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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.