that says goodbye to having to maximise profits. I hope to spread the idea that prosperity is measured by the well-being of the population - and not by the gross national product. Economic planning should accordingly be based on social and environmental factors.
Thank you very much for the interview, Wenke!
Pictures: Mirko Kubein