Family reunion

A community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone

Once a year, the European ecovillage family meets for a week of networking, policy discussions and fun – this is the GEN-Europe annual General Assembly. This years’ GA, to be held next week, will take place in a small community in the mountains to the east of Rome. We are expecting somewhere in the region of 100 representatives of ecovillage initiatives and other interested individuals from over 20 countries across Europe.


A small group of four of us – three GEN-Europe staffers and a council member – are using the opportunity presented by the GA to visit a number of other ecovillages in Italy. The three we have visited so far provide an illustration of the strength and diversity of the Italian network.

First stop was the Federation of Damanhur, high in the foothills of the Alps to the north of Torino, to participate in the three-yearly conference of the International Communal Studies Association. (Yes, there is a niche of academics devoted to the study of intentional communities. Many of these, unsurprisingly given the historical importance of the kibbutz movement, are from Israel.)

Based on a highly distinctive esoteric belief system, Damanhur is a community of around 1,000 members who live in shared houses of around15 members each that are spread throughout the length of the Valchiusella Valley.

Among the many impressive achievements of the community is the creation of a cooperative economy – complete with a community currency (the Credito), a credit union and many cooperative enterprises. In contrast with most local economies across Europe that are being flattened by the juggernaut of globalisation, Damanhur is flourishing and bringing economic life and employment back into the valley.

In a powerful piece of symbolism, several years ago the community took over a factory that was previously owned by the Olivetti company. This has now been beautifully restored and plays host to many of the community’s small cooperative enterprises.

Next, we moved on to the jewel that is Torri Superiore, a stone village in Ligura that can trace its roots back to the beginning of the fourteenth century. Torri was one of a large number of deserted or near-deserted ancient villages in northern Italy that have suffered from the inexorable drift of population during the twentieth century from the villages to the cities.


A group of 15 ecovillagers, together with their six children, bought the settlement in the late 1980s and have since been retrofitting it using a creative mix of traditional stone-work and modern, energy-efficient and eco-friendly technologies. Perched on a hillside where it appears to defy gravity, the retrofitting still very much a work in progress, the community hosts a guesthouse with a wonderful organic, wholefood restaurant. It has been discussing with the University of Genova the potential for using their experience as a model for repopulating the many other abandoned stone villages in the neighbouring areas.

Last on our Italian ecovillage itinerary was la Comune di Bagnaia located near Sienna in Tuscany. Very much a product of the 1968 student and workers uprising, Bagnaia is a left-leaning commune that has succeeded in maintaining a ‘common purse’ economy in which there is no private property and all earnings are divided equally between the residents. There are 28 of these, eight of whom work the community’s 200 acres. The community is more or less self-reliant in food and derives income from selling its surplus wine, olive oil and honey. It is also an important cultural resource for the surrounding area, hosting choirs, folk-dancing and workshops.


In an increasingly individualistic world, that has seen many other communities abandon their common purse economies in favour of at least part-privatisation, Bagnaia has found a way of maintaining its social cohesion and solidarity. This is a community that has succeeded in redefining wealth in terms much broader than money income alone. By any standards, they are very wealthy.

These various settlements may be small, but they are dense centres of innovation. They represent social end economic experiments that have the potential to provide models for the transformation of our societies in ways that could make them more sustainable, equitable and fun to live in.

Now, as we speed down the Autostrada de Sole, Sienna shimmering over to our left in the golden Tuscan light, we feel deeply nurtured in body and soul and filled with anticipation for the week ahead.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland